Interview with Eileen Sudzina

September 24, 2018 17 min read

 Pittsburgh artist Eileen Sudzina started painting when she was 12 on canvas and traditional paper. Sudzina has always been drawn to pattern and as an adult had art instructors try and guide her toward more classic approaches (with fewer patterns) in watercolor. Luckily for us, Sudzina followed her own voice and when she found YUPO, it was the perfect match. Today Sudzina paints full time and her work has been accepted into both the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor society exhibitions.

Interview with yupo watercolorist Eileen Sudzina

You paint on Yupo. Have you always painted on Yupo or did you start with more traditional watercolor paper? How did Yupo change how you painted?

I have painted since I was the age of 12 on canvas and traditional watercolor paper but I love the challenge of yupo. It seems to have a way of it’s own and I want to control it.

I started by painting the same piece both on traditional paper and on yupo paper. At first yupo was very difficult… but after about 6 months I liked the yupo paintings better than the traditional paper.

I think you can learn to paint better and quicker if you use yupo. It allows for mistakes to easily be corrected. You can endlessly put paint down take it away, add whites at the beginning or the end. It can be as detailed or as loose as a flow that then dries. It’s easy to create texture or to keep it smooth.  If you don’t paint it right you can do it over and over. You can take a painting from 2 years ago and just change it by rewetting the paint and turn a floral into a building.  

Who could ask for anything more in flexibility?

I do still, however, paint about 10% of my work on traditional paper.

Interview with yupo watercolorist Eileen Sudzina

What do you want to have figured out before you begin a painting? Value? Color? Composition? Do you do any studies to help you figure those things out?

I don’t like to do little value or color studies. I don’t find it helpful to painting.

For 40 years, when I worked a day job, I would do little drawing studies all the time. I can’t explain things without picking up and pencil and drawing. 

I don’t like to set rules or dictate what I am going to do when I pick up my brush. I like to be free to go with the flow, be in the moment and paint from within. The photo or a real life scene has to grow on me and excite me to some degree as I think to myself “what can I so with this?” If I like a subject more than usual I will draw up more than one 20 x 26 size drawings of it and vary the composition.  

It’s a given that there will be whites and darks, so it is in my mind when designing and drawing up a sketch on yupo. I’m semi abstract when I draw it so it will be loose right from the start. I draw a fair amount of negative and positive shapes and a very contour drawing. I then leave it, forget it, and draw up 5-6 more.  


Interview with yupo watercolorist Eileen Sudzina

What are the steps you take between blank page and finished painting? Could you walk us through your process? (Do you start with a drawing? Loose shapes? Work big to small? Etc.)

I keep the size of my paper a constant at 20” x 26", mainly for framing and consistency. There is drawing time and painting time. I do all my drawing at once. Drawing seems to pull from a different place in me than painting does. I won’t start to paint until I have 5-8 pieces of paper drawn up and ready to go. A few will be more detailed than others, usually the street scenes, and some pieces will have no drawing at all. I will frisket some and not others.

I usually break for a day. So after drawing them up, and it seems crazy, I’ll actually forget the original idea I had for each specific piece. I NEVER look at the photo again. I go solely on my drawing or no drawing. I pick out one that excites me the most and begin.

The first painting is my loosening up painting. It usually is the tightest. I pick up a BIG brush and I begin this way: I cross that imaginary line away from self and become one with the piece of paper, painting fast, slapping the paint on and covering the whole paper with paint, feeling things, seeing things, squinting, stepping back, basically bringing into focus the wholeness of the scene, adding changing things, being in a zone and in the now with my creation.

I usually work from a blur and bring it all into focus.

I challenge myself to start anywhere, so no constant process for me. I begin to slow down I look at it more stepping back. I add a few touches here and there. Let it dry. Usually at this stage I am 80 percent done with the piece.

I have been forcing myself to slow this whole process down more over the past couple of years especially for demo’s so I can talk while I paint and tell students why I am doing what I am doing, but I think I paint better fast.

 The reasons I paint fast:

1) For the past 40 years painting time was very limited so I learned to paint in 15-20 minute intervals

2) When I paint fast it leaves the MIND out of there…and all those thoughts that interfere with the creative process.  All those rules, planned  concepts, and especially some thought about HOW or the correct way of doing it is something I don’t want to be thinking about. Those days of rules and “their way” are long gone. Whatever it takes to make it happen is good to me.  

When I begin I just pick any color to start. The work is pretty loose and totally all wet at this point. I’ll then add the complementary color and the analogous colors to these first two colors. Before it dries I make sure the paint surface quality is interesting and how I want it. I let it dry.  

