Susan Harrison-Tustain Painter - Tauranga, New Zealand

 Art [1-10] Perpetual Moment - miniature painting

Perpetual Moment, Miniature painting, Watercolor on Arches 300gsm hot pressed paper, 130mm x 100mm

Can we take your work in four sections?

Close ups 

You do many paintings in what I would call close ups discuss how you would describe these works?

There is a good reason for this: I often feel an immediate and compelling pull to get closer; to become more familiar with my subject matter. For me, it is here that my subjects reveal more of their story – their personality – and this is what captivates me. I feel a rush of excitement when a new idea inspires me or I see something and am drawn closer for a more personal viewpoint. I want to invite the viewers of my work to stop for a moment and engage with the magic that we so often overlook in our daily lives.

It is often like a glimpse into a private place, revealing a little of the history of the subject and perhaps the personality of the person or people associated with it. I want to say something about my subject that the viewers may relate to, or apply their own history to.

An example of this is my painting of Mitchells Cottage. It speaks of the early New Zealand pioneers and their struggle in that tough, spartan environment. I wandered the cottage looking for something that spoke of the people who lived and raised their families in this beautiful and austere part of New Zealand. By drawing attention to this detail and focusing on something more common-place in their lives, I felt a greater personal connection.

Art [1-2] Mitchell's Cottage

 Mitchells Cottage,Watercolor on Arches 300gsm hot pressed paper,260mm x 145mm

History / inspiration

I wanted to capture something that spoke of who they were and what was important to them. When I close my eyes, I like to think of the sound of happy children as they run across the uncovered floor boards, the aroma of bread baking in the wood fired oven and feeling that these walls and doors absorb and remember those who lived and loved within these rooms.


A cool blue/green patina contrasts and dances against the rich warm oranges and browns of the brass lock movement and adds to the feeling of timelessness.

Art [1-4] Inner SanctumInner Sanctum, Watercolor on Arches 300gsm hot pressed paper, 200mm x 210mm

 In some cases I capture a close-up of a flower. In this red tulip the warm glowing rich colours ebb and flow abstractly. They rise and fall as if it were a stage, awaiting the lead character; a foraging bee perhaps. For me this is more evocative and more personal than painting a large bush of flowers.


You capture close ups of nature and the bigger picture from tiny Mallard ducklings to the stormy sea discuss.

In my paintings Gliding By and After the Storm I have drawn the viewer into the painting by portraying a story that nature has brought my attention to. The closer we look, the more we realize there is a story shared within the brush strokes.

Art [1-11] After the Storm 2

After the Storm 2, Oil on Belgian Linen, 308mm x 207mm

I feel compelled to paint all that captures my imagination. I use artistic license to expand on reality, allowing me to emphasize my message convincingly. My painting ‘Gliding By’ depicts two ducklings effortlessly gliding across the beaver pond next to the workshop centre in Maine where I taught four workshops. The ducklings delighted the artists as they played amongst the reeds and glided effortlessly across the pond. The numerous droplets on the duckling’s feathers and the swirling, eddying reflections of the reeds and the wake tell a story of great activity below the smooth glassy surface of the water with rapidly paddling feet beneath.

 Art [1-8] Gliding By

Gliding By: Watercolor on Arches 300gsm hot pressed paper,240mm x 355 mm

The feeling of movement is accentuated by the positioning of the two young larrikins. Composition ‘rules’ would have placed them on the left and moving into the frame. By placing the ducklings about to head out of the composition, I have been able to emphasize the impression of scurrying movement that is difficult to keep up with.

 Art [1-9] Gliding By detail

Gliding By, Detail

I love to challenge and extend myself and to push beyond my experience with new subject matter. The methods and technique I have developed allow me to paint any subject in watercolour or oil paint. The trick is found in overcoming the fear of the unknown and looking deeper than what is in front of us. I recall the first time I was faced with painting water. “Water! How do I paint water? I have never painted it before” I thought. Experience, knowledge and good observations skills have taught me to look past the labels such as ‘water’ – and concentrate on the surface treatments I know: shiny, smooth, transparent, reflective, matt, rough and so on. I ask myself questions. Observation is the key. For example, observe and compare something shiny with something matt – and note the differences


Discuss the painting Kaitiaki,

 Art [1-15] Kaitiaki

Kaitiaki, Watercolour, acrylic and watercolour pencil on Harakeke (paper made from New Zealand flax), 350mm x 440mm

The sitter

The first time I saw Wallace he was talking to an acquaintance of ours. There was something so special about this man; he captivated me from afar and I knew I had to ask him if he would sit for me. I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to meet a man whose impact on his community, land and local youth is legendary in the Eastern Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand.

I suggested a title for the painting: ‘The Orator’, but his reply was “No, that would be about me. I would like it to be about all people.” Wallace asked that the painting be titled ‘Kaitiaki’ which translates to ‘Caretakers’ or ‘Protectors’ (of the land).

The paper and mediums used:

I knew before I left Wallace that it would be very fitting to use Harakeke (paper made from New Zealand flax) for this special piece. Full of earthy, natural texture the paper added to the spirit of the work.

The absorbency of the paper dictated the mediums I chose to use:

Watercolour, watercolour pencil and acrylic

I feel this is a tribute to an unassuming man who in his own quiet unaffected way goes about making important differences to young people in his local community and the natural environment they are surrounded by.

