Interview: Artist Susanne du Toit

by Cass Art

Artist Susanne du Toit's prize winning work is currently on display in the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery until 15 September 2013.

As part of our Meet the Artists programme Susanne du Toit will be joined us at the Islington store, 66-67 Colebrooke Row N1, to talk about her art, painting processes, portraits and answer your questions on Saturday the 17 August. Susanne was joined by fellow BP Portrait Award artist Sophie Levi. You can find the full details and schedule for the Meet the Artists programme here.

We caught up with Susanne du Toit to talk inspiration, portraiture and essential materials for an exclusive Cass Art interview.

Was there a defining moment when you decided you wanted to be an artist?

No, not a specific moment. I wanted to go to art lessons from a very young age, about nine years old. It became a weekly fixture in my life until I left high school and I absolutely loved it.

Who or what has influenced your work most?

While at Massachusetts College of Art in the 80's, I switched to figurative painting when I became aware of the significance of context to art. The paintings of Chaim Soutine inspired and influenced me on how I want to use paint.

How has your practice evolved since then and what are you working on at the moment?

My work has gradually become a very individual experience. I use art to deal with my immediate context, rather than a greater one. My meaning is personal before it is public and my subject is rendered primarily through my relationship with it. I am working on a portrait of my eldest daughter dealing with the draining situation of having small children. This is part of the ongoing series of my family. I am also starting with a portrait of a young fashion designer which will be part of a series - Young Creative People.

Where do you look for inspiration?

The way of people, the mood of life and places, family, my past.

Where did you grow up and where did you study? Did these places have an influence on your work?

I grew up in South Africa and graduated there in the mid 70's. I took a Fine Arts degree at the University of Pretoria. It was a 4 year course with a wonderful History of Art programme. I did an MFA at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, USA in the 80's. This was definitively a defining period in how I work today, what I want from a painting and how I look at paintings in general.

What draws you to portraiture and do you make any other work?

Portraiture is inexhaustible and timeless. In my view the success of a painting as a work of art comes first, and this I would measure in terms of evoking and communicating emotion. I would say the fact that a work is a portrait with a certain subject matter is incidental to this, having a human subject to interact with through the medium of a portrait is perhaps quite a direct route to uncovering the emotions both of yourself and of the sitter. Other work includes urban landscapes and images to poetry.

How would you describe your work?

My art is a personal experience, and that is where any value it has for other people will come from.

Could you tell us about your working method and process?

With portraiture I ask the person to find a comfortable pose and I always want to see the hands prominently. We will both work on the pose until it seems right and natural. I then make ink drawings, each about 30 minutes on A4 paper. This will be my framework with just the essential lines to try to find likeness and expression. These drawings help me with the composition and the placement of the figure later on the canvas. I also take a picture of the pose and that is my first session. I start painting without the model and ideally ask for 2 more full day sittings. I do work on the painting without the model between sittings. The process is never exactly the same. I paint quickly, trying to keep the brushwork fresh; it doesn’t always happen like this and I do a lot of scraping down during the struggle. It is never easy.

What materials do you use?

I use primarily oil on canvas. I also paint with watery acrylics on paper.

Do the materials you use inform the work or vice versa?

Yes, the oil paintings have a totally different approach and result to the acrylic work.

What are the vital tools in your studio?

Natural light, a big range of brushes and a palette knife.

Which colours are essential in your palette and why?

I always have Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Orange, Indian Yellow, Raw Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Van Dyck Brown, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Manganese Violet, Paynes Gray, Permanent Sap Green, Titanium White, Ivory Black on my palette. Why? I cannot say but mixing and using these gives me the colours I want to paint with.

What are your favourite brushes and why?

I only use round hog bristle brushes in various sizes when I paint in oil. I prefer the marks round brushes leave at the beginning and end of a brush stroke. I use the Pro Arte series at the moment. I like the length of the bristles. I find the bristles in some other brushes too long and soft. I use size 1, 4 and 8 most of the time for portraits and 16 for bigger areas.

Overall which product is essential to your practice and why?

An A4 portrait format black sketchbook with good, heavy paper. I sketch a lot and use this daily. I also use this when I do preparatory sketches for portraits.

Find more of Susanne du Toit's work at

Image: Pieter by Susanne du Toit, 2013 © Susanne du Toit

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