Peripheral Visions – A History

Digital technology and the creative process

In 1999 I had a moment of revelation stuck in traffic in the rain and dark of a rush hour on the London North Circular. At that time I was producing paintings and drawings of the human body. It had been a difficult personal time with several bereavements and I was pondering the nature of the body, physicality, thought and memory.

Working in my studio I thought constantly about the past and people no longer around. What I remembered changed daily, no memory seemed accurate, no drawing or painting precise enough. I wanted to depict the ephemeral, but felt heavy handed, I wanted lightness and I couldn’t shed the obvious baggage and break though to this light.

In the gloom I was listening to BBC Radio 4. I had read about a body scanner that scanned the exterior of the human body. It had been developed by the US Military to measure recruits for uniforms and the technology had been adapted in Japan where department stores then offered a service of body scanning and custom-made lingerie. In the Radio 4 programme, Material Worlds, there was an interview with researchers at UCL who were using such a scanner. As they described the process, I just knew this was going to give me the visual information I had been searching for, that it would help me capture all those thoughts and visions floating about on the periphery of my memory.

The next day I phoned the university and actually couldn’t believe my luck when not only did the researcher answer the phone, but she was interested in art and what I wanted to do. She invited me for a visit, and with great generosity gave me time and access to her equipment.

It was so exciting: here was a piece of new technology offering me a completely new way of seeing the human body and depicting it. Over several sessions I took models to the scanner and came away with a three and a half inch crispy disk that totally changed the direction of what I thought and how I painted. A model stood in a pose of my choosing in the scanner, which was a human sized cubicle. A ring of flashing lights moved around and down the model measuring and recording the exterior surface of the body, with each measurement rendered as a pixel.

With 3D software in my computer in my studio, I could manipulate these digital images, looking at the figure from every possible direction, and I could add, delete, draw, select, structure. This layered process was the same as I used for making an image the old way, with pencil and paper. I had found the ghost in the machine, or rather the machine had helped me visualise the ghosts in my head. It was such a liberation, I felt freed of constraint and able to create the images locked in my head that had been haunting me. I’m not a mathematician or computer programmer but I should imagine the process is not dissimilar – you go through a series of logical steps with creative insights along the way and end up with a beautiful solution. I felt had access to a second brain that was synchronous with my own. Two brains are definitely better than one!

For two years I used these scans to produce works I called Mirages. In a way the title is obvious – these images from the ether shimmer and are gone, they are there and they are not, moments that transform and then disappear.

Then in 2002 I went to an exhibition at Tate Modern called Matisse Picasso. I looked at these great masters who painted every possible subject, the human figure, landscape, still life. There was a Matisse still life, it must have been 10 feet by six, huge, imposing, beautiful and about so much more than the apples and oranges and drapery it depicted. I realised that objects can stand in for the human figure in a metaphor of life.

I phoned the university again and a new and different researcher answered the phone. Again I was met with kindness, interest and generosity. This time I wanted to take still life objects and scan them. The researchers were fascinated since they had only ever scanned people and they wanted to see the results too. I had several happy sessions scanning tables and drapery and fruit and flowers. Again I experienced exhilaration with the resulting scans. Ghostly pixilated images of flowers and fruit reminded me of the flowers at births and marriages and funerals that had represented so much but had faded. Like Dutch Old Master Still Life paintings that represent the passing of the seasons, and thus the life cycle, these ephemeral scans seemed to me images of the ghosts of flowers and fruits, or at least of the memory of them.

I spent another couple of happy years manipulating these scans with my 3D computer software, viewing a still life from the top or side or underneath, playing, selecting, adding subtracting, composing and then adding paint or pastel to complete the process. This phase led to further exhibitions.

Over the years computer technology has changed and become more advanced. My scans which have been sitting in their original form in the recesses of my mind and the computers’ brain are currently undergoing a renaissance. I have discovered new 3D software that reads and interprets the original scans in a different way. A new world has opened up again.

It is important that for now I reinterpret the original scans, and that I am not working with new ones, though the time will soon come for exploration with new 3D scanners. My theme is memory and how what I look at now is informed by everything else I have ever looked at. Something I see today echoes something I looked at a long time ago and thought I had forgotten. The clarity of the memory varies. Each new work is the sum of my experience and thought at that moment, as far as I can remember. Sometimes I don’t think, the images emerge and vanish as in a dream, with a life and volition of their own.

The new 3D software I use has also enabled me to examine in minute detail the geometry of the natural objects I scanned all those years ago. It’s like my computer brain has gained wisdom and insight and articulacy with its greater age.