Then I will begin a 2nd new piece at this point since I am now loosened up. Do the same and let it dry.  Take a short break and start the third the same way.


Learn to paint with yupo with George James' yupo instructional video workshop

I set all these starts up on easels around me so I can glance at them now and then. After getting 3-4 “started” and dried….I pick one for phase two. I establish details with a watercolor pencil and smaller brush. I begin creating shapes and lines.

This is where I let the piece speak with which composition type will dominate (cruciform/ checkerboard, etc), while pushing the piece towards it’s composition, I make sure to let the design hold together with strong vertical horizontal line/value/shapes/values. I paint more vibrant complementary or analagous colors supporting some of these elements of design that I drew or painted in.  I force the values, neutralize a lot of non-focal area, stand back and see if in this mess I can “see it”….that thing that I am creating. If I don’t see it, I quickly and deliberately push it more. Dark values will be added just by gut feeling, usually boldly and loosely, a hard step for me. One needs to push back the fear at this point.  

When I feel it is ready…I remove the frisket and look at it for a long while. I always hope to love it at this point and I can get quite a buzz if I do. I will then let it sit and look at it as I take the other started paintings to this same stage.

I prefer cool paintings, but I will always let the warmth dominate in some of the pieces. These works will sit for a bit (couple hours or overnight) and I will look at them again. I then start 3-4 more pieces and bring them to this stage.

Usually all the pieces have at least some start before I will see a direction to go in one of them and will begin the final stage of adding color to the light value areas and some bright strong vibrant colors in select places. I will soften any hard edges and create hard edges where needed. All this is keeping the flow of the eye moving around the piece. I leave tension in there somewhere.

I finish with the first of the group of 6-8 . It is usually the best looking of the group that finishes first. It sets the standards that all the others have to try to live up to.  

One by one the 6-8 pieces will get done. I call this group of paintings “sister paintings” because when they are painted at the same time and they will all have similar qualities and techniques.

All of this drawing and painting is generally completed within a week or less, then I take a break, but not too long. I find time to be an element of creativity. Creativity seems to diminish as I paint. If I have an an undone piece at this point  there is a fear that develops. It takes a lot for me to make any changes  with any of them when I near the end of painting it. I few tiny things maybe…but if one is not looking as good as all the others, I will jump into it like a madman again. I usually never wipe the paint off of it, I just reuse the paint that is there already and push it around. Once there is a coating of paint on the paper, I am now painting on top of paint not on yupo anymore.

There is sometimes  a runt in the group that goes to the “to be continued” pile. I like to have sessions of fixings these runt ones when I get 6-8 of them. Sometimes they turn out to be the best of the bunch, especially if I am painting late at night and more fearless.

I don’t want to get in some groove of some defined painting process…I want to remain open  and free to grow and learn.  It does not matter where I begin or what color…because before long I have the whole paper and drawing is covered with paint anyway in 10 minutes, and in 30 minutes I will be working on a different painting anyway.

I like to keep it free and fresh and not kill it to death by overdoing. When I am done, I’ve got to like it. If I love it, I get quite a good feeling from it whenever I look at it. Those are the ones I show. Usually 2-3 out of the groups of sister paintings will be ones that I really like. The others are OK and may make it to the done pile, but every now and then a day will come in the future (6-9 months from then)  that I take some of those “done ones” that I did not know what to do with and I take them to my next step of growth.

I struggle too…struggle is a part of learning and growing. It always seems to me one has to almost reach a state of total frustration and almost giving up to be able to go to the next step.


Interview with yupo watercolorist Eileen Sudzina

Reference photos: Do you work from reference photos or life? Why? If you do work from reference photos, what do you want in a good reference photo?
/When you look at a scene - a street for example- what are you looking for to know if it would make a good painting? What about a scene pulls you to paint it?

I take many photos of varying subjects, and I change in my interests all the time so old photos that I didn’t like before may now offer more of a challenge. Sometimes the worst photo inspires me more than a great one because it’s a scene that is not all spelled out.  

I get interested in different aspects of the photo. I sometimes use Photoshop to change the photo around to my liking. I like to zoom in and enlarge just a part of the image. I will combine elements from several photos.

I am totally concentrated on design, composition and the flow of the light, not on copying the photo. For me, it is about how I can change it that draws me to it. It is what I can see in it, a great angle, the light coming in, the outline of it all, a great design and push that element.  

If I see even a slight wow, I can extrapolate on it and apply it to the whole piece or even to other photos that lack a wow. It’s trying to grab that feeling and put it technically onto the paper that is the challenge and an endless journey that interests me. I know some days I can look at 20 photos and not like any of them, and the next day I see something great in all of them. I think when looking at a photo or scene one has to be open minded and free of constricting thoughts about what is there and what they actually see.  

