This article is reprinted with permission from the July 2012 issue of Boom! Magazine.

Susan Brabeau ~ It’s All About the Light

by Barbara Petty

I found it hard to believe that I had never heard of Susan Brabeau before last month—an artist of this notoriety and caliber living in the Triangle, and completely unknown to me? My loss. For Susan is truly a talent of some measure. Her oil paintings are reminiscent of Norman Rockwell, what she refers to as “Americana style.”

For jigsaw puzzle fans, Susan Brabeau may be a familiar name—her work has been licensed and reproduced as puzzles for years. You can find over thirty titles on the Amazon website alone; puzzles ranging from oversized pieces to the diabolical 1,500 piece puzzles. Another website,, is a kind of boutique website, “The Source for Clever Puzzles and Intriguing Gifts” as they proclaim. They also carry Brabeau puzzles, and here is what they say about Susan:

“What strikes the viewer first about a Susan Brabeau canvas is her uncanny talent for capturing people. She is able to capture their moods, their idiosyncrasies, and even their body language. The artist enables us to eavesdrop on a series of private moments telling a story. A story that tugs at the heart, fires the imagination and delights the senses. Throughout her work we find a love for earlier, simpler times.

“The imagery of Susan Brabeau appeals to the viewer on several levels: bringing forth moods and sentiments of a bygone era, creating an illusion of life so completely that the viewer can almost hear the sounds within an image. As with all good story-telling art, the imagery of Susan Brabeau is meant to be felt as well as seen.”

Susan has been “telling stories” in one form or fashion for years. She was musical from a very early age and “I put myself through college by singing with big bands in Detroit, and when I moved to Los Angeles I actually recorded a soundtrack for a movie that was nominated for an academy award.” She also acted, and while in New York, Susan was involved in The Rehearsal Club, a theatrical legend whose mission—from 1913—is to provide sanctuary for young actresses through emotional and financial support: to help fellow actresses “develop the grit, wit and imagination necessary to carve their niche in an unforgiving business.” In between auditions, Susan would haunt antique stores where she would find unique pieces and collectables—a habit that continues today, and many of her treasures find their way into her paintings. In fact, a vintage purse inspired one of her favorite paintings, titled The Conversation.

 It was her acting that led her to pursing art on a more serious level. “I was asked to create a background for a musical, and I received a drama’s critic award.” Her first commissioned piece and she receives an award? Pretty remarkable. Susan explains, “My great grandfather was a well-known sculpture. I never knew him but I always had that part of me that wanted to create art.” And create she has!

The other remarkable part of this story is Susan never had any formal training; she is self-taught. I was curious how she developed this style of painting. “All of my work includes images of things from the past that remind you of things in the present,” she explains. “My work is representative of a different era—no computers, no cell phones, just a lovely time when people were very comfortable with their neighborhoods, spending more time with their family, and performing daily tasks.”

One of her pieces that she specifically wanted to talk about is a self-portrait, a painting that was chosen to be part of the Art of the Auction event at the North Carolina Museum of Art. “It started with a visit—and then another—to the Rembrandt exhibit while it was in Raleigh [at the North Carolina Museum of Art]. My second visit was a treat from a friend to view the paintings even closer with a docent feeding me tidbits about the artist’s life. I was amazed and mesmerized by Mr. Rembrandt’s use of light and what it did to skin tones, hair and cloth. I immediately went home on that day, and not finding anyone else who would put up with my obsession, I took 360 photos of myself in my grandmother’s hat from when she was a young woman; all in the bright light streaming onto my side porch and through several windows in my house. Then I decided to see what the light would look like on my face through lace curtains and through a shade. I chose two images and went to work night and day. Three days later I had these two small paintings of myself on board. Lace Curtain was chosen by the NC Museum of Art to be on exhibit there and to auction it off to art buyers at a fundraising event [Art of the Auction]. The experience was unforgettable, and the person who purchased my work has now commissioned me to create another painting.

The light of Rembrandt experience didn’t stop there. I then painted another portrait style painting of a mother and daughter having a very serious moment talking while riding in a trolley with the light streaming in on them through a window. I then expanded my experiment with the light by opening some old Testor neon paints and blending them into my oil paint [Testor is a brand name model paint]. The result was striking. The folks at the Block Gallery in the Municipal Building Downtown made it possible for me to present this painting, and the City of Raleigh purchased it. I know that there is something about the light and that a simple visit to the NC Museum of Art changed my life as an artist.” [The painting that The City of Raleigh purchased was the aforementioned The Conversation, which is part of a Mother and Daughter series.]

Susan has been chosen by Artist’s Magazine to be in the top two percent of portrait painters in their competition that included over 10,0000 contestants. But she is not one to rest on her successes. She is energized by her newfound experimentation with light and the Testor paints, and feels like this is the direction she will continue to explore. In addition to her jigsaw puzzles (and a note pad collection), she keeps busy with her portraiture work (including Heads of State for Raleigh). She also photographs families in unique settings and then paints them in fun scenarios and places of their choice. She also works with Disney, Orion Pictures, ABC, NBC and Warner Brothers on various projects.

Susan’s work is available online ( in addition to various galleries throughout the U.S. You can see her work up close and in person at The Town of Cary’s annual Lazy Daze Arts & Crafts Festival August 25, 9am-5pm in downtown Cary.






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