Meet the maker: artist Susie West
Artist Susie West is working her way around the British Isles, painting its villages, towns and cities in her signature style ‘travel poster’ style. Susie asks her customers to suggest locations they would like her paint, and once a particular place has enough votes, she’ll head there to sketch (and sample local cake and coffee), before coming back to her garden studio to put paint to paper. She is currently on travel poster number 105, “with only another 48,000 or so places to go.” Susie talks to Lizzie Mabley from My Blue Shed about how it all started, her creative process and her favourite destinations so far…
Tell Susie where you’d like her to paint next. Add your vote here >
My maker story really started with an unexpected delay on a train to Waterloo. The train was stopped just outside Wimbledon and I passed the time doodling the little rows of houses I could see through the misted-up windows.Susie West
Hi Susie, can you introduce yourself and tell us how you arrived at this point with your work?
I’m painting my way around Britain’s lovely cities, towns and villages with a series of travel poster style prints. I’m an acrylic painter and my ‘Director of Stuff’, husband Blair, does everything else. I used to paint large originals for galleries, and was often asked for prints of the paintings. About four years ago, we took a leap of faith and bought our own printing kit and one evening, possibly after a glass of wine, one of us suggested dropping the name of the place on to the bottom of the print, rather like the old travel posters. From then on we had more and more requests for different places, and we now have 105 travel posters, with only another 48,000 or so places to go!
I first started selling little paintings at a school fair, where they quickly sold out… and so started a very long transition to a full-time business travelling around Britain’s real cities, towns and villages painting travel poster printsSusie West
I love the poster style of your work – they have a lovely illustrative style. Is this your background?
I trained as a graphic designer, but then life and family got in the way. My maker story really started with an unexpected delay on a train to Waterloo. The train was stopped just outside Wimbledon and I passed the time doodling the little rows of houses I could see through the misted-up windows. These little rows of houses got stuck in my head and after a long day at work, I’d stay up half the night trying to get the image on to paper. After a couple of weeks of very little sleep, a friend suggested I try selling the little paintings at a school fair, where they quickly sold out… and so started a very long transition from part-time selling paintings of quirky little made-up village scenes, to a full-time business of travelling around Britain’s real cities, towns and villages for a range of travel poster prints.
I love following people’s votes and seeing where they lead me.Susie West
You say you gather votes from customers for where to paint next – this is such a great idea! Do you also have your own list of places you would like to paint?
I’m just loving following people’s votes and seeing where they lead me. Sometimes it’s to the other end of the country, and sometimes it’s closer to home, but a place I’d never known about without the votes for it.
Sometimes there isn’t necessarily an obvious view and it’s a bit of a challenge to find one that works, and other times the challenge is that there are so many amazing views that it’s difficult to choose just one.Susie West
Once you’ve chosen a town or location, how do you select the view to paint? Are some of them montages?
I’m often given a suggestion of a particular view, or we just go for a wander and I try to get a feel for the place and see what stands out to me. Sometimes there isn’t necessarily an obvious view and it’s a bit of a challenge to find one that works, and other times the challenge, especially with cities like Oxford, Bristol or Edinburgh, is that there are so many amazing views that it’s difficult to choose just one. All my prints are actual views rather than montages, but I have been known to squeeze buildings together a bit, or miss bits out, to fit in the view I want.
Sketching with the view in front of me allows me to plan a layout, while photos allow me to record details I might need later.Susie West
Can you tell us a bit about your process – do you paint from photographs or sketches?
After a wander, and a search for the best local coffee and cake, I take photos and sketch to give me all the information I need to take home. Sketching allows me to plan a layout with the view in front of me while it’s still fresh in my head, and photos allow me to record details I might need later.
The most unusual thing I’ve ever painted is certainly Doppy, a full-size Swiss cow painted with scenes from the Surrey Hills who now lives in FloridaSusie West
Where is the most unusual place you have found yourself painting?
I’m not sure about the most unusual place, but the most unusual thing was certainly Doppy the cow! There’s something quite magical about being a maker and watching an idea come to life. For me, that’s usually an image in my head from a place I’ve visited, turned into a travel poster print. But in this case, it was in the size and shape of a full-size Swiss cow to raise money for charity. The design went from an initial, reassuringly flat design on paper, based on the Surrey Hills, to “Oh my goodness, how am I ever going to paint this on a life-size cow?!” But 80 hours of painting, and a transatlantic flight later, the idea that was once only in my head is now relaxing by the pool in her new home in Florida.
I do have a soft spot for St Ives and try to get a few days there each year.Susie West
Do you have a favourite?
I love the variety in the places I paint, from villages and little seaside towns to Battersea Power Station and everything in between, but I do have a soft spot for St Ives and try to get a few days there each year.
I’ve got another 48,000 cities, towns and villages in Britain to paint, so enough to keep me occupied for quite a long time!Susie West
Where are you going next? Do you have a long list or are there any places abroad you would love to paint?
I never know! When I finish a painting, I look at the list of votes and see which places nationally and locally have the most votes, and then plan our next few trips. I’ve got another 48,000 cities, towns and villages in Britain to paint, so enough to keep me occupied for quite a long time!
When I finish a painting, I look at the list of votes and see which places nationally and locally have the most votes, and then plan our next few trips.Susie West
Who or what inspires you?
The old travel posters, obviously, and what is now a lifelong mission to paint as many of my own as I can!
I love being able to paint five minutes after I’ve fallen out of bed in the morning.Susie West
Can you describe your workspace? Do you have a studio?
I paint from a very messy and chaotic conservatory. I’ve always loved the idea of a fancy studio, but I love being able to paint five minutes after I’ve fallen out of bed in the morning, and although I have a suburban garden, it’s full of birds, squirrels, foxes, and a very occasional badger, pheasant or heron that keep me company, so I can’t see me wanting to move out any day soon.
When we first started out, we sold a variety of artwork, but the business didn’t really take off until the focus was on the travel poster prints, giving us an obvious, recognisable product.Susie West
Folksy tells me your shop is often in the top 40 bestsellers list – that’s amazing! Do you have any hints and tips for other makers selling online?
Take lots of advice, but at the end of the day you have to find what works for you. When we first started out, we sold a variety of artwork, but the business didn’t really take off until the focus was on the travel poster prints, giving us an obvious, recognisable product. By that point, there were two of us working full-time on the business. I was painting, and Blair was doing everything else: printing, framing, website, booking fairs, etc – even more than a full time job!
Since then, it’s just been about getting our travel posters seen as much as possible. We do fairs, of all sizes and descriptions, every week. People get to know us, what we do, and come back to add to their collection or to buy for family and friends, and these feed back into our online sales via Folksy, which works so well for us. We’re grateful for each and every sale that supports our small business and allows us to keep on travelling. It’s such a lovely way to see the country, and we feel very lucky to be doing what we do.
See the 105 places (and counting!) across Britain that Susie has painted so far in her Folksy shop.
Shop Susie West on Folksy – folksy.com/shops/SusieWest
Meet the Interviewer
The maker asking the questions this week is printmaker and textile designer Lizzie Mabley from My Blue Shed. You can read more about Lizzie in our Meet the Maker interview here – https://blog.folksy.com/2019/08/20/my-blue-shed