Discussion on the Meaning Within This Painting

Girl with violin in forest







Oil Painting with Palladium leaf

1200 x 600mm (approx 39½ inches  x 23½ inches)

Painted on Belgian linen archivally attached to aluminium panel

Thank  you to all who commented, ‘liked’  and ‘shared’ my painting and post on Facebook where I first shared this painting. I was fascinated to read what each of you discovered within the painting. I generally find we each interpret paintings individually, calling on our own experiences, history and personal preferences. However I found with this work that so many of your thoughts were similar to the inspiration  that compelled me to create it. For me, too, the painting is about nature’s sanctuary within a forest – with tall trees that reach up forever – giving a feeling of being within a very tall sacred place. Angie Madden used the words: ‘Nature’s Cathedral’. Perfectly put! Thank you for your insightful comment on my Facebook post Angie.

The tall narrow format of the painting was chosen as it helped to create the impression of great height. I imagined looking up to the ‘out of sight’ canopy high above. It would be like gazing in awe at a ‘vaulted ceiling’ comprised of ribs/branches holding the leaf canopy in place. The sounds of the forest are pure and distinct. The air is crisp and clear. The crack of a twig under her foot, the call of an owl in the far distance; a prelude to her own music – her song – her gift to nature. The tree trunks and roots form the ‘cathedral’ buttresses – the structure and the pathway forward

The light filtering through the tall arched windows is like a beacon – lighting her way. As Abram Shearer highlighted in his comment on my fb post –  “….nature is found either side of the windows”.  Abram is right – there are no solid walls – just a lighted way leading toward the windows and on the other side of the windows – there is also a light – an even brighter light.

I have gilded the glass portion of the windows with palladium leaf – noble metal that will never tarnish. Palladium is a little like platinum. Noble metals are resistant to tarnishing – hence ‘Noble’.

Oil painting on gesso

In this painting I have chosen to paint my main subject first. Although out of sight in this image, I have also gilded the glass area of the windows with palladium leaf, after creating preliminary layers to ensure enduring archival adhesion of the metal to the gesso substrate.

Hand-made silk lace Peignoir (circa 1800s)

Many things inspired me to paint this piece. It has been created with much artistic license and very little reference material – apart from my model Camilla and the antique silk embroidered peignoir gown that dates back to the 1800’s.  This gown was loaned to me by Judith Bell – a very gifted New Zealand creative director, script writer and producer of events showcasing authentic antique clothing – from her private collection. Thank you Judith.

Silk lace peignoir antique

Close up detail of antique hand silk embroidered fabric

I first saw this exquisite antique peignoir gown in Judith’s magical production titled ‘Butterflies of the Night’.  

The beauty of the gown and the way the fabric draped exquisitely remained with me in my mind’s eye for a very long time…..percolating through my thoughts.

The violin used in this painting lives by our piano and has found its way into a few of my paintings. It belongs to my husband Richard. I keep telling myself that I should have this violin on the wall above the piano – a sculpture that can also be taken down and played. I love that notion.

Oil painting on palladium leaf

You can see here I have begun to roughly scrub/block-in my basic background colors – mainly to cover the white gesso which can otherwise be a distraction when mixing colors.

Redwood Forest, Rotorua, New Zealand

Many of my paintings reflect inspiration from a number of experiences. This is certainly so in this painting. I always find myself in awe as I stand within the gorgeous Redwood Forest in Rotorua – a New Zealand icon located less than an hour from where we live.

Many years ago Richard was involved in a classical evening concert, set within the Redwood Forest. I will never forget the thrill as I walked along the lighted path in the forest, gently lit by soft ground lights. That beautifully balmy, still evening, the pureness of the music that mingled with the sounds of the forest, were all breathtaking.  I found myself holding my breath in awe – the mood – the atmosphere of this evening has never left me. I remember closing my eyes when the music began – the pristine sound of the music felt ethereal as it spread through the forest….And now, for me, this painting takes me back there.

Oil painting with palladium leaf



In the image on the right you can see I have used a very basic scrub-in of color on trees in the foreground allow me to take away the impact of the white against the dark background.  I have also begun to suggest rays of light, exploring the best way to establish the light effects as I go. The wonderful thing about oil painting is that we can experiment on our painting itself. It is easy to revert, extend or even change ideas as we go.





In the image on the left you can see I have begun to suggest some trees as well as a little painterly detail. A good lesson is to note how the white trees in the foreground become dominant enough to throw our tonal value perspective out of kilter?




Oil painting with palladium leaf
Mason Bay Stewart Island (Rakiura) New Zealand


Stewart Island (Rakiura), New Zealand

There is one other experience that I know has found its way into this painting: the memory of this beautiful, secluded place is imprinted in my memory forever – New Zealand as it was when the pioneers first came to this remote area in the early 1900s.

A number of years ago Richard and I, with our son Glen and his friend took a charter flight from Invercargill to Stewart Island which can be found just below the South Island of New Zealand. We landed on the west coast of the island at Mason Bay – a stretch of over 10 miles of sandy beach – which was a surreal experience in itself. As we stepped onto the beach it felt as if we were stepping back in time. The rawness of the pioneers’ almost solitary existence, the colors of nature, the flora and fauna that have changed little since then, together with the massive sand dune system sculpted by the winds of the roaring 40’s all create an atmosphere of stepping back in time. The joy of interacting with nature – all these things have found their way into this painting too.

Staying in the Department of Conservation hut we explored this deserted part of the Island. With few predators around, the normally nocturnal endemic and iconic New Zealand flightless kiwi wandered around the hut during the day time. On our second-to-last-day we trekked across the island – a flat and easy walk, initially through an abandoned pioneer farm, then surrounded by native flora and fauna. We were heading to meet our water taxi at Fresh Water Landing (about 5 hours trek away).