The geometry of nature, its precision and beauty, informs how I look and see. 3D software that enables me to observe objects from so many angles is revelatory. The new software is more user friendly, allowing me to manipulate the images far more easily and add and subtract, introduce new colour and line and so on with greater ease. Ultimately I select a slice of the 3D image and print it, making a transition from 3D to 2D. The image is rescanned at high resolution, colour and tone is adjusted and the image printed with archival ink onto canvas or cotton rag paper. The scale is greatly enlarged from the original (like a giant Matisse Still Life, or a Georgia O’Keefe Flower). Over time I search the printed web I have created and fragments emerge which I capture with paint or pastel. The completed work is a multi-layered and multi-process image. The computer, the scanner, ink, paint, pastel, graphite are the combined tools that help me layer and picture fragments of memory altered by emotion, time, and observation. I’ve had a lot of fun.

My family has a genetic illness from which I have thankfully been spared. Retinitis Pigmentosa affects vision, most usually the sufferer loses peripheral vision and ends up with increasingly narrow tunnel vision, like my late father. More unusually, my aunt lost the centre of her vision and could only see life on the periphery. For them, the interaction with the physical world, how they saw, how they thought was determined in some senses by the limits of what they could see. They adapted in the most extraordinary ways to daily life, having to think consciously at every moment how to see. I often imagine seeing only the edges of things, or only the centres, and making up the rest through what I remember. We all muddle along somehow.

My wonderful aunt learned how to email late in life, with a memory of touch typing and not being able to see the keyboard. Emails would pop into my inbox where she had placed her hands by accident one or two keys along on the key board. The emails had expressed something at the beginning, they were a hidden language when I received them, a mysterious code. I’d decipher a couple of words and make the rest up, then pick up the phone. Her thoughts would have moved on by then. Art is like that, a decoding of layers of visions, thought and time.


24th November 2010 – 22nd December 2010

Susan Rosenberg’s flower paintings (shown in her previous exhibition, Altitude) blend energy and bravura with structure and balance. Spontaneity and impulse persist in her deeply considered designs. Colour and line toss, play and respond as in a dance. Now, in her water paintings, she has moved from quasi-abstraction to a greater naturalism, an unusual trajectory. The theme of water is a difficult and bold one to pursue, both technically and because of the weight of tradition, but it has called forth Susan’s creativity brilliantly. As always, her art gives delight in the complementarity she achieves between strong lineaments of design and a lyrical interplay of colours. In the water paintings she has introduced a more highly nuanced application of paint. There is narrative drama in these pictures but also a stylised, even ritualised, quality arising from her use of gold. Susan’s art, for me, is a consolation in difficult times and an added joy in happy times.

Rt Hon Lord Howarth of Newport

Water – Movement and Structure

After the success of her previous exhibition, Altitude, two years ago, it would have been easy and comfortable for Susan Rosenberg to carry on creating her beautiful and well-regarded flower paintings. Instead, with her latest body of paintings and drawings, entitled Water, she has shown a clear – and audacious – determination to keep pushing the boundaries of her art. Viewers who love her flower paintings may be excused a moment of surprise as they adjust to the change, but they will soon be won over by the sheer beauty and vivacity of the new work.

Admirers of Susan’s work tend to start with her unique sense of colour. The Water paintings exhibit the same subtle and often unusual combinations of colours, built up into a sensual layered richness, but are also distinguished by a far more explicit use of gold. Susan has always used metallic pigments mixed with paint, often as a ground colour. In the Water paintings, however, a bold application of molten gold leaf has enabled her to extend the depth of her colour, and explore, in a vital and nuanced fashion, the reflection of sunlight on water, as well as imbuing the work with an even more religious and meditative quality.

Depicting water is a difficult challenge for artists, and many have failed. Susan’s Water paintings, especially the Splash series, succeed superbly in capturing movement and fluidity – even the shifting interplay of light on water as one changes vantage point – without losing rigour and structure. Susan has previously commented on the strong influence of oriental drawing, printmaking and calligraphy on her thinking, and it seems to me that Water combines the fresh and immediate power of flowing calligraphic gestures with the traditional strength and complexity of painting, with its relationships between colour, tone, form, composition, subject and narrative.

Susan’s use of acrylic paint (but with a watercolour sensibility), her carefully layered method of working, and her subject matter – with its balance between abstraction and naturalism – all mean that it would be very easy to overwork the canvases, with deadening effect. The great joy of the Water paintings is that, while rich and textured, they also breathe with light and space, reflecting Susan’s discipline. In this sense, she has successfully managed to apply the restraint referred to by one her influences, Martin Buber: “This is the sacrifice: the endless possibility that is offered up on the altar of the form.”

William Black, October 2010


Susan Rosenberg’s latest paintings, with their vivid colour and movement, can easily be appreciated as direct – often joyful – evocations of the act of walking through mountain ranges at high altitudes, inspired by journeys undertaken through South Africa’s Drakensberg and Cape Mountains, the Sierra Nevada in California, the Olympics in Washington State, and the Alps and Dolomites in Europe. But, as with her previous explorations of the human body and still life, the paintings also reflect a more subtle, layered and internal striving for various forms of balance and poise.

