The Making of “Mortui Spinus Tristis”

“Mortui Spinus Tristis”. Oil on canvas. 8 x 10. Artist, Suzanne Lago Arthur. 2015.

I thought it would be fun to show some process shots of one of my most recent paintings. I found this sweet little goldfinch one day after she flew into my window. Once I got over the sadness of the whole thing, which took about 30 seconds, I ran into the house to get a freezer bag because I knew she would be the subject of a painting one day. Fast forward about a year, I found myself recently in search of a still life subject to paint under artificial light because it had been raining day after day and the light was horrible for the projects I currently had up on my easel.

So I pulled Franken Goldfinch out of the deep freezer and began placing her on objects in my studio. From a previous experience with a Franken Rooster, I know that frozen birds tend to thaw out really quickly under hot artificial light. So my strategy was to paint the bird alla prima (in one session) which took about two hours from start to finish. This includes redrawing the initial under drawing a couple of times until I had the composition just right to line up with the golden ratio.

The next day I began working on the plate. The following day I finished the Blue Willow design. I did the painting in about 8 hours spread out over a couple of days which I was able to accomplish because I put my covered palette, my painting and my subject back in the freezer in between sessions. I simplified the Blue Willow pattern considerably as I was only interested in getting the “feel” of it. However in future attempts at blue & white pottery, I know I will want to approach the design more abstractly.

Process shots showing the set up and painting in a couple of stages.

The title of this painting means “The death of the Goldfinch” in Latin. Spinus Tristis is the Latin name for the American Goldfinch. Coincidentally, “Tristis” means sorrowful in Latin. It adds to the significance of the painting which for me is an homage to a delicate and beautiful life.

My Canoness Talk

Canoness talk

I will be giving a little talk today on my Canoness copy from the National Gallery of Art. Specifically who was the Canoness, the painter Nicolas Largilliere (shown above) and my experience of copying at the NGA. I hope you can come join me!

Where: Trinity House Café, Leesburg Va 20176

When: Saturday March 21 @ 7:00 PM

And here is the handout I will be giving for those of you who are curious but are too far away to attend.

The Canoness-Final

Who Makes Up Your Brain Trust?


One of the biggest secrets to success must definitely be to surround yourself with people who support your ambitions and who also push you to evolve into your greatest potential. Obviously your greatest supporter should be your partner in life but it is also equally important to establish a strong support system among like minded colleagues. I am blessed to have many artist friends who are my advisors and who continually inspire me. However there are two in particular that I turn to most often for advice, Elizabeth Floyd and Jonathan Linton.

So how does this brain trust work? Well it all begins by being in frequent contact with one another in support of each other’s work. I text or call Elizabeth and Jonathan regularly with my thoughts, questions or WIPs (work in progress photos). Elizabeth and I text daily and have regular FaceTime chats to go over our goals and projects. We plot the course of our individual careers by making suggestions to each other in the areas of commissions, competitions, technique and thematic ideas. Liz and I read ALOT and we are constantly referring books to each other to help us grow. Many of the books I am currently reading are those that Liz has given me including this Hammershoi book she sent me for my birthday to help inspire a series of paintings I am currently working on (thanks again Liz 🙂 ).



Jonathan is a hugely successful portrait artist with many years of experience and a former instructor of mine. You may remember Jonathan from this post. He is the guy I turn to with my nuts and bolts questions on anything having to do with the field of portraiture. And he fortunately lives nearby (or unfortunately for him?) and has yet to lock the door on me when I come by his studio practically unannounced. Jonathan will give me honest feedback on my work and has a keen eye for anatomy and painting/drawing technique. He can always diagnosis what is “wrong” with a painting and if I get his seal of approval on something I know the client will love it.



So who makes up your Brain Trust?  If you don’t have one in place now I would seriously suggest you think about putting one together because positive relationships like these can add a whole other dimension to your artmaking. But think carefully about who you will let into your circle of trust. You should feel safe and respected with the personalities you surround yourself with so that you can freely share your innermost creative thoughts to them–and likewise, they to you. The right partnership will be obvious and will leave you feeling inspired every time you connect with them.

I plan on interviewing other artists and creatives for future blog posts on this subject. Do you have a remarkable brain trust? If so please drop me a line and tell me about them and how you work together; Thanks!





