In conversation with: Susannah Douglas - The Open College of the Arts
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In conversation with: Susannah Douglas

‘We all have an image of ourselves posed in school uniform, eating an ice cream at a birthday party, lined up for a family portrait. If not we recognise the form. These photographs provide the evidence for the construction of our personal narratives. The desire for unique moments, the significant point in the story, is a powerful desire.’

Birthday 1 footage still 2 2016.jpg
Birthday 1 footage still 2 2016.jpg

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a London based figurative artist, mainly working in pencil on paper. I am interested in how conventions in the representation of the human figure are repeated and used to construct personal narratives
Describe your creative process.
There are two stages to my process. Sourcing and reworking found images and then drawing from these as the source material. The first stage involves photocopies, scissors and glue. It can be exciting, playful and experimental. The second stage starts with ink washes and then layering up different grades of pencil, darkening tones and working in details. This is quite labour intensive and time consuming.
Is the process of making as important as the finished piece?
Yes. The process of making the images is just as important as the finished piece. I think the process of making contains important ideas to do with the unique/generic image, concepts of time, the repetition of an image and mimicry. The finished piece has the responsibility of revealing that process as the work is viewed. I find drawings ability to both reveal and conceal one of its most fascinating properties.
Do you keep sketchbooks or a visual diary?
I keep notebooks but they rarely contain drawing anymore. They tend to be filled with measurements, list, random bits of paper and scrawled notes. I should keep a proper sketchbook, what a luxury it is to draw; my first hand drawing style is very different to the work I show.
‘Birthday 3(footage still 1), 2016.JPG

What do you think hinders your creativity?
Being seduced by imagery. It can be hard not to be self-indulgent when making art.
How do you source your imagery?
Google. Its important that the images are found without overt romance. I search a term and sift through what comes back. Currently I am working from images of home video stills, I want these stills to have been pre-selected as ‘stills’ and not composed by me.
How important is the role of the viewer in your work?
For me the role of the viewer should be hugely important in any artwork. Everything ends with them, without a viewer the artwork may as well not exist. It’s a huge responsibility.
Working with found photographs there are multiple viewers to contend with, everything becomes quite inter-subjective.
Do you make your preparatory collage by hand or are the digitally rendered?
They are all made very crudely by hand; scalpel, pritt stick and masking tape. I like the idea that the process is similar to someone setting up an amateur photo – budge to the left, duck a little etc etc. Any illusions should be simple and easily revealed.
‘Birthday 3(footage still 2), 2016.JPG

Would you think it’s accurate to say you almost dismantle tradition and rebuild it playing on people’s sentiment, the work in a way is an oxymoron or contradiction.
I am very interested in how conventions and traditions form and become absorbed into our visual language. I would hope that my drawings attempt to dismantle tradition and assess where the desire for sentiment has arisen from.
To me your work subtly comments on society, selfies, our throwaway culture and your medium of pencil allows this to be a clever undertone. Have you ever tried to work in other media?
I occasionally experiment with using watercolour, ink or light washes of oil but I like how pencil can both mimic other mediums whilst being so simple and unassuming. I tend to visually reference reprographic methods such photography, photocopies, and prints, methods designed to create multiples. For this reason I found producing a lithograph print exciting, I worked from a repeated mirrored image, playing with the idea of the reflected print.
Your work in a way reminds me of Penelope Umbrico and her ‘suns from flickr’ series. The work comments not only on our obsession with sharing and consuming images but our similar tastes. Would you agree?
Very much. It’s a strange contradiction, wanting to share your images and memories publically yet ensuring they conform to a look, a format and a generic ideal. Hito Steyerl ‘The Wretched of the Screen’ is an excellent read.
How important is it to have a narrative in your work?
For me the narrative is totally hollow and falls apart beyond the facade. I would hope the images I use are familiar, yet totally anonymous, so any narrative is entirely constructed by the viewer and their understanding of what that image wants to say. I often use small interventions to act as ruptures to the narrative; blunt cropping or reflected/repeated elements.
Ensemble Diptych (part 2)_2014.jpg

How important is marketing yourself and keeping your social media platforms up to date?
I would say it’s important to get your work out there and have it seen but you need to be careful in how you present yourself. Once you release your work onto social media it’s no longer yours and you have no say how it’s used or when and where it may resurface.
Have you any advice for students who may be struggling to move work forward?
Get out of the studio. Go and see all the shows you can, especially work you wouldn’t normally choose to see.
How do you know when a work is finished?
When the framer is telling me to go away. Sometimes I still open up the frames and adjust just a little…
What is your favourite type of paper and pencil to use?
I use pentel mechanical pencils in a range of sizes and grades and either Fabriano or Canford card.
How do you see your artwork evolving?
I am trying to let it evolve slowly at the moment, spending more time standing back and thinking. At times I start new work a little too impulsively when actually there are unresolved ideas from previous works that should be addressed first.
Palindrome diptych 2012

Could you tell us about the palindromes work?
The Palindromes are large scale collages made from photocopies installed directly to the gallery wall. I was interested in the image both confronting the viewer and the construction of the image being allowed to dissolve in front of them. The pieces are made to scale using A4 print outs and then blown up on a photocopier to A0 and pieced together. Things distort, pixelate, are revealed and concealed in the process. I exhibited small drawings of fragments of the pieces alongside.
I first saw your work at the Jerwood Drawing Prize exhibition, how important is it to get your work out there and be seen. How do you set yourself apart from the competition?
Getting work out there is so important, the dialogues and feedback help you move forward, sometimes allowing you to see the work more objectively. I don’t know how you set yourself apart really, commitment to pursuing an area of focus maybe, not getting disheartened by rejection or trying to change what you do and conform to how you think your work should look.
In terms of contemporary art where do you think Drawing is positioned, do you think it holds its own as an art form?
Absolutely. I think what is so fascinating about drawing is that it underpins most artforms and is also one in its own right. Ultimately, for me drawing is about the act of recording, and interrogating the act of recording. The fact that drawing is no longer limited to pencil on paper is one of the things that makes it so relevant and exciting.
Group section 7 pencil and ink on paper 16×8 5cm 2015

What is your favourite piece of art, yours or someone else’s?
This is such a hard question, there are so many artworks I love, that have influenced me, that have challenged me or changed the way I thought. Manet’s Olympia and Gerhard Richter’s Betty were the pieces that I learnt about in school that made me want to be an artist. I adore Roni Horn, there are too many favorites there.
Thank you so much to Susannah for answering my questions. You can see more of here work here.
Featured Image: Susannah Douglas, Group (section 5), pencil and ink on paper, 16×8.5cm, 2014.jpg

Posted by author: Joanne
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2 thoughts on “In conversation with: Susannah Douglas

  • As well as drawing, I’m spending some of my time at present dealing with an inheritance of hundreds of family photos and there’s a lot on this that’s so personally relevant. Thank you!

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