Up until recently, when it came to creativity, Sue Moffitt needed to look no further than her own back yard... or field.
The Tyne Valley-based artist has built an international reputation with her distinctive depictions of Northumbrian cows.
But during a trip to South Africa to see her daughter Annabel, Sue found the new inspiration she was looking for.
And tomorrow, she will unveil a new African-inspired collection of paintings, making up her first solo show at Westside Contemporary Gallery, near Corbridge, which Sue founded with her husband, photographer Roy Sturgeon, 10 years ago.
The exhibition will be the first time Sue has shown any work for more than a year, and promises to demonstrate a dramatic artistic departure from her catalogue to date.
Featuring 26 new paintings of animals studied by Moffitt during her travels in South Africa, including big cats, zebra, rhino, elephants and African wild dogs, An African Affair offered Sue the new artistic challenge she needed.
“I knew I wanted a change in direction and I was searching for inspiration when I went to visit Annabel,” she says. “We went to the Kruger National Park and I was captured by it; I knew I had found my new inspiration.
“We ended up driving 5,000 miles in three weeks, and I fell in love with the country and its wildlife. I haven’t stopped painting since.”
Despite welcoming the new inspiration for her work, Sue admits the paintings offered many challenges.
“I’ve been working on these paintings all year, and yes, I have struggled at times. I’ve spent my life painting animals I knew intimately. The animals of the bush are obviously far less familiar, and it’s been a painstaking process, not least because they aren’t here, living with me, as my previous subjects so often were.”
Mind you, that’s not to say she didn’t forge a connection.
“I felt such a resonance with the animals I saw in South Africa, and also appreciated the connection the people working with animals there have with them, just as I do with our animals here. I was captured by the place, its people and its wildlife and it would have been impossible for me not to be inspired by that artistically,” she says.
“People have been asking all year when I am going to show again, but it’s taken me a long time to be ready to unveil this new collection for the first time. It’s nerve-wracking, showing something so new, and I only hope people love these works as they did the cows and other animals which have dominated my work to date.”
Having painted her African studies from photographs and sketches she made during her travels, Sue says the new process took some getting used to.
“To capture the spirit of an animal, I have always spent time with them, watching them, studying the way they move, the way they stand, the way they hold their head,” she says.
“This year has been so hard because I have had to capture the spirit of wildlife from limited material. I haven’t been able to spend weeks in the bush watching them. I’ve been here, imagining each animal and creating a painted impression from my memory and my mind’s eye.
“I have been working to convey the essence and the spirit of each animal in oil on canvas. This is what I always strive for, and it’s a struggle which is ongoing, and I’m sure will develop.
“My ultimate goal is always to convey my own passion for an animal; the relationship I have with them and the fascination I have for them. That is my greatest challenge.”
During her artistic exploration of African wildlife, Sue admits to over-working paintings - and even throwing them out.
“And I still have doubts about them,” she says, “but then I always have that. If I’m not careful I could scrap the lot and start again, which again is typical of my nature.
“I’m always striving to understand what it is I’m trying to do when I pick up a brush. There are hundreds of people out there who paint animals and paint them very well, concentrating on every single hair. Painting every hair is not in my nature. That isn’t what I’m doing. I’m painting my passion, my impression, my relationship with an animal.”
Although obviously very taken with her new subjects, fans of Sue’s cow paintings need not despair. She will never leave them behind, because they are part of her.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend hanging by your thumbs waiting for a new one... unless you have something specific in mind.
“I don’t know now how else I can paint a cow, so it may be a long time before I do, apart from special requests and commissions which capture my imagination,” says Sue.
As well as the new exhibition though, there is cow-related news. A fresh collection of limited-edition, affordable prints of the cow paintings with which she made her name is being launched.
But back to her African Affair, of which her favourite study is the rhino - an animal which she says is not so very far away from the cows of her former artistic life.
“They are not easy to paint, but they fascinate because they seem so prehistoric, and although they are intimidating, there is something kind in their eyes. There is something a little bit bovine about them, which is perhaps why I like them.”
Now that she is painting multiple species, as opposed to individual animals within the same species, the job in hand is extremely complex. She has been working on more than 20 paintings at a time over recent months, moving from one to the other in an often painstaking process, painting all day, every day, by the natural light which floods her south-facing studio and gallery overlooking the Tyne Valley.
“It’s a selfish profession; you get wrapped up and then, all of a sudden, after how ever many days or weeks, I have to get out of here, stop painting, and get a break. Then you feel ready to go into the world, just for a little while,” she says.
“I’ve worked and worked on some of these pieces, and I just hope these animals speak to people, as they do to me.”
Many of the paintings include handwriting, some of which has been partly obliterated by paint, yet still adding another dimension drawn from the artist’s travel journals and information about the animals gleaned from people she met on her travels.
“It’s part of the story I am telling in paint,” she says. “I like to write and I felt inspired to write on some of these canvases, so I did.”
It was extremely difficult, she says, when she made the decision to stop painting cows, but it was a decision she was ready for. “I wanted a new drive and passion, and I found that in Africa. This is my new artistic life. I have to have a reason to paint, I have to be driven to work, and this is it.”
Sue will return to South Africa for the whole of January 2014, to visit her daughter Annabel at her base in Port Elizabeth, close to major wildlife reserves. There, she says, she will continue her African Affair.
An African Affair runs from tomorrow’s private view until December 22 at Westside Contemporary Art Gallery, Westside Farm, Newton Hall, near Corbridge. www.westsidecontemporary.com