Still life

Art [1-16] A quiet celebration

A Quiet Celebration, Oil on Belgian Linen, 394mm x 290mm

In the case of my painting ‘A Quiet Celebration’ I wanted to enhance the sense of being there by suggesting the sensation of touch. I did this by using cool champagne in a room temperature glass flute. If we compare the outer surface of the glass, we can clearly see the lower half looks wet with condensation and the upper (empty) half is shiny, reflective and dry. Notice the difference between the highlights: the condensation highlights have a blurred edge, while the highlights on the dry portion of the glass are hard and sharp-edged. This contrast, as well as using a super realism painting style, creates the illusion that if you reach in and touch the lower portion of the glass, your hand would become wet. This is how I introduce the sense of touch into my paintings. The sense of ‘being there in the moment’ is further enhanced by the tiny popping bubbles that explode as they reach the rim around the surface of the champagne. The books take a supporting background role as they become more enveloped within the shadows; a foil to allow the main subject to take that centre stage position we have previously discussed.

Within your Still Life work you show such detail, can you expand on this aspect of your work?

I love to create a path that draws the eye to the main focus of the painting. It is in this main area that I use detail to bring a true sense of presence. The surrounding areas are simply a supporting foil, allowing the main subject to take centre stage. Often in still life these foils are just a mere suggestion of something, often enveloped in shadow and gradually emerging into the light.

Influences of old masters

Rembrandt has always been a beacon for me. Discovering the way he used light in his compositions was a powerful revelation that introduced me to the potential of using shadows to create mystery and light to guide the viewer to the message behind the work. The Old Masters rich, deep hues excite my imagination and evoke an atmosphere of timelessness that I want to resonate within my still life.

 Art [1-18] For the Connoisseur

For the Connoisseur, Oil on Belgian Linen, 382mm x 238mm

Currently you are working on a very new technique for you but a very old technique, gold leaf can you expand on this new aspect of your work?

I have never been so challenged by a medium before, but sheer determination, months of research, a clear vision and the motivation of a large outlay on very expensive product all ensured I would succeed in achieving my goal.  What a journey and joy it has been and will continue to be.

Art [1-19] Free Spirit

Free Spirit, Oil painting on 24 carat gold leaf and palladium leaf, poplar panel,

1100mm x 550mm

I am fascinated by the intense reality leafing has brought to my work. Standing in front of an oil painting on leafing is by far the best way to appreciate the dimension and emotion that comes with these pieces.

My latest series features Alice, an enormously gifted musician who has an intrinsic love of the earth and ocean. I hope you can sense her beautiful, nurturing nature in this painting.

As the light changes during the day the painting seems to transform as the light shifts, accentuating and highlighting different areas. The painting comes alive. At certain times of day it feels as if Alice is about to step into the room.

Art [1-22] Free Spirit detail

 I want viewers to feel her breath as she blows into her flute.

Art [1-21] Free Spirit detail

Tapping her toes sends the resonating pulse of her music filtering down through the filaments into the microcosm of entwined roots.  Hollows become havens in the cross-section of the earth as they harbour suspended golden eggs, cradled in webs of tiny entwined roots. The main root-system carries her music and tapping toe vibration downward to a plateau below, connecting. They drape like lace curtains in front of the deep cavernous underworld beneath.  We are all connected. I love that notion.

‘Free Spirit’ has a combination of painting styles: super-realism, surrealism, impressionism and symbolism – although no particular style was pre-planned.  Artistic license meant the paint flowed from my brush and took on a life of its own as the paint found its own form. This was exhilarating and I can’t wait to begin my next piece. It’s all here in my head ready to become real.

If this was not enough you also have written many books on how to paint.  Can you explain how this came about and the importance of this area of your work?

In the wee small hours of the morning the telephone rang. It was the acquisitions editor of North Light Books (a leading North American publisher) offering me the opportunity to write a book for them.

I had to pinch myself at the time to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. This was a big break for me as the book launched my career and introduced my work in many countries around the world. My book became a best seller of its type. Sell out exhibitions, teaching DVDs, downloads, workshops and features in numerous international books and magazines swiftly followed. My words make it all sound easy. I can assure you it hasn’t been! Often one step forward and three back. I have relied on my sheer determination to be the best artist I can be. I want my work to speak for itself. Looking back on the path I have chosen the word that best describes it is ‘unconventional’. Being self taught has allowed me to experiment on the edge of my creativity, pushing the boundaries, thinking out of the square and using imagination and artistic license to achieve my vision for each of my paintings.

You also teach painting discuss one or two of the highlights your teaching have been to you personally?

An important part of my career has been sharing what I have learned. I remember struggling to find someone who painted the way I wanted to paint. So I set about teaching myself. This taught me to analyse what I was doing and why some things worked and others didn’t, allowing me to become very familiar with my mediums, methods, techniques, materials, colours and what I believe are the five crucial elements for a successful painting. It is a huge joy to see artists grasp the breakthroughs it took me up to 25 years of trial and error to discover, analyse and understand. I ‘feel’ their excitement because I have been there too, frustrated and aching to find the answers. It’s such a pleasure to share and to watch artists find their wings and fly!

Art [1-24] Australian workshop

You and your husband travel extensively how important has this been to your art?

Yes, Richard and I lead painting, sightseeing, photography, wine appreciation and Mediterranean cuisine tours to Europe. I love to immerse myself in the culture, art and museums as well as the countryside. We have a wonderful time introducing guests to our favourite and spectacular destinations.

Inspiration you find on returning to your own country and specifically the Bay of Plenty?

There is inspiration everywhere I look: the fledgling thrush, antiquarian books on the time-worn oak table, the garden of roses telling their life story, people, family, clouds, the night sky; all rich with exciting subjects just waiting to be captured on paper, canvas or panel for all time.

 Art [1-27] Susan with Enchante par la Provence     

Contact details.

 Susan Harrison-Tustain, Tauranga, New Zealand

Interview by Deborah Blakeley, November, 2015