Interview with Artist Susan Dawe
Q: How long have you been an artist, and what got you started?
A: I’ve been drawing all my life, but I became a professional artist in 1980. I could say Star Wars inspired me to change my career; it certainly gave me the courage to do so. I had just graduated from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, with a degree in Animal Science/Pre-veterinary Medicine, and was working at a veterinary hospital, prior to completing my education at UC Davis. Wasn’t particularly happy with my career choice at that time, and was encouraged by my science-fiction friends to “make the leap” to being an artist. Actually, it was only about 3 months between working for the veterinarian, and working for my first publisher. I have never regretted making that decision.
Q: Are there any other artists that inspired you?
A: Oh, many, many! A lot of the Renaissance artists, of course, and I always enjoyed the art of medieval manuscripts by many nameless monks. I have also been inspired by the Art Nouveau movement (particularly the work of Alphonse Mucha), and the many artists of the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Waterhouse and Alma-Tadema. There’s been a few contemporary artists as well. I enjoy the works of Michael Parks, some of the Hildebrandt brothers paintings, Alan Lee, Ted Nasmith, Silamuth Wolfang, the entire Wyeth family — oh, there are probably too many to name!
Q: Many of your illustrations feature animals or have a fantasy theme. What is your favorite theme to draw?
A: Currently, anything to do with Star Wars (always my passion, or should I say “obsession”, haha!)
Q: What is your favorite illustration that you have ever created?
A: Hmmm… that’s a hard one to answer. I can probably narrow it down to four.
First, back in high school, I did a nice charcoal drawing of a character from my own “world” — very fond of that; was probably the first real, professional looking piece I did. Was published on the cover of the central coast newspaper’s version of the “tv guide” while I was in college.
Then, I did a piece in 1984 called “The Night Dancer”, which has a caped, masked man, sitting on a bed (very medieval, with wall hangings and a dragon lamp), embracing a beautiful woman; in his dark blue cape, which flows over the bed and down the stairs, there is an image of the two of them dancing under the stars on a marble floor. Very mysterious.
And lately, I’ve done 2 Star Wars pieces that I am rather fond of. The first was a private commission; the task was to paint a picture in the Art Nouveau style, any subject of my choice, so naturally I went with Star Wars as a subject. It’s a Jedi Knight, a woman, kneeling in front of an eternal flame. There are hanging incense burners around her (the smoke entwines into the nouveau patterns), and you can deduce from the floor pattern and the pillars, that she is somewhere inside the Jedi temple. I find it is a very empowering image; my Jedi girlfriends are rather found of it also. I have a copy of it in my studio, over my computer.
And lastly, I recently did a montage of Obi-wan Kenobi, chronicling his life from youth to the elderly Ben Kenobi. I like this one a lot!
Q: What techniques or styles do you use in creating your artwork?
A: I use all sorts of techniques, from water color and traditional oils, to mixed media airbrush paintings, depending on what the assignment is. The same would go for style, though I tend to go with realism; When illustrating fantasy, or something that doesn’t really exist, it makes sense to make it look as believable as possible!
Q: What supplies do you typically work with such as paints, pencils, watercolors, etc?
A: Depends again on which media I decide to use. Lately, I’ve shifted from traditional oils to those water soluble Grumbacher Max oils — much easier to work with, I and can get the same results. I try to convince my students to use them, as well. I’ve been using Badger Air-Opaque acrylics in my airbrush, though I am slowly switching to Golden Airbrush paints. And I always go with the finest Windsor-Newton water-colors. It does NOT pay to skimp on quality paints; if one does, they have a tendency to fade in the light, and the pigments are more dilute. And I use the ever-present Prismacolor pencils for the details on my mixed media pieces. I also go with high quality paintbrushes, another area that it does not pay to skimp! There is nothing more frustrating that trying to use bad brushes! Except maybe a dirty airbrush, haha!
Q: How do you approach creating an illustration from start to finish?
A: Again, it depends on which media I use, but if it’s the airbrushed/mixed media pieces (which is how I painted most of those unicorn paintings that everyone is familiar with), I start with a detailed drawing (or drawings — sometimes I do the individual elements separately), then transfer the drawing (or drawings) together onto the final illustration board, which is a Strathmore 100% rag multi-ply illustration board (I think they call it the 500 series) with the vellum (not plate!) finish. This is absolutely the BEST board to airbrush on; the frisket paper (which I use to mask off areas) will not pull the fibers up.
I then do the acrylic paint under-painting with the airbrush. Some of it will be freehand, and some areas will be masked off with frisket paper (which is like a tracing paper that is sticky on one side) or movable masks that I have already cut out. When I’m finished with that, it looks a bit like a painting out of focus. I really dislike the air-brushing part of it, and am trying to get away from it, and use other techniques (like traditional oil painting with a brush)
I then start detailing the underpainting using designers’ gouache (an opaque, thick, water color) and colored pencils. This is the part that I enjoy, putting in all the details; it is here that the painting starts to “come alive”. And I do this, until it is finished.
Q: What are some examples of artwork that you have done professionally?
A: Oh gees! Where to begin! There’s been a lot of stuff, over the years! Of course, there were those fantasy notebooks that I did for Mead, for seven years. And the Franklin Mint plate set. I enjoyed working on both those projects, and with those companies. And the Fantasy Calendar that I did for Landmark General for 17 consecutive years! That was not so enjoyable — too many years in a row; it exhausted me! And now, I’m working on Chaostle, which has been a lot of fun, and a little different!
Q: You created over seventy icons for the Chaostle game representing character special skills. Which one is your favorite illustration?
A: Of the icons, I like “Evasive Action” the best — it has action, cool perspective, and really gets the idea across, in a very small space. Of the other illustrations, I enjoyed doing the character of “Mist Earie”. Characters are always so interesting to me.
And oddly, I think my very favorite illustration was the “map of the world” that is on the web-site. I don’t know what it is about illustrated maps, but I just love making them. I think it goes back to this marble-maze game I had as a kid, that had a pseudo “map” on it, with swamps, and ghost towns, and deadly deserts and giant insects, but it really inspired my imagination. I used to enjoy just staring at the game, and imagining “what it would be like” to be in those places. It helped that my parents took my brother and myself on big cross-country jaunts, and I knew what lonely ghost towns, and the sun setting on the high bluffs and canyon walls in the middle of nowhere, really looked like. I have always enjoyed wild country and mysterious, lonely places.
Q: What other activities are you interested in such as costume design and teaching?
A: Well, as you can probably guess from the bit about the map, that I like to travel. And get “off the pavement” when I do. My husband and I both like to hike, and we always wonder what is around the next turn of the canyon. It seems wherever we go, be it England, or Australia, that we find the hiking trails there, too. They call it “bush walking” in Australia.
And, of course, I like to make costumes. And wear them. I usually am running around in a “hall costume” at most S-F conventions — it may not be very “professional”, but it’s a LOT more fun! I sometimes take a costume traveling, and jump into it to take pictures at exotic locales. I have an awesome picture of myself in my Jedi costume, at dawn, in Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah. The lighting was awesome!!! Truly one of those “the right time, at the right place” photos.
And I also teach at Mirimar Community College. Art, of course! I teach the painting class, and the Art Orientation (Art 100) class. For me, teaching is fun! It feels very natural. Must be in my genes; my mom was a teacher. I also have some great students, which makes teaching even more fun. I enjoy being around colleges; if I wasn’t teaching, I would probably be taking a class. There is just something about the college atmosphere that appeals to me.