Portrait of a portrait artist
If it has a face, Susan Whiting can paint it
by Bondo Wyszpolski
You may have had your portrait painted by Susan Whiting and you do not know it; and if that’s not you, then maybe a family member or a good friend. None of you suspect that the drawing, whether it hangs on the wall or is hidden in a desk drawer, was created by her. How is it possible ? Well, I’ll come back to that shortly.
Susan’s family, which included four brothers and one sister, moved from Palos Verdes Estates behind the gates of Rolling Hills when she was 11, by which time she was already horse-mad. “I wanted a horse so badly,” she says, and the family’s new home made that wish come true.
Despite what appears to be a large household, “I was a really lonely kid,” says Susan, “so I was drawing imaginary friends. It’s a bit isolated living inside the gates, the houses are so far apart.
Susan was among the first students to attend Palos Verdes High School when it opened in 1963. A year later, as a sophomore, she transferred to the brand new Rolling Hills High (Peninsula High), from which she graduated in 1967.
From Rolling Hills, she went to the University of San Diego as a dance major, probably by car and not horseback, then moved on to UC Irvine “because they had a really good dance department.” Fate intervened, however, and this will also answer the question posed in the first paragraph:
“Disney hired me as a portrait painter. I was 20, and it was 1970, and I was a pastel portrait painter on Main Street for eight years. I literally drew thousands of people. It was a good experience for me, but I was pretty happy when it ended because it had no future.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, Susan graduated from UC Irvine not in dance but with a BA in art.
“Then I took a break and raised five children; I had two and raised five. When I was married, I lived in San Diego. My husband was in the McDonald’s business, so I was doing portraits for charity. I just want to give them; and I did portraits for friends. When my husband passed away, I came back (to the Peninsula) to take care of my elderly mother, and I took care of her from 2011 to 2017, when she passed away. And of course, I met Chris” – her significant other who she lives with near the top of Rancho Palos Verdes.
“Now I just want to make art!”
Shortly after returning to North San Diego, Susan discovered the Palos Verdes Art Center. “I immediately signed up for a class because it was my sanity. When you’re providing care, you really have to create a time [for yourself and your art]. If you are an artist, you really need it. So she studied with Lance Richlin for five years. Richlin is a master of realism and the detail in his work is exquisite.
As for her children, Susan’s daughter now lives in North Carolina and her son lives in Santa Barbara. “We keep in touch, we are very close,” she says. “I feel like raising my kids has been the greatest achievement of my life. So now I just want to make art!
She’s always done portraits, and you don’t have to look twice to see that Susan can capture the essence of every emotion. Her portrayal of a sad young girl indulging in rich desserts after, quite possibly, suffering a romantic setback, is the subject of “The Chocolate Night,” one of two winners of the recent “Are You Thinking What I ‘m Thinking”. ?” art exhibition in the Malaga Cove library. But at the moment she is looking to branch out and studying with Debbie Giese: “She pushes me to relax and use bigger brushes. But I like the detail “, she adds; “I like realism.”
His workshop, in the backyard, looks like a castle turret without the castle. In the past, it served as a kind of miniature aviary. The space is cramped but well equipped, and it’s in an idyllic setting: “I love being able to look outside and see nature,” she says, and of course we see birds, a squirrel, and are briefly joined by his cat.
Asked about her favorite artists, Susan does not hesitate. “Norman Rockwell and Michelangelo. It might seem like an odd duo, like pairing Nancy Drew with James Bond, even though both are in the business of espionage. But there’s a softer touch to Susan’s portrayals, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a hard line. All those years of pastel drawing at Disneyland seem to have influenced her approach to art in whatever medium she uses.
Some artists, and Lance Richlin is one of them, insist on painting from life, but most of Susan’s work comes from carefully chosen photographs. “I’ve worked from life,” she says, “but not often because people just don’t have time to sit down for you.” She shows a picture she is finishing. “Making a portrait like this, just for the face, takes several hours.” Ideally, she continues, she would like to work from nature, but also have a photograph on hand as a reference. “Then I can see the color of their eyes and get a sense of their spirit and personality.” This last comment also refers to non-human subjects, not just horses. “I’ve done dog portraits for people. If he has a face, I’m there. I love it.”
As for those decades of drawing or painting horses, well, it paid off, especially when it came to having his work adorned with posters for the Portuguese Bend National Horse Show, held at Ernie Howlett Park at Rolling Hills Estates. For the first year of this annual event, Susan submitted three paintings. “They won 1st, 2nd and 3rd – so they had to change the rules.”
A beautiful sensitivity
Although she is venturing in her choice of subject matter (she mentions wanting to do more photos with an ocean or water theme), we are unlikely to see sweeping crowd scenes in Susan’s future paintings. The reason is quite simple: “Personally, I prefer closer things. I love the intimacy of feeling like, yeah, I could have a conversation with this guy. She points to another work in progress. And that seems true, because you could almost reach out and pet the dogs or give the horses an apple in his images.
As with his pastel painting, this could be attributable to his years on Main Street, producing tens, hundreds, then thousands of drawings, and required to do so in a relatively short period of time. “They wanted us to do them in seven minutes. I never could, because I wanted to get a likeness. So it took me 15 or 20 minutes. I was not fast. I guess it didn’t really bother the client if the result met or exceeded expectations.
“I’m really good at painting portraits, and I do a lot on commission. But what I want to do now is that my paintings tell a story.
Whatever one’s opinion of Susan’s paintings, the sensibility behind them is unmistakable. She is a woman who cares deeply about the simple things, the innocent things, and the vulnerable members of society. “I can’t watch anything violent on TV because I feel it in my body and I get angry.
“When I lived in San Diego, we were involved with the Polinsky Children’s Center, which is a place where abused children were taken until a safe place could be found for them. They were taken from their parents for some reason. I did an art therapy (program) with them for about two years, and it was so rewarding. Susan describes how she helped them, through art, to feeling safer and more confident.” This is something I would like to do more in the future, working with children, helping them heal from their traumas (and helping them find) a safe place to express their feelings. It really bothers me when kids get hurt. I hate it.”
It’s rare to find someone with such a big and caring heart, but somehow it’s always evident in his paintings. And as for his art, moving forward?
“I love doing commissioned work,” replies Susan, “but I haven’t done so much in the last year with the pandemic. I will continue to paint; it’s just who i am. And I plan to continue studying. You know you’re never there. When you’re an artist, you’re never done. There is always more to learn. So I want to learn everything I can and explore other art forms.
Perhaps all of this can be summed up in these few words: “Art is a journey of self-discovery and personal growth,” says Susan. “It’s just a gift for me, and it’s a gift I’d like to share.”
To reach Susan Whiting, call (858)382-7553 or email [email protected] Her website is SusanWhitingPortraits.com. PEN