Best Studio Practice: D-Lead Wipes and Soap

31-+6ELKn+LAt the risk of sounding like your mother {stern finger pointed in your direction} I am going to insist that you wear latex gloves every time you paint in oil or any other toxic medium for that matter. Think of it as my own painterly initiative modeled after the “safe sex” campaigns of the 90s. Wear a rubber, every, single, time.

But you can take this Best Studio Practice one step further by using D-Lead hand wipes & hand soap. Originally created for fire arm enthusiasts, D-lead wipes & soap break the electromagnetic bond between skin and lead and other toxic heavy metals. I personally use the Hygenall Lead Off Wipes which is made under license from the Centers for Disease Control. In addition I use the D-lead soap. Both products are inexpensive and are an easy way to protect yourself from serious health risks due to our profession.

According to estimates made by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than 3 million workers in the United States are potentially exposed to lead in the workplace. Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems. And Cadmium poisoning is possible due to its low permissible exposure limit, over-exposures may occur even in situations where trace quantities of cadmium are found. Cadmium is carcinogenic which is a scary word for cancer (as if that needs to be any scarier) and cadmium dust inhalation and cadmium fumes may cause flu like symptoms including chills, fever, and muscle ache sometimes referred to as “the cadmium blues.” More severe exposures can cause tracheo-bronchitis, pneumonitis, and pulmonary edema. Symptoms of inflammation may start hours after the exposure and include cough, dryness and irritation of the nose and throat, headache, dizziness, weakness, fever, chills, and chest pain. Clearly to avoid air-borne inhalation a good HEPA air ventilator is advised. I purchased mine through Jerry’s Artarama and even had my flexible health plan pay for it.

So make your Mama proud. Put on a rubber every single time & be sure to run your HEPA air ventilator when painting in your studio. Enough said, now go clean up your room!

Mastering Work Flow: Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

A while back I came across this amazing documentary of Master Sushi Chef Jiro Ono, owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a Michelin three-star restaurant. I told anyone who would listen, especially artists, that they HAD to see this mind blowing film. You may be asking yourself now “what does a sushi master and an artist (or any other profession for that matter) have in common?” The answer is deceptively simple, mastery of one’s craft through a conscious and disciplined daily practice.

Right from start of the film, Jiro issues this edict: “Once you decide upon an occupation you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”

Jiro approaches his craft in the way of “Shokunin” (meaning artisan), the Shinto belief in executing everything perfectly, every single day, over an entire lifetime. Anything can be approached in the Shokunin way, no job is considered inferior or beneath oneself. The wisdom here is obvious and applicable to anyone’s life.

I kept having to stop the movie to take notes. Here is some more advice worth remembering:

“It really comes down to making an effort & repeating everyday”

“It has to be better than the last time. That is why I am always tasting during preparation”

“Each of our vendors are specialists in their field (i.e. surround yourself with excellence and use only the best materials)”

“All I want to do is make better sushi. I improve bit by bit, day after day and progress forward. But no one knows where the top is”

“In order to make delicious food you must eat delicious food (in other words, in order to make great paintings you must see great paintings)”

“Without good taste, you cannot make good food (educate your tastes)”

“If your taste is not better than your customers how will you impress them?”


Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available on DVD through Amazon and streaming via Netflix and ITunes.

My 2015 Word Themes

new-years-resolutionsOn this last day of January I want to share with you a strategy that my friend the talented floral still life painter, Elizabeth Floyd, shared with me. It is the exercise of adopting “Word Themes” to direct your efforts during the New Year. Word Themes are motivating and inspiring, but do not bog you down with the minutiae of specific goals–great for those who don’t have that all figured out yet. It is a mantra you keep running in your head as you plan your daily life. Check out Liz’s blog post for her 2015 Word Themes here.

My words for 2015 are “More”, “Limits”, and “Rebirth”. Now at first glance the first two seem contradictory but in my mind they actually go hand in hand. “More” stands for completing more work and being more prolific. But as someone who tends to put my blinders on and work unceasingly through my commissions, I realize that I need to set “limits” to my day in order to be more healthy and balanced. For instance, instead of squeezing every minute of studio time during the period that my son is in school, I will instead work one hour less so I can ensure I get my daily exercise and have time to take care of my home (believe me, it needs it). It also means that I will begin working on several projects at the same time so that I can create my own body of work outside of my portrait commissions which will enable me to participate in gallery shows once again. And lastly but most importantly is “rebirth”. There are deep creative influences beginning to surface in my work right now and I am filled with excitement of where they will take me. I hope my words help you to come up with your own and if you do embrace them, drop me a line here and let me know what they are.

