top of page

Susan Johnson: Capturing the Spirit.

Updated: May 7, 2021

Just look at him. What a happy character. If he were human, he might be one of the characters at the neighborhood watering hole. You know, the one who knows everybody and can always crack a good joke. Yet, how is it that a particular impression of the character of this animal comes across? What does the artist, Susan Johnson, do to signal that to the viewer? Well, his ears are perked up, taking in everything said. His eyes are bright and with the look of a being that is very perceptive. His mouth seems to be open for purposes of communicating, probably a wisecrack if we could put it into our words. Yet, his softly rendered hair makes him easy to pet and cuddle. The warm colors of his hair are done in rich tans, with quite a variety of different shades and tones of brown and tan, from yellowish to reddish. Those are contrasted with shades of white, again applied to give the feeling of softness. The blue background serves to highlight this color scheme and makes the central image seem even more touchable.

"I want my animal portraits to tell a story, and I want the viewer to feel the soul of the animal." Susan Johnson

Johnson was for many years an art teacher, and her desire to get her students inside the art led her to do many things to pique their interest. One of the techniques was to present herself as a famous artist to gain their attention first and then proceed to give that artist's perspective on doing art, thereby showing that art is a real thing, not just an elective course.

At the same time she continued to do her own art work, in particular she admits loving to paint animals, saying, "[e]very animal I paint leaves a paw print on my heart."

The individuality of the animals is always apparent, as can be seen in the pair of paintings below. Though from different households, these two almost look like an old married couple when posed side-by-side.

Again we see the skillful use of colors that compliment but contrast as well. In particular is the handling of the labrador's black coat, which is done without black but instead with a range of blues from cool frosty highlights to deep, inky, midnight blue. The soft tan and brown strokes behind the animal help to bring out the figure of the dog and help the viewer notice the brown tones in those alert eyes and at the bottom of the muzzle. Even his collar has browns and blues, which complete the sense of color harmony. The collie has that long soft hair, shown nicely through a variety of strokes done in different lengths and with different colors. Her eyes are alert also but with a warm sympathetic aspect to them. With these two one gets the feeling of having a lovely companion to cuddle and another to protect you.

Naturally, Johnson does not leave cats out of her repertoire. Here she again shows her expert handling of animal hair, from the whiskers to the tiny hairs sticking out of the ears. The use of dark slate grays and white, with touches of tan in the ears and soft gray further down in the body give a lot of dimension to this animal. Of course, the thing that captures the viewer's immediate attention are those green eyes and that expression of stark surprise, as if to say, "You want me to do what!" Again a soft background in warm colors, a bit of rose, a bit of soft yellow, mingle to form a contrast with the dark grayish black, white, and gray hair of the animal, and they all serve to emphasize those eyes. Meow!

In her desire to take up the challenge of capturing the spirit of the animal she paints, she has continued to expand her talents by taking professional painting workshops in various regions of the country, from her native Connecticut, to Florida, California, Arizona, and her current home state, Colorado. It may be her residence in the western U.S. that brought on some of her work painting horses. While Johnson uses photographs of the animals to work from, one always sees that she captures the essence of the animal and gives the viewer some insight into its character.

This beauty was done from a photo of a wild mustang provided by Gary O'Dell. Here we not only see Johnson's ability to capture the animal as it refreshes itself in a cool stream, but we also see some of her abilities to paint landscape. You can almost hear the gurgle of the creek as its waters pass over the rocks. The background in blue-grays and spring greens form the perfect color backdrop for the coppery tones of this sorrel horse as it gingerly steps out into the creek for a drink.

Having been a career educator, Johnson always looks for ways of helping provide spaces for artists to come together to paint and draw. Since her move from Florida to Colorado, she has been very active in her local arts community in Colorado Springs. She is one of the stalwarts of a group that comes together to do figure drawing every Wednesday evening. It is known as Venue 515, named for a part of the Manitou Springs Art Center. Their work can be seen on the Facebook page, Figure Drawing at Venue 515. Johnson works in more than just oil paints. In particular she likes to use textures, often created by coats of acrylic paint, over which she works in figures and portraits done in water soluble Caran d'ache pastels. The effects are stunning as can be seen below.

These pieces done in life drawing sessions at the open studio at Venue 515 or at Cottonwood Center for the Arts use the textured format described above. The psychological aspect to capturing the character of the models is something that Johnson refers to as "painting from the inside out." There is, of course, capturing the physical likeness of the model, which Johnson does remarkably well. However, the model is more than just a face. That awareness of the life lived in that body and the traces it leaves on the face, "lines of character" as they are sometimes known, allow Johnson to play with colors and textures to create a life to go along with the presentation of the image. While these two figures are certainly our contemporaries, the treatment of the surfaces they are painted on makes them seem to emerge from history. The female portrait looks at us with head held high and a gaze with eyes that could have come from ancient Nubia, while the aged male figure could be a stand-in for a Roman senator.

Here the artist stands by another of her textured creations from her participation in the various figure drawing studios.

Once again we see her skill, and here not just in the use of the colors and a variety of lines to show the difference between the figure and the background of the sofa she sits upon, but also in the composition.

The model is turned away from the viewer. One arm crosses over her legs as her body is turned in a three quarters pose. It gives the viewer the somewhat unaccustomed view of someone partially from behind. The legs are mostly visible, but the most interesting thing again is the use of the lines there, while the arm is shaded in smoothly. The combination of shading and the flurry of lines helps to create the idea of texture without the build up of an underlying base. Just more signs of an expert using her skill to fill a space in a beautiful way.

For more on Susan Johnson's work, go to the post on "Painted Animals and Wine + Chile (and not just the country)," where another of her wonderful horse paintings appears. To contact Susan Johnson, go to Contact in this website and send an email or just email

Works of art used in this article are used with the artist's permission.

For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on

© Marjorie Vernelle 2020

118 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page