Firstly, in the way she paints, and talks about her work, it is clear that Susan has always been fascinated by notions of beauty. She is acutely conscious of one key definition of beauty – “nothing taken away from it or added to it but for the worse” – so her work is suffused with the constant excitement, and tension, of ensuring that every brush mark or splash is a critical and necessary part of the whole. As she says: “It’s very easy for the paintings to tip over into chaos, so there is a tension in finding the moment before they fall over the edge. It is this moment that gives the thrill.”

Another of her preoccupations is finding the moment of quiet and harmony amidst vigorous effort and motion. It is interesting that this quest begins with her working practice: “Every day as I enter the studio I go through a process of shedding the world and clearing my mind to reach a point of almost abstract thought and emptiness, before I can paint.” Throughout the huge physical and mental effort required to paint large canvasses, involving movement of the whole body, she tries to draw out the interior moment of stillness. In this sense, there is a direct parallel with the strenuous exertion of walking up a mountain to attain the view, and in the silence away from the world, the mind empties and expands.

Susan’s paintings are also, of course, an attempt to make sense, and find the balance, of her personal journey. She has been deeply influenced by the philosophy underlying oriental calligraphy, whereby a lifetime of experience is expressed in a simple mark or gesture, and white space allows the colour and movement to breathe and expand. As she says: “The paintings reflect who I am, a South African in cosmopolitan London, a sum total of the places I have lived, the things I have seen.” It is therefore a mistake to view the paintings too literally; they should rather be seen as interior balances of all the journeys, all the hikes, and all the flowers.

Finally, as with all of Susan’s work, there is her unique sense of colour, as she tries to find the equilibrium between colour speaking directly to the senses, while the arrangement of the colour on the surface of the canvas requires intellect from both artist and viewer. In an age where the dominant aesthetic is concept and irony, it is refreshing to find an artist who believes in beauty and conveys pleasure and exhilaration.

William Black, September 2008

Then and Now

Many viewers who have followed Susan Rosenberg’s work over three previous solo exhibitions at the Millinery Works will note a marked move towards abstraction in her new paintings – entitled “Then and Now”.

On one level, restless move and change seems to be a feature of her work over the past twenty years, with her prodigious output encompassing the human figure, reinterpretations of still lives, and a regular return to references to fragments of nature. But look behind the change, and there are a number of constant elements running through Susan’s work, which provide a strong core of continuity.

First, is her extraordinary sense of colour. Her current large canvasses, exploding with sumptuous and luminous paint, are a wonderful example of her consistent ability to combine colours in a powerful and direct manner, while still retaining a light, fragile and subtle touch. Susan’s use of colour ties in closely with a deep and constant drive to play with senses of space. All of her recent work, even when based on the most naturalistic themes and symbols (the human body!) has created a strongly ambiguous space, evoking the highly inner landscape of mind, memory and imagination. The translucent space she consistently conjures feels deep and broad, but also fragile and unpredictable.

Throughout her career, Susan has retained a strong belief in the importance of technique, and an understanding of the history of the artist’s craft and skill. Trained as both a painter and a printmaker in South Africa and the USA, she has always continually learned and mastered new technical challenges. Viewers of recent exhibitions will remember her groundbreaking incorporation of digital body scanning technology, but, going back a little further, her work has included an even broader range of new techniques, covering everything from Japanese calligraphy, chine colle printing, ceramics and papermaking. More importantly, Susan has consistently managed to enable the particular technical implementation to complement and interpret, rather than overpower, the colour, light and space of her work.

The final consistent theme of Susan’s work, which underpins the other three already mentioned, is its embrace of tension and balance. As an immigrant to the UK from South Africa, who has also spent time in California, she has been forced to balance her strong inner artistic imagination with, on the one hand, the powerful memories of the luxuriant vegetation and bright sun of her youth, and, on the other, her observation of the stark landscape and pearly grey light of London winters. But this exploration of tension and conflict goes further. How do you depict violent energy in still life studies? Can you transpose the fluid and luminous feel of small scale watercolours into large paintings? Can you use a drill to pierce holes in paper while still creating a beautiful image? Can you pull together all the threads of past and present experience, to find a moment of poise and balance?

The paintings of Then and Now are an attempt to explore conflict in formal terms, while drawing together threads and memories of the past and of past work. The paintings feel light and airy but any false note or alien brushstroke would upset the fine balance. Technically and visually there is no room for error, and this adds tension to the works, the tension of reconciling the differences of past and present.

