By Emily Williams
Sue Key has always been an artist, but it took an empty nest to push her to create a career in painting.
The move has led her to many achievements. Most recently, one of her paintings was printed on a commemorative scarf for the Plantation Wildlife Arts Festival in Thomasville, Georgia.
“I’ve always done something,” she said. “I started with photography a good bit. I think that really plays into my painting now, because that’s where you learn about composition.”
She said the lessons she learned about manipulating aperture settings on a camera show up in her work frequently. She will focus her painting on one subject, keeping it sharp while the back group fades out around it.
Outside of painting she has tried her hand at graphic design, technical manuals for restaurants, jewelry, lamps, faux finishing and children’s portraits.
“I was doing it because I love it, but there is a big part of me that wanted to sell some stuff,” said Key, formerly of Mountain Brook and now of Birmingham.
With a head for marketing and her two kids in college, she decided it was time to start making a name for herself.
“I started messing around with painting and then really tried to focus in on something and stick with it,” she said. With no formal art education, she looked for a subject she could focus on. About six years ago, she found her niche.
“I saw a huge goose,” Key said. “It was about a seven- or eight-foot canvas of a goose painted and I just said, “Now, I like that.’”
After playing around with birds and big canvases, Key refined her theme to wildlife painting with a focus on the sporting aspect. She regularly uses ducks, quail, turkey and even birddogs as the subjects for her paintings.
With her subject in focus, she began showing with the Mountain Brook Art Association. Her first show was the annual art show in Crestline.
“They were one of the first to give me some awards,” she said. “So, I’m always indebted to them. The first time I exhibited I won emerging artist and the second year I won the whole thing.”
For a time, Key said, she was showing frequently. But nowadays she mainly paints on commission and for the Plantation Wildlife Arts Festival.
“Thomasville is a really diverse, culturally rich small community,” Key said. “They have an art center there that promotes drama, music, fine arts and literary things.”
She stumbled upon the show after taking part in the Southeastern Wildlife Expo, a massive show in Charleston, South Carolina, where she was able to forge relationships with other artists who had similar focuses on sporting wildlife. While there, a fellow artist told her to look into the Thomasville show, thinking its small size would be a good fit for her. The show hosts about 60 artists.
“It is juried, so you have to be accepted,” Key said. “That’s a show that truly has some of the country’s finest sporting artists. So, I’m in high cotton. I’m in a good place to be there.”
Since her induction into the show in 2012, Key said she has met many artists who have helped her turn her hobby into a real career. She is currently represented in galleries in Orange Beach, Birmingham and Charleston while tackling commission work on a regular basis.
“I’m doing some commission work for a guy who has a farm out in Pell City,” Key said. “We rode around in his ranger on a Saturday – he and his wife, children and dog. We got out in the mud and took photographs of his swamp. I’m going to have to make up the ducks flying into it, but I’ve got his swamp and the meadow where the deer come out at dusk.”
All of Key’s paintings come from either photographs she has taken or images she has bought. Her husband, Jim, an avid hunter, is always her right-hand man when she is trying to decide on a photograph to paint.
As for her recent success, Key is all smiles. She received a letter from the Plantation Wildlife Arts Foundation in February announcing that there would be a commemorative scarf printed in honor of the show’s 20th anniversary. The scarf was printed by Holland and Holland, an exclusive outdoor brand based in London.
Key submitted eight images of her paintings for consideration, and in spring she received notice that one of her paintings had been selected – an image of two quail surrounded by wildflowers. It was a painting that showed her first year at the arts festival.
“I took it to that show and it sold to Thomas County Federal, one of the banks down there,” Key said. “The original is probably 40×40 inches. The photograph was a copyright-free and I have actually seen it print since then.”
Twenty-seven scarves were printed and shown at a Holland and Holland fashion show during the 20th anniversary celebration. Guests of the fashion show were entered in a lottery for a chance to buy one of the scarves.
Key said she won one of the chances and was able to buy a scarf, a keepsake that serves as a reminder of one of her many successes in the art world.
For more information on Sue Key, visit www.suekeyart.com.