Susan Abbott: Anatomy of a Painting

Susan Abbott’s Elegy (diptych; watercolor on paper, 41×58) was inspired by the events of 9/11. “The whole painting revolves around the idea of an individual presence, the portrait of the woman. She’s the one—the face of the people who died—in the story in my head,” says Abbott.

Abbott began painting Elegy shortly after the events of 9/11—a more specific event than she generally uses for a starting point. “Just like everyone, I felt very sad and shocked,” she says. “It wasn’t so much that I wanted to do something that would react to 9/11, I just needed to do a painting that was an expression of some of what I was feeling along with the rest of the country.”

While in Italy, the artist acquired a survey book from a museum in Naples, which included enlarged details of paintings. In particular, the detail of a portrait of a woman (pictured in the top right corner of Elegy) captured her imagination. “I knew I wanted to do something with that face and it seemed perfect because it’s not only an eye-lock, but the way she’s looking at you. The whole painting revolves around the idea of an individual presence. She’s the one—the face of the people who died—in the story in my head,” she says.
The artist chose her format (a diptych) and then introduced the two major players (the two rectangles of the books). She knew that if she obscured the face with the overlapping vase of white lilies, she’d have to draw focus to the other side of the painting, so she developed a theme: Rome. “Rome came to mind for this painting because of the ruins and the events of something lost. I also love it and I’ve spent a fair amount of time there,” she says. “It’s a very important city for artists.” Minor partnerships in the composition include the circles of the fruits in bowls (in the corners of the painting). “It’s setting up relationships in both content and geometry that helps you span the two sides,” says Abbott. She also created bridges with the gesturing glove (in the top left corner) and the drapery that knots on the left side of the painting and reaches behind and beyond the portrait on the right.

The artist’s collection of antique letters makes an appearance in the painting—the black-bordered envelope is a condolence letter, labeled with an imagined New York address—as does her collection of Tarot cards, which she sees as a reference to fate and a way of telling a bit of a story. Abbott enjoys painting stamps because they’re away of getting a smaller painting inside a larger work. She’s an avid collector of items others might consider trash, such as the yellow tab resting on the book open to a painting of the Colosseum, which is a Paris subway tab.

Abbott identifies the color composition as a part of the meaning or the mood of Elegy, which was rendered with a warm palette. “It looks as though there are a lot of colors in there, but there are also a lot of colors that aren’t,” she says. She generally bases paintings around six or seven colors and a dominant triad of primaries and sticks to that family of colors throughout. “I don’t mix a lot on the palette and I’m using pure color and mixing on the paper within the shape. If you look at the pears down in the corner, you can identify a crimson and a yellow-green,” she says.

Art is distinct theme in the painting with images of Renaissance sculpture and painting. The angel to which the glove appears to point in the upper left corner of Elegy is a memorial sculpture dedicated to Henry Adams’ wife.

Read more about the artist in the October 2009 issue of Watercolor Artist. Plus, see her travel-inspired paintings on our site!


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