The Millinery Works Gallery, 2006

Still, Life

“Memory isn’t always accurate,” says Susan Rosenberg, at the very start of our conversation about her new exhibition; and it’s an appropriate place to begin, given that her evocative work – which draws on her life – is about what we forget, as well as what we remember. “You might see a face in the crowd, and suddenly you are reminded of someone – but what you remember might be blurred, even if it feels very vivid.”

She has always been interested in how she might visually express those fragments of memory: whether in the ethereally anonymous human figures of her last exhibition, or her latest work, of plants and flowers. As with the figures, these are not flowers that can be named and pinned down, specified or identified. “They come from the recesses of the past,” she says, “from travelling, perhaps, when you glimpse a field from a train, or maybe the flowers that you see at wedding. They get tangled up with previous experiences – flowers at births, or marriages, or deaths – the colours in the threads of memory.”

Many viewers who have followed Susan Rosenberg’s work over three previous solo exhibitions at the Millinery Works will note a marked move towards abstraction in her new paintings – entitled “Then and Now”.

On one level, restless move and change seems to be a feature of her work over the past twenty years, with her prodigious output encompassing the human figure, reinterpretations of still lives, and a regular return to references to fragments of nature. But look behind the change, and there are a number of constant elements running through Susan’s work, which provide a strong core of continuity.

It’s a recurring theme in her work: “an unravelling and decoding,” as she herself suggests; though what I like about her pictures is that they are never aggressively explicit, allowing one’s own experience to inform them, as if holding up a mirror to the half-imaginary landscape of our pasts. Certainly, looking at these new still lives, I found myself remembering long-ago visits to South Africa, which is where my parents were born, and where Susan spent her childhood. “The light was so different there – it illuminates the past,” she says. “I grew up in Pietermaritzburg, in a house with a large sunny garden, and a profusion of subtropical flowers.” She shows me one of her wonderful pictures in this series, of pink and yellow flowers – characteristically unidentified – but as she herself admits, “these are the expression of a very happy time in South Africa”.

Even so, it is surely no coincidence that her family past is as blurred and fragmented as the memories that are such an integral part of her work. “My father’s father, who was Jewish, was born in north London, in Islington,” she explains, “and his wife, my paternal grandmother, was a Lithuanian Jew. On the other side of the family, my mother’s grandparents came from the Orkneys: though they didn’t actually meet each other until they got to South Africa.”

Her father was an amateur artist, painting in his spare time from a job as town planner, while her mother was a photographer. Susan was the middle child (she has an older brother and younger sister): “and as little kids, our great excitement was to be allowed into my mother’s darkroom. I still get a thrill remembering it – the picture emerging out of the darkness”.

After art school in Pietermaritzburg, Sue made the journey to America, to study as a postgraduate at the University of Wisconsin. “It was extraordinary,” she says. “The snow fell in the first week of September, and didn’t melt until April. I lived in this ground floor apartment, with drifts of snow up against all the windows, so it was like being in a white world, after all the colour of South Africa. I was there for two years, and broke all the time, so I couldn’t afford to go home – but I loved it there.”

After her time in America, she returned to her homeland, and taught at the Johannesburg School of Art. It was there that she met John Lazar, the man who was to become her husband, and when he came to study at Oxford, she followed him, and to London subsequently. “So I’ve been living here for the last 20 years,” she says, almost ruefully, though the grey streets of this city have been interspersed with periods in California and trips to South Africa. “I miss the light of my childhood,” she admits. “Whenever I take that overnight flight back to South Africa, I always try to sit beside a window, and look out for the Southern Cross in the sky – that constellation of stars that you can only see in the Southern Hemisphere. And then after the long-haul flight, I step out of the plane to all that sensual colour and heat, which is so amazing. But, after a few weeks in South Africa, I come back to England with a sigh of relief – I love the sense of order here, which manages to survive even when London feels like a city falling apart and held together with sellotape.”

She describes herself as a Londoner now – indeed, she and John and their two children are long-time inhabitants of a very particular corner of north London (Fortis Green) – but the varied threads of her past seem beautifully braided together in her present life. The light in her paintings spills out of the darkness – just as it must have done so in her mother’s darkroom – and her new house is filled with mementoes of the past: shells and feathers from journeys to South Africa and elsewhere; a chair from her grandfather’s house in Islington, that made the trip to Africa and, years later, back again.

Just as I’m leaving, she shows me one of her oldest pieces of work – a collage of scallop shells, cast in her own handmade paper, that came with her from South Africa. “I was interested in the symbolism of those shells,” she says, “the scallop both broken and whole. St James always carried one with him,and it’s the symbol of pilgrimage.” Twenty years later, Susan Rosenberg is still on a sort of pilgrimage: through the past, as she moves forward, and all the while returning home.

Justine Picardie ©2004