Bring it, 2015! We are ready.

Caroline & Annika

photo 5
“Caroline and Annika”. Oil on canvas. 30″ x 40″. Artist, Suzanne Lago Arthur.

I am happy to share with you my last painting of 2014, a double portrait commission that I have spent most of this past year working on. These two beautiful sisters, separated by 10 years in age, were an absolute pleasure to paint.

[Unfortunately due to being sick right before the commission was due, I did not get it professionally photographed. Please excuse the quality of my cell phone pictures for now.]

Detail of Caroline.


photo 3
Detail of Annika.


photo 2
Detail of Annika’s hands and dress.



Workshop Wednesday: Rick Weaver’s Abstraction for Realists

Drawing by artist, Rick Weaver.

I’ve had the pleasure of taking two workshops from the artist, Rick Weaver. Rick has extremely impressive credentials having received his formal art training in New York at the National Academy of Design, the New York Academy (now known as the Graduate School for Figurative Art), and the Art Students League.  He studied painting and drawing with a number of notable art instructors, including Robert Beverly Hale, Ted Seth Jacobs, Ron Sherr, Harvey Dinnerstein and he earned his Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where he was influenced by the sculptor Billy Lee.

I can tell you from experience that he is a deep thinker who stretches your mind alongside your skills. He seems to come at things always from a new angle and perhaps this is because he is both a sculptor and a painter, and extremely accomplished at both. I’ve discovered that the best teachers show you how they think which is much more powerful than learning someone’s style. Rick is definitely that kind of teacher. If you ever have the opportunity to take one of his workshops, I would strongly encourage that you do so.

Below are my notes and photos I took during his workshop this past July which was hosted in the beautiful studio of Francie Freitas. Thank you Francie for having included me in this wonderful workshop.

Rick Weaver Workshop
Abstraction for Realists
July 22 2014

[Rick began Day 1 of his workshop by having us look at prints of masterpieces he intentionally distorted digitally (using filters) to better show us the degree of abstraction underpinning the work.]

Here are some print outs of Master paintings that Rick altered digitally to aid in showing us the abstraction and formal properties underlying each painting.

When you look at a great masterpiece in a museum, if you pay attention you will always notice an emphasis on composition.

“Ask yourself why an artist did things. Why a cloud there? Why that shape?”

Great painting is a combination of formal elements; line, shape, color & value organization.

Space is not a formal element but it collects form together for us. So does rhythm, so does light. Visual weight etc.

“There is a natural trade off between the amount of resolution (finish) you want and the base abstract power of the painting.”

“Making a painting is not copying nature. Old masters made significant changes to what they observed in making their paintings. Be aware of this and be sensitive to it in your work.”

“Make yourself make changes for the better in your work.”

There are 3 main elements of painting
1.  Subject Matter, what you see in the painting, direction of etc.
2. Form= line, shape, color (value)
3. Content

Artist Rick Weaver demonstrating how he begins his drawings by using a connective line that unites the objects and helps him to emphasize strong compositional elements from the onset.

The early stages in a painting are an opportunity to give your painting a strong abstract power to build upon.

Don’t think of objects as separate. Think of them as joined, like in their shadows & forms, color.

If you think in terms of object you are ultimately separating. If you think inclusively you will see all kinds of connections.

Like in figure, the shadow is often indicative of the color of the drapery.

Show those connections.

Rounded lines are organic.

Angled lines are inorganic.

There should be a strong connection between form & subject matter.

Square, is a non directional shape, neutral. Look at Lincoln Perry. Be wary of putting something right in the middle because it will be weak.

Look at subject matter and see it as pattern within the rectangle. (Matisse)

There aren’t really any definitive books on composition out there that I am aware of but these books are a start:

Erle Loran book on Cezanne composition

-Andrew Loomis’ book on perfect mean

Things you can physically do at the start of a painting to think formally:

Connectivity/Unity-literally make things connect in the beginning.

