Go to Homepage   Anne Sudworth: Light from the Earth

Photo: Breath of the Bright Fey
Photo: Breath of the Bright Fey
Photo: Breath of the Bright Fey
Breath of the Bright Fey (1998) - In this painting, Sudworth's pastels capture both the solidity of the fairy's expression and personality and the more ethereal nature of her misty form. Sudworth used pastels, her favorite medium, to create all the paintings illustrating this article. (All paintings copyright Anne Sudworth, reproduced courtesy of the artist.)

The words "fantasy art" usually conjure images of battling barbarians, monstrous apparitions and decadent sorceresses enveloping both covers of a paperback book. You think in terms of "illustrations," not "paintings," and small canvases designed for reproduction and occasional display on the pegboard aisles of a science fiction convention art show.

English artist Anne Sudworth defies these cliches on several levels. With very few exceptions, her voluptuous renderings of magical landscapes and legendary creatures tell no one's stories but her own. As at home in the reverent hush of an art gallery as in a cavernous convention art show, Sudworth's paintings use "Earth Light" to invoke the concentrated life force of the planet and strengthen the links between ancient myths and modern enchantments.

Crescent Blues: What is Earth Light?

Photo: Anne Sudworth
Photo: Anne Sudworth
Anne Sudworth
(all photos courtesy of Anne Sudworth)

Anne Sudworth: I think the best way to describe Earth Light is exactly that ­- "earth light" or light coming out of the Earth. It's interpreted in many ways, sometimes physical, sometimes spiritual but always as a symbol of the earth's energy and life-force. I have been told that the idea of Earth Light is a very ancient one.

Crescent Blues: How did you develop this concept? Were you influenced by natural or manmade phenomena (such as the trail of headlights through a tree-bordered road)?

Anne Sudworth: I've been influenced a great deal by the idea of this natural phenomena, this symbol of natural energy. In my work, Earth Light is an ongoing theme and one which I am continuing to explore. I like the idea that the Earth has a darker, lesser known side -- perhaps one of which our ancestors were more aware. I usually paint the Earth Light flowing from a particularly special tree, or perhaps a wood. For me this represents a concentration of the Earth's energy and power. Over the past few years it's become more and more a part of my painting.

I have always loved trees and I think I must have studied them in every kind of light, dark and weather condition. But to try to capture the effect of light actually coming from the base of the tree itself is quite challenging. One really has to become absorbed by the whole idea, for it to work.

Crescent Blues: How does this relate to your feelings on the symbolic value of color?

Anne Sudworth: Color is a very powerful thing, used symbolically or otherwise. I don't always choose a color because of its symbolic value. I tend to use colors which will create the mood or atmosphere I want in a piece of work. In some pieces though, the symbolic value is very important. I use certain greens for example in many of my paintings to do with death or the afterlife like The Path or Stay Not On the Precipice. Here the symbolic color plays a major part in the work.

Photo: Guardians of the Path
Photo: Guardians of the Path
Guardians of the Path (1994) - Although superficially winged cats, close examination of these creatures suggests a more complex biology.

Crescent Blues: What are the wellsprings of your symbolism? Are the symbolic elements in your paintings deliberate or do they arise naturally from the subject matter?

Anne Sudworth: The symbolism in my work comes from all sorts of things. It's usually deliberate but probably done subconsciously as well. I draw on many things for my work, dreams: mysticism, nature.... There are many Celtic influences in my work too.

Crescent Blues: Your winged creatures seem uniquely your own, often boasting three sets of wings or wings that grow organically from unusual places. What were some of your inspirations for these marvelous beasts and characters?

Anne Sudworth: Well, I've always been interested in the strange and wonderful creatures of mythology and legend, but I like to create my own creatures, ones which are more personal to me. As for inspiration, I think a keen observation of nature and wildlife in general, has given me a good base upon which to build. Dragonflies are particularly fascinating. Oh, and I have a vivid imagination (or so I've been told).

Crescent Blues: Do you see the many paths in your paintings as real roads or spiritual journeys? How do you decide which is which?

Anne Sudworth: Most of the paths in my paintings do symbolize spiritual journeys or are gateways to somewhere or something normally closed to us. Sometimes the paths are boundaries. There are very few paintings which depict real roads as most of my scenes and landscapes are imaginary.

Photo: The Fairy Wood
Photo: The Fairy Wood
The Fairy Wood (1997) - Sudworth used the coolness of the colors portraying the Earth Light in this scene to emphasize its otherworldliness.)

Crescent Blues: Many of your paintings show views of England's Lake District and ancient British sites. What do you find most compelling about these landscapes?

Anne Sudworth: Actually, I hardly ever paint straightforward views of the Lake District, though some of my landscapes are influenced by, or roughly based on an area there called Buttermere. I spent a great deal of time there when I was growing up, and it continues to inspire me today. I quite often use the shapes of a very striking range of fells there, but I don't tend to paint many real landscapes at all.

