Top 10 Tips: Award-winning artist Susanne du Toit

By Alison Feeney-Hart
BBC News

Image source, Susanne du Toit
Image caption,
Susanne du Toit likes to have 'a relationship with the person I am painting'

Susanne du Toit won last year's BP Portrait Prize, one of the UK's most prestigious visual arts awards.

The South African artist studied at the University of Pretoria and then at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, before moving to England in 1994.

She works in a number of different mediums, but specialises in portraits which she paints in her studio in Berkshire. She describes her art as "an intensely individual experience" and says the meaning is personal, before it is public.

Here are her top 10 tips for being an artist.

1. Surround yourself with like-minded people

For me it was important to study art. Not so much to learn things, but just to be in an environment with like-minded people who inspire you.

It helps to bounce ideas off each other and to get feedback from other people who see things the same way as you do.

It is so important to learn from others. I visit galleries a lot, just to see good examples of quality art and artists whose work I admire.

You have to have a source of inspiration from people who are creative.

Image source, Susanne du Toit
Image caption,
Three of Susanne's portraits - Linky, Stephen and Pieter

When I do go to galleries, it is always the portraits that engage me the most. I find them to be timeless. You can see different movements and stages in the art scene, but it was always the portraits that remained interesting to me.

There was a stage when portraits just weren't very cool, but I remember going to the Glitter and Doom exhibition at the Met in 2006.

It was celebrating the era of the German artists and the way they portrayed and expressed the inner soul of the people with their portraiture.

They really captured the zeitgeist of that era and it inspired me to really try to look for that soul myself in my portraits.

It's a very lonely profession. To do what I do, I am always on my own. To be honest, I prefer to be on my own to work in the studio, but it is a very isolated existence I have to say.

It is especially difficult if you're not in an art group or art school anymore, you just have to carry on all by yourself.

I am not a very sociable person, so I don't know if that's the sort of person you need to be as an artist, but I am quite introvert and I like just dabbling on my own.

I had a tutor once who said: "You can only do what you can do." He said that when I was feeling frustrated about my limitations and it was amazing advice - to just accept what you can do and do your best. That advice has always stayed with me.

Sometimes it just goes really well the first time, but sometimes you just cannot get it and then I sand it down so I am left with just the ghost image and have another go.

I really strive to have a freshness about my paintings and if you work over and over it gets a little bit tight, but it's perfectly ok to scrape it down and start again.

I have painted my family quite extensively and obviously I know a lot about them. It helps a lot to paint people you know, but obviously when you do a commission it is a completely different thing.

I want to have a relationship with the person I am painting, so I try to get to know more about them before I paint them. I ask whether they are outgoing or introvert, do they want a confident expression looking straight at me, or would they like a faraway look in their eyes, that sort of thing.

Also the way that they use their body is very important to say something about them, their confidence or just the way they are. I always ask them to sit how they would normally sit, that way I hope to get the real person, the real them.

Image source, Susanne du Toit
Image caption,
Susanne at work in her studio in Berkshire

When it goes well, I like to use one session to do the pen and ink drawing first, so I can decide about the posture. Then I put that drawing on the canvas and when they come back I usually take three full-day sittings after that.

The first day I concentrate on the clothes, the second day I work more on the face and hands and on the third day I put it all together with the background. At that stage I compare it with the photograph of the original sitting and see if I can improve it.

I prefer people to sit for me rather than work from a photo. You get more of a rawness in your image when you paint from life, but I do use photographs to help.

I use them to remind me how and where someone was sitting and to check the lighting is the same as before. Sometimes when I struggle with a likeness, a photo can help me to make the shapes flat.

Sometimes I deliberately do not use the photograph so that I can keep that rawness. What I mean by that is it's really important for the portrait not to be too refined, too exact. When I try to get the likeness and fiddle too much, I lose that freshness and the quality I'm trying to achieve.

Image source, Susanne du Toit
Image caption,
Susanne and her award-winning portrait of her son Pieter

I want to capture the person, it's not just the face I'm looking for.

I won the BP Portrait Prize for a painting of my son, Pieter. He didn't particularly like the portrait because he thought it didn't portray him in a joyful manner and he wasn't necessarily happy about it.

But he is introvert and he is - well I thought - the way I painted him.

It isn't pleasant when somebody doesn't like their portrait and I was really hoping that he'd love it and he didn't.

But sometimes I don't think people see themselves the way others do and that is what makes it very stressful for me because I really do want them to like it.

You can only paint a person the way you see them and I worry a lot that it might not be the way they see themselves.

I would turn down a portrait if they were asking me to do something I did not want to do. I want them to know my work and ask me because of that.

If somebody just wants a pretty picture, then no. I want my work to be soulful.

I most probably paint for myself. I'm not painting for public recognition, but obviously if that comes with it, I'm delighted! I am not trying to paint what is fashionable, I'm trying to be honest.

I think it's important to let your art have a dialogue with yourself. I want to be proud of what I do, when I paint something that doesn't resonate with me, I don't see it as successful.

I didn't think I would ever get recognition. There is a lot of rejection in any creative business, but experiencing it has taught me to pick myself up. Remember there is always a next time.

The best advice I can give is to believe in yourself and remember what is important to you, keep focused and pursue that. You have to keep on shooting arrows at the bullseye - at some point you will hit it, that's what I think.

The BP Portrait Prize has done so much for me, but I would love to have a gallery promote me and my work.

I'll never stop painting because this is what I do, this is what I get up for in the mornings.