by Stacia Friedman
When Goya, Rembrandt and Rubens painted animals, they gave them as much dignity as the aristocrats who commissioned them. Mt. Airy artist Suzanne Durand strives for, and achieves, the same results in her watercolor portraits for local pet owners. She doesn’t merely capture the dog or cat’s likeness. She captures their soul.
“I’m an animal lover,” said Durand, 66, a Mt. Airy resident since 1987 who previously handled her Airedales in AKC dog shows and now owns a sweet Chihuahua and a playful Airedale. “When I get a commission, I first meet with the dog or cat on their level. I get down on the floor with them and take multiple photographs. The connection I feel is very strong. That feeling stays in my heart, and I recall it when I do the portrait. I like to think that the passion I have for animals comes through in my paintings.”
She also confers with owners regarding their preferences for the pet’s pose and background design. Following the initial meeting, Durand does exactly what the Grand Masters did. She does a highly detailed drawing in graphite that allows her to determine the color values and smallest details, right down to the directions of the animal’s fur, the curl of its ear and the light in its eyes.
“I then do a color palette to confirm the exact hues to be used in the final painting,” said Durand.
Choosing her palette is not merely a matter of preference or guesswork. Each color swatch is recorded like a recipe – how it is mixed, its brightness or softness. Durand credits her knowledge of color to Marcia Jones, a West Mt. Airy watercolor artist and instructor with whom Durand studied.
“In February 2013, I took Introduction to Watercolor through Mt. Airy Learning Tree (MALT) with Marcia at the Allens Lane Art Center. After taking several sessions of classes with her, I decided to study with Marcia privately. That’s when I really took off,” said Durand. “Marcia taught me composition and color theory. She gave me exercises. There are so many techniques in watercolor that are difficult to learn and control. My breakthrough came later in November, 2014, when I did a watercolor portrait of my Chihuahua, Glory Lo. I took it to Marcia, and she beamed. I was astounded. I didn’t know I could do it.”
One of her first exercises in color theory, an intricate geometric swirl of colors and shapes, hangs in Durand’s kitchen.
“I was using student-grade watercolor materials back then. Using professional quality paints and papers really makes an incredible difference,” she said.
From her kitchen, Durand has a view of her beautifully landscaped garden which she designed herself, including a small goldfish pond and a very large Koi pond. Her home is one of Mt Airy’s hidden treasures, a modern house filled with furniture of that era and stunning vistas that fill each room with light.
Durand’s meteoric success is based in large part on her background as an interior designer. “I came to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh when I was 17 to attend Beaver College (now Arcadia University), where I received a degree in Fine Arts. I majored in corporate interior design and worked for architectural firms, designing medical centers,” said Durand. Meaning, she had the basic toolbox from childhood, including expert drawing ability and a strong sense of color and design. But it wasn’t until later in her retirement that Durand re-discovered her artistic talent and love of painting.
“It’s a tremendous source of happiness,” said Durand who is so busy with commissions she has not had time yet to create a website, isn’t represented by a gallery and does not exhibit outside of Philadelphia. “People come to my shows, take my card, which has a portrait of Glory Lo, and then contact me to do a portrait of their pet,” she said. Durand also accepts commission to do portraits of animals that have died, working from photographs.
Durand also has her giclee prints and note cards at Mt. Airy Art Garage ( MAAG) Gift Shop, 6600 Germantown Ave; Woodmere Museum’s Holiday Shop, Nov. 12 to Dec. 31; Allens Lane Art Center Fine Art and Pottery Holiday Show, 601 West Allens Lane, Dec. 3 & 4; and the MAAG Holiday Art Market at Lutheran Seminary Gymnasium, 7301 Germantown Ave., Dec.17 and 18.
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