I do paint many of the ancient sites and am in fact hoping to finish a large piece of work on Avebury this year. The ancient sites have a magic all of their own. It's very hard to describe but there's something very special about them, almost unnerving in a way -- I just love them. I usually like to portray these sites exactly as they are, though I do like painting them by moonlight.

Photo: Sleeping Castle
Photo: Sleeping Castle
Sleeping Castle (1998) - Ireland's Leap Castle provided the basic structure for this fairy-tale castle.

Crescent Blues: Are there any other landscapes you'd like to explore and paint?

Anne Sudworth: I love seeing different landscapes and there are lots that I'd like to explore but I'm not sure I'd paint them. The landscapes that I paint are usually imaginary (though as I've said, these are sometimes based on real places). They are for me more than a pleasing scene to capture. The landscapes that I paint are more concerned with the mystical aspect rather than just the aesthetic one -- something which would perhaps take too long to explain.

Crescent Blues: How do you define fantasy art?

Photo: Sanctuary
Photo: Sanctuary
Sanctuary (1994) - Loosely based on a picture in one of her father's guidebooks, Sudworth reinvented a rough cairn used by hikers to mark their path as a broken tower surmounted by an unassailable castle or fortress.)

Anne Sudworth: Well I suppose the general interpretation of fantasy art doesn't really apply to me, as it seems to describe the illustration of fantasy fiction books and games. In fact I'd never really thought of my own work as fantasy art. To me my work is more to do with mysticism and nature.

Perhaps the term "fantasy art" should encompass a much wider area. I suppose, really, it should describe any art of the imagination -- the creation of the unbelievable and the fantastical, the visionary and the mystical -- the painting of fantasy rather than just fantasy painting.

Unfortunately as a gallery artist I have found that the very word "fantasy" can often send a shudder down a curator's spine, often because they assume the general interpretation. This is very sad as some of the most imaginative and gifted artists work as illustrators and will never be seen in galleries.

Crescent Blues: Although you paint in the fine arts tradition, your paintings do exceedingly well at science fiction and fantasy art shows, which are traditionally dominated by illustrators. What qualities do you feel this audience finds most appealing about your art?

Anne Sudworth: The term "fine art" seems to confuse many people. To most it conjures up a picture of old masters and very figurative work, when in actual fact it simply means a piece of work done for itself, not to advertise or sell anything, just to stand in it's own right -- art for art's sake. It can be anything at all -- abstract, figurative, shocking, conventional -- if it's done for itself, it's fine art.

Photo: Otters
Photo: Otters
Daughter of the River (1999) - Although brightness draws the eye, the shadowed areas of this picture reward the viewer with finely detailed depictions of plants and animals.

As a fine artist I mainly exhibit in galleries but I have shown work at a few conventions. I can't really say what exactly the audience likes about my work, but I know I enjoy exhibiting at these conventions. For me they are a complete change from the more formal gallery exhibitions that I normally have. Conventions are so friendly and casual and well...fun.

Crescent Blues: Your chosen medium is pastels. What prompted you to start working in this medium?

Anne Sudworth: I used to work in all kinds of media, oil, watercolor, pencil and still do, occasionally. I started working in pastel some years ago when my mother bought a small box of artist's soft pastels for me. Since then I just can't seem to leave pastel alone.

Crescent Blues: What technical challenges do working in pastels present an artist? Are there some textures that lend themselves to pastels more than others? How does this affect your choice of subject? (Or does it?)

Anne Sudworth: Well, I think it's quite a messy medium and the dust can be a bit of a problem. It's also a very direct medium -- you don't need to add anything to it, or use any implement to apply it. (Pastel is basically pure pigment held together with a bit of gum.) My choice of medium doesn't affect my choice of subject at all. I think you should take the medium you choose and make it do whatever it is you want it to do. I don't think it should limit or dictate the choice of subject matter in any way.

Crescent Blues: What commercial or academic challenges have you faced as a result of working almost exclusively in pastels?

Anne Sudworth: I can't say I've noticed any commercial challenges. I did have a problem with pastel when I went to an art college -- they didn't approve of pastel, which was rather narrow-minded of them. In fact, I found them very narrow-minded concerning many things. Art college wasn't for me, and we went our separate ways.

Crescent Blues: How do you go about creating a picture? What is the process from idea to finished work?

Anne Sudworth: I usually have an idea in my head and I'll spend quite a long time thinking about it and developing it. I sometimes go for walks or visit somewhere that inspires me. Occasionally I do rough studies or scribble down ideas -- sometimes I just sit in front of a blank board for a couple of days before I actually start. Once I have it clearly in my head, what I want to do, I'll block in a rough outline and then go from there.

