Meet the Artist
Mixed Media Artist wins SGFA Best in Show
- Written by Vanessa Champion Vanessa Champion
Sue Lewis-Blake won the Society of Graphic Fine Art ArtistPapers Strathmore Best in Show Bursary 2017. Her winning piece, “Before and After”, depicts a large log pile, drawn in coloured pencil, overlaid with painted and collaged tree forms. We speak to Sue to find out how she started her career as an artist and what she's working on now.
Principally a landscape painter, I’m fortunate enough to live in a small Peak District Village with the most wonderful views. I moved to the area some three years ago from Warwickshire where I had taught art, product design and the history of art for many years. This “parallel” career was challenging at times – certainly in terms of time management – but I enjoyed the stimulation of being with my students and always saw the two aspects as mutually beneficial; new ideas emerged as I helped pupils to develop theirs. Teaching allowed me to engage with a vast range of materials and keep abreast of new developments - although traditional drawing skills always underpinned every aspect of both my own and my pupils’ work.
How did you start your career as an artist?
My love of drawing began early. Although academically able at school, I can’t remember a time when I wouldn’t have preferred to be drawing or painting to doing anything else. Luckily I was encouraged by my parents who allowed me to enrol on a two-year foundation course at the age of 16, following this at the same time as studying for A Levels. Even at such an early stage I found it hard to work in just one materials area. The actual process of creating something has always been exciting, leading me to experiment with both two- and three-dimensional pieces, with textiles, photography and all manner of mixed media. An equal fascination with the academic study of art was behind the decision not to specialise in one specific area for my degree. I gained a BA and then an MA in “Visual Art” at the University of Wales Aberystwyth – a general fine art course supported by in-depth examinations in art history. The subsequent course leading to a teaching qualification from Goldsmiths College, London reinforced my broad-based interests.
And is it still as enjoyable?
Many years on, it is still the actual process, the enjoyment of pushing boundaries with a particular art medium – or combination of media – that is a key feature of my work. I tend to work thematically, developing a series of pieces in whichever media and techniques that will best help me express an idea. For a recent exhibition on Guernsey the theme was that of a derelict wooden breakwater gradually being reclaimed by the sea. I included several experimental drawings. One of these was fully three-dimensional; a “breakwater post”, sculpted from card and paper, including paper casts taken from pebbles and shells. In contrast, my series of paintings of the Abbey Chateau de Camon in SW France was far more traditional: a sequence of drawings, watercolours and oil paintings celebrating its fabulous architectural spaces and the play of light and shade in its interiors.
Where do you work most of the time?
My current studio is at the house. It has lots of natural light but is only a relatively small space so I’m fortunate to have a large, dry cellar where most of my clutter can be safely stored. I only have to have what I’m actually working on out in the studio itself, but this can still mean there is a size restriction. I do go out sketching a great deal, building thematic sketchbooks that act like recipe books for finished work. First-hand knowledge of a subject and recording from direct observation is vital but it’s rare for me to battle the elements and work fully en plein air – I like my creature comforts too much!
When it comes to the materials you use, what do you look for?
Surface is so important when wanting to fully exploit the properties of a particular medium. The paper I use has to be very tolerant of me wanting to cut, re-shape, scrub, overlay many very wet washes and overwork. Even one of my more straightforward watercolour paintings will consist of many transparent layers. I recently conducted a drawing workshop that focussed precisely on this need to give some thought to the surface selected to work on, understanding its inter-relationship with the chosen media. The soft-focus effect in many of Seurat’s drawings, for instance, was achieved by using heavily grained paper.
You won the award we sponsored, the Artist Papers Strathmore Bursary, can you tell us about the winning piece?
I was honoured and not a little astonished to receive the Strathmore Papers award at the SGFA Draw 17 exhibition. The work, “Before and After”, depicts a large log pile, drawn in coloured pencil, overlaid with painted and collaged tree forms. These are set against a background of faintly sketched, patterned branches for which water-soluble graphite was used. The contrast of trees and logs is reinforced by the choice and density of media involved. It was originally created for my 2106 exhibition at the Kultur Bäckerei in Lüneburg, Germany called “Lost and Found”. This was a wonderful opportunity to develop a range of ideas in an artistic conversation with German painter Ursula Blancke-Dau. We had initially sketched the log piles together in a forest near Lüneburg, both of us drawn towards the repeat pattern of the stack and the spray-painted marks on the surfaces. Back in my own studio, using sketches and memory, I began to play with the idea of overlaying the shapes and forms –the organic, flowing character of the original trees contrasting with the near geometry of the logs they’ve become. Fine-lined saplings are springing up for the process to start again.
I had no firm idea of the outcome of the piece before I started, just a notion that I wanted to put across to do with lost and found elements. It evolved by playing really: just cutting and rearranging several drawings on the same theme until I was happy with the mood and composition created.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently in the very early stages of preparing for a further joint exhibition with Ursula. This time she will be bringing her paintings to the UK for a 2019 show at Buxton Museum. It sounds like a long way off but we want to be able to exhibit mostly new work and the theme this time is “circles”. We both live in areas where there are ancient sites and stone circles so it’s likely that these will provide some fascinating starting points. Sketch books are already developing and, thanks to the award, my fabulous Strathmore paper is waiting to be used for the final work. I selected a range of papers from the catalogue to allow me to be even more creatively confident with this new project [We look forward to seeing the finished exhibition, Ed.]. Meanwhile I’m also continuing a series of Derbyshire landscapes. One of them – an oil painting of Froggatt Edge called “Sunday” - won a Derbyshire Council Award at the Derbyshire Open exhibition this summer.
Where can people see your work?
The St John Street Gallery in Ashbourne hold a number of my drawings and paintings which are exhibited on a changing basis. Likewise, the Coach House Gallery on Guernsey, has several of my marine landscapes available. My own web site is www.lewis-blake.co.uk and, as an elected member of the Peak District Artisans, I’ll have work on show at Chatsworth House early in the new year 2018. www.peakdistrictartisans.co.uk
And finally a fun question, if you were a Strathmore Paper which one would you be?
This is such a difficult question. The papers are all excellent and I’m sure I wouldn’t match up to any of them! I suppose if I had to choose one, though, it would be a mixed media paper that’s about the fun and experience of creating as much as the outcome itself.