Then there are the pieces that I don’t do any pre-drawing. These are subjects like trees, flowers, or just free style landscape. If I find it necessary to use photo references for these I usually will have three: one with a color I like, one with a subject I feel and want to imitate, and one with a technique or overall effect I want to imitate.

I don’t have to have a banana sitting there to draw and paint a banana…all those years I didn’t have much time to paint I did a lot of looking. After I paint and I bring in a banana in it surprises me what I envisioned differently. We see what we want to see.


Interview with yupo watercolorist Eileen Sudzina

You clearly don’t just copy a reference photo to a painting. What do you use from a reference photo? Shapes? Light? Composition? Where do the big changes happen between the reference and the painting? Is there a point where you step away from the photo completely and interact only with what’s happening on the paper?

The photo is the  gateway to a new design for me. I’m looking for a unique, interesting composition, a good angle to express the dynamic subjects. I want there to be enough interest to move the eye around. I focus on keeping the necessary elements and correcting weaknesses. I am always tying the shapes together. I look at the arrangement of objects, the background, middle ground, foreground to be interesting and relate well to each other with one of those dominating. Once drawn, I NEVER LOOK at the photo again.

The light/whites are the most important for me, but they come AFTER the drawing. The lights can be anywhere, positive or negative. They are hard edged shapes and the rest of my painting will be softer compared to them initially. That hardness will have to be dealt with after removing the frisket. The scene for me is developed with shapes. So I draw shapes initially and set the dominate shape for the piece. The drawing is all pushed towards a dominant composition.

The drawing changes from the actual photo from the minute I pick up a pencil. I only use the photo to stimulate my new direction for the piece. This direction can change many times as I continue to draw and even more when I paint. Any drawing on my paper is GONE anyway. I mean gone within 10 minutes of me starting to paint because the paper will be all be covered with paint.

The drawing  provides the contoured outline of a scene for me to enter into when I cross that imaginary line and become one with the work. Once I am in the scene I just look around and create, only interacting with my feelings and making them appear on the paper. I think it funny when the paper dries and I sometimes see some pencil lines underneath and I say to myself  “what the heck was that supposed to be?” I just use it for a detail if it is interesting or I erase out the distraction of it. The finished painting obviously ends up very different than the photo.


Interview with yupo watercolorist Eileen Sudzina

You mentioned on your website that you design with pattern. Could you talk to us about what that means and how you design with pattern?

I use pattern to create and design everything. Pattern is just IN ME and has always wanted to come out. I remember for years when taking traditional watercolor classes ….my pattern would come out all over a piece that I most liked and working on feverishly. Pattern…little circles, shapes, lines all repeated everywhere, some big some small. The teacher would come around and see my classic pieces sitting there, painted like they wanted me to, and they would see this “patterned one” and they would say to me “Don’t paint like that,” “Stop doing that.”

It would always be an instant wound to my inner self because THAT piece was ME, that piece was coming from within. I am a people pleaser so I would put that piece aside if they came around again. I thought they were nuts. So I still always had a portion of my work be free for all those years even in a workshop.

With pattern, I could cover a piece of paper totally with a million little shapes and colors. I remember one of my first art pieces when I was a kid was just like this.  I loved that piece. It could stem from not wearing glasses up until the age of 12 where prior to glasses the world was a big blur and instantly with new glasses I saw every leaf , every flower, and bug.  

I have learned to keep my pattern in there and create resting areas to support the pattern. Pattern is my style. It comes from within and it gives me joy.

If you are going to do it when painting, jump off the bridge and do it with enthusiasm, be excited free, and happy and express it with whatever comes out of you.


Interview with yupo watercolorist Eileen Sudzina

Could you talk about what dominance is and how it (through value, color, composition and technique) can make a stronger painting? What types of dominance do you use? How do you use them?

Dominance is very important to me. In my work, if I don’t have a dominance of every aspect of the elements of design than it is not a successful piece. Have dominance of shape, composition, color, value, technique, lines, everything, every little mark you may make on the paper.

By dominance I mean there is more of one thing and less of the other, an old Skip Lawrence phrase.   Starting with the simplest of things: There should be an overall dominance of warmth or cool.  If you paint your piece  50/50 warm/cool  and look at it and compare it to one that has 80/20 or 90/10 dominance of color ….just try to FEEL which one feels better.

Learn to feel from your gut. Begin to feel the good and bad of your work so you can use it as a trigger in guiding you as you paint. This feeling gauge of dominance is used during my entire painting process.