Photo: Anne Sudworth
Photo: Anne Sudworth
Like her friend Storm Constantine, Sudworth delights in the freedom and exoticism of the British goth scene.

Sometimes the piece of work continues exactly as I've planned. Other times it might develop in a completely different direction. If it's a very large piece then I tend to work on a small area at a time, then every so often I'll take a few hours to develop these areas into the overall piece, working them into the completed picture. A painting can take anything from a week to a couple of months for me to finish.

Crescent Blues: Family and friends frequently serve as your models. Do you have a favorite model? What makes that person such a joy to paint?

Anne Sudworth: I don't really tend to paint people that often. (I think there are only about 12 paintings of people in the whole of the book on my work.) When I do paint figures I usually already have an idea of how I want the figure to look, so I try to find someone with similar characteristics to help get the anatomy right. Warren, my partner, is always a good model and has sat for me a number of times. He's always very patient no matter how long he has to sit and is also a good critic -- brutally honest.

Crescent Blues: Although you seldom illustrate other people's works, you provided cover illustrations for four Storm Constantine novels: Stalking Tender Prey, Scenting Hallowed Blood, Stealing Sacred Fire and Sea Dragon Heir. What were the pluses and minuses of working in Constantine's world?

Anne Sudworth: I don't actually think you have to work in someone else's world in order to create a cover painting. In fact quite often you don't even get to enter that world, as a cover painting may sometimes be finished before the novel has been completed. This has happened with most of the covers I've done. With Storm's covers one of the biggest pluses is that it gives us a good excuse to get together and have a chat.

Photo: Into the Tangled Wood
Photo: Into the Tangled Wood
Into the Tangled Wood (1999) - This recent painting typifies Sudworth's use of paths as borders between realities.

Usually Storm will describe the basic features of the characters and scenery to be painted, then she very kindly leaves me to my own devices. This is perfect for me because if I was given a very strict brief of exactly what I could and couldn't do in the painting, then I probably wouldn't do it because it wouldn't be my work. Obviously you have to consider the characters and scenery that are to be portrayed but you do need the freedom to do it your own way.

I can't really think of a minus, except maybe the time factor. I have so much on with my own work that it's getting harder to fit the covers in. I don't really do illustration work at all. I do Storm's covers because we are good friends.

Crescent Blues: Did the completed works fulfil your vision of the books? How did Constantine like them?

Anne Sudworth: I have to be perfectly honest here and say I haven't read all the books yet -- time factor again. Storm has always said she's been really pleased with the covers. I know she particularly likes the painting I did which is on the cover of her new book, Crown Of Silence. I'm just about to start on the next one, Way Of Light.

Crescent Blues: Would you take another illustration commission? If so, what kind of book would you like to illustrate? Or do you have a favorite work you've always wanted to paint?

Book: Enchanted World. Order today from AmazonAnne Sudworth: No, I don't think so, not unless it was something I really, really wanted to do or perhaps something which really interested or inspired me.

Crescent Blues: You seem very young to be the subject of a full volume on your work. How did the book Enchanted World: the Art of Anne Sudworth come about?

Anne Sudworth: Well, I think John Grant has to take most of the credit here. He had seen my work at the World Fantasy Convention in London (my first fantasy con) and had wanted Paper Tiger to do a book with me. He did so much hard work behind the scenes and provided endless amounts of help and advice. I very much doubt there would have been an Enchanted World without him.

Crescent Blues: What was the best aspect of preparing the book? The worst?

Anne Sudworth: I think the best aspect for me was seeing all the paintings together. You don't often get to see so much of your work in one place. It was quite exciting. As for the worst -- I think the deadlines were a bit daunting. I was also a bit worried about having to send off my studies and roughs -- I don't usually show these to anyone.

Photo: The Abbey
Photo: The Abbey
The Abbey (1993) - The result of one of Sudworth's periodic visits to ancient sites, The Abbey depicts the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey in Wales.

Crescent Blues: Do you have any special rituals related to your painting? For example, do you like to paint to music? If so, what kind?

Anne Sudworth: I'm sure there must be lots of special things I do without noticing them. There is one thing that I always do, whenever I start a new piece of work I mark out a boundary in black or brown pastel.

I almost always listen to music while I'm working. The kind of music depends on what mood I'm in and what I'm painting. I also have to be on my own. I just can't work with someone in the room (unless they are sitting for me or bringing me a supply of chocolate). When I'm working I become totally involved in the piece and tend to lock myself away.

Crescent Blues: Is there anything special you do when you find yourself blocked on a painting?

Anne Sudworth: Thankfully it's not something that happens often, though every picture has its difficult moments. If it's really going badly I just walk away from it for a while. I don't tend to leave a painting and start on another as I find my mind is usually still thinking about the unfinished one. There are a couple of pieces of work that I've never managed to finish.

Jean Marie Ward

Click here to learn more about Anne Sudworth.