Catscapades is a blog dedicated to all things cat. Today I’ve invited pencil artist Susan Colla to join us. Susan specializes in wildlife fine art and it’s the big cat portion of that specialty we’re featuring here today. Susan, like me, is a native of Ventura County, California. We’ve known each other for more years than either of us will admit to. But I haven’t always known her as an artist.
Patricia: Susan, that’s because you haven’t always pursued your art, isn’t it? Please share with us your journey into the world of pencil art.
Susan: My brain always felt creative—wondering how this or that was made, or how it worked— it just seemed I could always figure things out by my nature. I have always loved black and white photography, so pencil was an obvious choice for me. My first love as you know was singing and performing. I have always been a ham I guess. At this time in my life art is something that I find much easier than performing, so naturally that makes more sense in these twilight years.
Patricia: The next obvious question is what inspired you to draw wildlife? What animal did you draw first?
Susan: I really can’t explain that. Just a feeling deep down to draw what I see, and I feel so attracted to the majestic animals in Africa. They seemed to come from an ancient place which spoke to me. Their energy and strength inspire me greatly. Smaller animals in North America are also of interest, as are birds, and of course people.
Patricia: Where do you show your art? Tell us about some of the shows and exhibits you’ve participated in.
Susan: I have been blessed from the start with other artists and those who appreciate art, that they like what I do. I joined one of our local art associations, the Buenaventura Art Association in 2012. That is when I seriously began pursuing art professionally, and at the age of 70. While I appreciate color and all the other mediums, I seem to be “drawn” to doing black and white pencil. Competitions and shows are a natural place to be seen and I have had two solo shows and have had individual pieces shown in various shows in Ventura, and in Santa Paula.
Patricia: Do you have a favorite animal when it comes to drawing? I see a lot of cats in your collection at http://www.susancollaart.com. Being a cat person for most of my life, I’ve always been interested in cat art, figurines, stuffed cats, etc. And it seems to me the cat is one of the most difficult animal likenesses to capture. Is this the case? Do you have any secrets to your amazing skill?
Susan: My approach to drawing is not so unique that no one else does it, however, saying that I have to admit it is not the usual way of pencil artists or what might be taught in a conventional art school. My art is always from a reference photo, something that I see and feel I have to do, or of course a commission. Usually the pose or source is inspiring to me. Elephants are a deep love of mine, as are cats. Dogs are fun and I love to draw them, but I have always been a cat person.
Patricia; I’d love to know your thought process as you skillfully bring a cat to life on the canvas. How deeply do you fall in love with the cats you create?
Susan: I draw what I see, not what I think I know about the subject. The start is always with the eyes, and then I move out inch by inch from that point. I plan ahead the size and placement but the rest is from the place where my eyes are truly seeing and my heart is feeling where to put the pencil and the lines, and shapes. I truly am amazed at this process as much as anyone who would see what I do. I learned how to access the right brain, but that is a whole other subject. I find myself giggling sometimes, talking to them, and feeling so happy when pets—mostly cats and dogs—start showing themselves completed on my paper. I can get very excited and hate to stop if I’m tired, but trying to draw when I’m tired doesn’t work so I have to. But I can’t wait to get back to them as soon as I can.
Patricia: Tell us a little about your work style and habits.
Susan: Everything I do comes from reference photos, unfortunately as creative as I am, I do not have that in my brain as a resource. Can’t explain that either. I can improvise some, but if I can’t see it, I can’t draw it. Why is that? I don’t really have an answer. I “feel” what I am supposed to put down with my pencil, how light, how dark, etc. There are tools I use, things I have found through trial and error. Other artists are generous in sharing techniques and ideas. And YouTube.com—oh my, what a fantastic resource of teaching videos and artists who share what they know!
Patricia: I understand that you also draw on commission. How does that work? Do you strictly use a photo of the cat, dog, horse? Or do you have other methods of capturing the animal’s personality?
Susan: As noted earlier, if I can see it I can draw it. The poses are important in my personal choices, but if someone has a favorite photograph they want to use, it is fine with me, it just needs to give me the detail that makes my drawings come to life. The finer the detail in a photograph (higher resolution), the better the results. I don’t start out intending it to look exactly like a photograph so that someone says they can’t tell the difference. If it looks real and lifelike I am very happy. I find it too frustrating to try to draw something that someone would like me to do without a reference photo and I avoid that stress.
Patricia: Please add anything you think my cat-loving audience would like to know about you or your work.
Susan: Because of my own emotional attachment to the pets I have had in my life, drawing someone’s dog or cat very special to me. I can feel their personalities especially in their eyes. The big and small game give me that same emotional journey. Who wouldn’t love to experience that?