If  you cross that line and make your piece LESS than 80/20  dominance, something will feel wrong….you don’t know what happened, you liked your piece 5 minutes ago,
and now suddenly you don’t.

Luckily with yupo you can go back and take out what you did and redo it again. This is how I “control” a  painting. I don’t control the PAINT by keeping inside the lines. I don’t paint a color just because the photo shows the house is red, and leaves don’t have to be green. Free yourself from your mind and paint from within.  



Interview with yupo watercolorist Eileen Sudzina

Color: What do you decide about color before you begin a painting? Do you have a general palette or a color relationship (for example, analogous or complementary) chosen beforehand? 

Color: I try not to be judgmental  or have favorites with color but I can’t help it. Color effects the guts and feelings strongly.

I generally am a cool color painter, mainly because I don’t like the color yellow at all (but that is another story.) But I work on letting go of the hate for yellow and very often start with it and put a lot of it in there initially. As I paint and loose my sense of self that yellow will disappear and be blended in and I will step back and realize that it is not there and have to put it back in.


Learn to paint with yupo with George James' yupo instructional video workshop

If I ever don’t like a piece and I wonder “what is wrong,” 9 times out of 10, for me anyway, if I take the yellow out of there, I suddenly like the piece. So colors do strongly effect me constantly. It is a total surprise to me to have a piece that I love and there is a bold dominance of yellow in there. So I give yellow the credit it deserves and try not to single it out.

For maybe 10 years I only ever started a painting with only 2 colors, any color and it’s complement. Not until the end would I put that other third color into the piece. Lately I have been doing what I call rainbow painting and it is usually very successful. I just go thru the color wheel and apply each color in order going around. Then I go around again and apply each color going around again. In the end one of these colors will dominate.

I don’t think a lot about color at all before I begin…I just go for anything in the palette box to start. I might glance at a color hanging in my studio and like the feeling of that. I try to be open to new color combinations. I arrange my colors by warm and cool in my palette. My “start” usually is quite neutral so I put more vivid color in where I want the eye to go, creating flow.  Color is something I have focused on in the past and plan to spend more time with in the future.

Interview with yupo watercolorist Eileen Sudzina

For a total change in gears, fear is a big obstacle with painters. How do you see fear holding your students back? How do you help them work through it?  Any advice?

Fear. Remember: It is only a piece of paper. Come on, what is there to be afraid of. I know you don’t know where to begin, so slap some paint on there and jump into it. If you have a loose mess with the first stroke this looseness will continue. I you start with some tight hard edged shape, it’ll be harder you to loosen it up and the whole thing will be hard edged.

Are you one to jump into the swimming pool or wade in like a slow cautious person? Save caution for the road, and for making financial decisions, painting is your time to be free and let that OTHER creative energy out of there instead of keeping it tied up and constrained. WHAT terrible thing could happen….OH MY,  a paper with a mess on it, that is something to fear???? Well it’s yupo, just wipe it clean. Nothing to fear.  

So you are afraid of ruining your work up to this point?  Make 5 drawings of the same scene and be your tight controlling person on the first one and on the rest be free to let go and express. Yupo makes it less fearful because you can just take the paint away and do it over again.  

Interview with yupo watercolorist Eileen Sudzina

Stand up  while painting , have your paper vertical on an easel, get bigger paper, get your big brush, no less than 1 inch, pick a color and slap it on . The yupo paper is your friend. It makes things happen all by itself. Go with what it is doing and don’t fight it.

 If you want a detailed work just like real natural scene, take a photo. Painting is not a photo. It is expressing from your inner being. Don’t tell me you can’t do that. If you ever got lost in a good book or got all wrapped up in the suspense of a movie…well you have it….it is there in you. Just let it out.

Musicians do it. Singers do it. Bakers do it. You have the passion and feelings in you naturally when you were born. It did not go away. That kid that could do it is still within you. What’s cool is there is NEVER a bad painting…..just a painting in progress ….because if you save a work on yupo because it didn’t work, or you didn’t know what to do to fix it, the time will come when you will pick it up and KNOW what to do and make it great.

Always be learning. That is the real reward in your art journey, learning and growing. It is not about winning an award or if anyone else likes it , it is if YOU LIKE IT. It is only about YOU and your creation. (or it is for me anyway). If a flower blooms in the forest and no human ever sees it does it make it any less wonderful?

To learn more about watercolorist Eileen Sudzina, visit her at her website and on Facebook.


Learn to paint with yupo with George James' yupo instructional video workshop

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.

Register for our FREE bi-weekly newsletter