Always make a rectangle on your page to set up your boundary, picture plane.

“As soon as you put a silhouette you are making an object”. Draw a two dimensional shape showing how the subjects link into each other from edge to edge, line to line. Work from the edge of the picture plane in. You can get in touch very quickly with the whole thing this way. Picture remains open, promotes flexibility.

You can use a more organic or architectural line.

No line has anything to do with the object. It functions just form connectivity. Same thing with tone, divide the subject into 2 or 3 values.

Here Rick organizes and classifies his values into 3 distinct tones which help unify his drawing.

“If I can’t get a preliminary sketch to say/do what I want it to in 3 values, I never go further with it.”

What seems to visually connect to you? You got to want it. Make it connect. Be on the hunt for those 3 values and only those values.

Vertical spacing pushes things towards you.

Horizontal spacing pushes things away.

Pay attention to your “sit down” (object touches plane) spacing will give you the horizontal space.

Paying attention to negative space will give you the vertical spacing.

Ideally make your circuit within a minute round the entire drawing for that first exploratory line.

Exercise to just allow things to connect more than anything else (mine was too slow).

Am I able to move into the picture? Is there ground plane? Foreground, middle ground, back ground?


Day 2

4 color palette, primaries + white
Permanent rose, Ultramarine blue (or thalo blue), cad lemon

The underpainting of Rick’s demo in ultramarine blue.

Subject of demo: Hue-the most problematic issue of color.

Gestural start, linking forms. One continuous line.

Thinned down ultramarine

Uses a brush larger than he’s comfortable with to keep him from drawing objects.

Holds brush perpendicular to surface, carving shapes as he masses in.

Tries to think in terms of three values, light, dark mid tone.

When he starts adding local color he looks to see where else it shows up, shadows, reflections etc.

“As I am working I am trying to reinforce my idea (initial gesture/approach) with the way I paint. Being consistent with the same approach through out the painting.”

“The last thing I want to do is complete an object with this approach. I want to keep things open.”

“I am starting to think about the quality of lights anything in the light has both yellow and red to it. You must use both.”

“I really try to keep it formal, stay away from object making as much as possible.”

“With the figure, I approach the same way but if I want a more traditional approach I take more care with the drawing. ”

I will go back and introduce the (unifying) line in drawing while painting (as many times as needed).

Here Rick adds two more primary values which begins to reveal and emphasize the strong abstract composition of his painting.

On a personal note I want to thank Rick for helping me to stretch both my thinking and my technique. I will be back for more workshops. You can count on that!

Childe Hassam in Action, c. 1932

“Long Island Pebbles and Fruit,” by Childe Hassam, oil on wood panel, 23 1/2 by 56 1/2 inches, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, frame: stained and painted wood, designed and made by Childe Hassam, 1931

I came across this great little film on the About Last Night blog showing Childe Hassam at work on this painting in his studio in Long Island. It was produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1932.

It totally inspired my work in the studio this morning. I am so grateful to have found it. To see the film for yourself click here.

Face Off Heavy Hitters

In clockwise order starting from far left, Face Off artists Elizabeth Floyd, Mia Bergeron and Cindy Procious.

The most happening place to be last Friday was at the Principle Gallery in Old Town Alexandria for their annual alla prima portrait “Face Off” featuring gallery heavy hitters; Mia Bergeron, Elizabeth Floyd and Cindy Procious.

What is that you say? You didn’t know about it? Well I guess that just proves you’re not as cool as me. Luckily I am feeling generous today and will give you this brief little wrap up.

Veteran Face Off champions Mia Bergeron and Cindy Procious went toe to toe with a new tenacious challenger, Elizabeth Floyd over 3 hours with plenty of breaks in between for schmoozing and attending to their adoring fans. It was obvious early on that all of them had a good likeness of the model, Mr. Franco Landini, who is the owner of several Old Town restaurants including Landini Brothers and is something of a local celebrity.

Events such as these at the Principle Gallery always attract the hippest artists from the local painting scene. Besides my fabulous self in attendance were Jonathan Linton, Rena Selim, Susan Gallagher O’Neill and Abigail Davis Muncy.

Honestly, next time you should really just come see it for yourself. But until then you will be able to watch it on Youtube and I will post that link here when the Principle makes it available.