Stewart Island (Rakiura) forest




She stopped for a moment and posed captivatingly on our camera bag – then back down to my boot-lace to see if she could find some sustenance below its mud-encrusted surface. I sat silently, barely breathing, just absorbing the very green-ness of that moss-covered sanctuary and the purity of the bird song and sound of the trickling creek – the music of the forest. We reluctantly left that special place and our little friend. But they are calling me to return. One day perhaps…

In the middle of our trek we came across the most beautiful sanctuary of green. Much like the green in my painting. The green velvet moss covered everything as we entered this haven. A small stream trickled alongside the path and birds called cheekily. The bird song was in my thoughts as I was creating my painting – as was the memory of a little friend who joined us:

A small Stewart Island Robin made its presence known to us quite some distance before we entered this place. She was now standing close by me, summing me up for a short while, but I soon realized it wasn’t my attention she was after. She tilted her head as she eyed my very muddy leather bootlace that lay untied on the forest floor. “An enormous worm!” she must have thought. The enticing ‘worm’ got the better of her and she played with it for some time as I watched with delight. 

Stewart Island Robin

So you see – all the experiences we artists have are stored in our mind’s eye and are just waiting for us to draw on them when the time is right. It is the feeling – the atmosphere – the mood  – all these things weave their way into our memories and emerge in our paintings. Paintings that hopefully will captivate the viewers of our work and take them to these special experiences we have had the privilege to be part of.

For me – it is nature’s beauty that can be found and savoured – if we take the time to sit a while, listen and absorb it through all of our senses. These are my special mind-places where I can go at any time. But now they are also in this painting. I think of the music of the forest as a prelude – she is walking into nature’s cathedral to play her song. I will title this painting ‘When a Forest Aria Beckons’.

Everyone who commented has expressed and put into words the feelings I wished to capture within this painting. Thank you to you all. A special mention to:

 Abram Shearer (“looking through both sides of the windows to the outside”)

Angie Madden (“Natures cathedral”)

Patti Gwynne (“Elegance emerging, coming into the light”)

Maria Pfohl (“Guided by the light”)

Valerie Dunsmore (“soft music of the trees”)

Muriel Sandham (“wait and listen to the strains of the violin”)

Judith M Baker (“A secret world of beauty, thoughts and passions..”)

Vicki Watson (“Peaceful and serene”)

Susan Ringer (“ethereal mood”)

Claire Broughton (“Gown mirroring tree trunks”)

I think Claire is right:  “her gown mirrors the tree trunks”. Thank you for pointing this out to us. However this wasn’t a conscious decision. Sometimes ‘things’ just feel right. It can be an instinctive thing and not necessarily a conscious thought where we deliberate why something feels just ‘right’. We sometimes do things because they flow from our brushes! They suggest themselves. I am sure you know how that feels. Now that you have brought this to my attention in retrospect – maybe this is why the tree trunks with roots that ripple across the forest floor ‘felt right’- lost and found as they weave above and below the surface of the forest floor. They are much like the rippling of her silk embroidered gown.

I also love to have movement somewhere in my paintings. I wanted to capture the feeling of Camilla moving forward on her path. The folds of her gown suggest her foot has just kicked up a portion of the gown as it flows and ripples behind her.

Some Hints & Tips:

As you can see (in the image of my model and gown against a white background 2nd from the top), when painting on a white substrate – whether it be watercolor paper, canvas, linen or a sealed gesso surface – we need to compensate for the overpowering impact the white surface has on our perception of the colors we need.

White surrounding our subject can trick us into painting much lighter than we actually need to. Use simple to make color isolators to determine the tonal value of the pigments you require.

When looking at my main subject against the white of the substrate you would be forgiven for thinking she and her gown are far too dark. In fact she is the right degree of darkness for the depth of background color that is still to come. When you start to use color isolators I am sure you will be very surprised at how much darker (than you imagine) your pigment actually needs to be. You will find color isolators will save you a great deal of time spent having to fine-tune your colors and tonal values. Try it. You will soon see what I mean.

How to Make a Color Isolator

Cut 2 squares of white paper about 75mm x 75mm (approx 3 inches x 3 inches). Use a hole punch to put a hole in the centre of the paper. Place one square on your reference image and one on your painting. You will soon see the true colors, color temperature, tonal value and the intensity required.

I so often say in my videos and workshops: “Start right. It saves a huge amount of time later!”

Girl with violin in forest

Final painting. Once almost complete I glazed a muted semi-opaque light color over the areas of the painting that would be affected by the light from the windows. I wanted to give the impression she was enveloped in a safe, gentle mist – as well as to capture the shards of light guiding her way.

The palladium leaf on the stained glass windows brings an illumination that changes as the lighting in the room the painting occupies changes throughout the day and night. It brings a magical quality to the painting.


Message From Susan:

I hope these comments help you on your journey no matter which medium you love to paint in. For those who love fine art I hope these insights shed some light on how there are often many special moments that inspire one piece of work. These moments sometimes percolate for years – waiting quietly, patiently in the background – until a rush of excitement floods my thoughts as the missing piece reveals itself. 

These are the exhilarating moments when all of the special elements come together to form a composition  that speaks the message I wish the painting to convey. I sometimes wake in the night to find my composition or the answer to my search is there, in front of me.

I love to share some of the special things that help my paintings evolve and emerge from mind pictures into a presence. I share these things in my international workshops, DVDs and video downloads. Also in my newsletters and newsflashes which I am often told are far too infrequent! You are most welcome to join my mailing list where you will receive news updates of events, free lessons, workshops, new books, articles I have written for international art magazine, TV features, Video download and DVD releases. It is free and easy to unsubscribe at any time.

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