Interior process is focus of Del Mar artist’s outward work

Paintings with vivid colors cover the walls of Asta Sutton’s Del Mar home. An abstract painter, Sutton has often put a paintbrush to canvas not knowing what she was going to create.

Her painting process is what inspired her recently published dissertation, “Art and the Unconscious: A Semiotic Case Study of the Painting Process.”

“Why do I paint these abstract paintings that are challenging to interpret, and what are these spontaneous images that come from my inner-world based upon?” she questions in the introduction.

Sutton took a long road to finally earn her Ph.D. in art and design, and art education.

Born in Sweden to Finnish parents, her family moved to Finland when she was still a baby.

Undecided what to do after high school graduation, she traveled to Europe, Israel and Africa, including Egypt, Kenya and Somalia. Native African art, from face masks to sculptures, inspired her to pursue the arts.

“They were unique, simple and beautiful,” she recalled. “There was something in the art that I had never seen before.”

When Sutton returned to Finland, she enrolled in Liminka Art School, a private art school, to learn the basics of art history, drawing, etching, painting and sculpting.

In 1991, she began pursuing her master’s degree in art and design at Finland’s University of Lapland. That’s when she first began to study the painting process.

“I wanted to know more,” she said. “What really happens when you paint?”

Sutton briefly studied art, painting and printmaking in Canada from 1993 to 1994. As an exchange student at Lakehead University, she met her husband, now an engineer. When the couple returned to Finland, Sutton completed her studies, earning her degree in 1997. A year later, the pair relocated to the United States.

Although Sutton established a career as an artist and entered a new chapter as a mother of two, she remained curious about the unconscious and how it affects an artist’s process — including her own.

While working on her master’s thesis, she interviewed three artists, famous in Finland.

“I was puzzled,” Sutton recalled. “They couldn’t explain their inspirations and intuitions.”

Wanting to learn more, she returned to her studies in 2011, studying remotely at the University of Lapland, while taking additional courses at UC San Diego.

“I wanted to solve this big problem,” said Sutton, whose children are now 14 and 16 years old. “I was just so curious about this.”

She set to out to solve this mystery, studying the unconscious in theory and in practice. Her goals were twofold: to create a model that could interpret an artist’s inspirations, and to inspire her own unconscious.

Sutton researched the working methods of famed painters Salvador Dalí and Jackson Pollock, a surrealist and an abstract expressionist, respectively. She also used herself as a “guinea pig,” recording herself painting and analyzing her process.

Doing so led to her to create a model of artistic interpretation that made it possible to outline Dalí and Pollock, as well as her own painting process.

“This book helped me to realize I have to be honest,” she said. “If I study the unconscious, and I do it subjectively, I cannot fake it. It has to be real, and I have to give of myself totally.

“But when you do it, you really realize who you are.”

Sutton defended her dissertation in October and received her Ph.D. in December.

“Honest and receptive, you must let yourself sink into an abyss and collapse,” she explained. “Like a child, an artist must paint without inhibition or morality. Painting must not be disturbed by rational thinking because the unconscious is involved.”

With a new outlook on her art, she looks forward to what’s next in her career.

Sutton’s work has been exhibited internationally and is in a number of private collections in the U.S., Canada, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Australia and the UK. She has a piece on display at the Del Mar Art Center, where she is an active member and past president.

“I love painting because of the freedom,” Sutton said. “It’s open. There’s so many possibilities.”

With her dissertation published, she hopes artists and other creative minds find inspiration from it, as she did from her research.

“I was lucky I didn’t give up,” Sutton said. “I found so many better ways to paint after studying this. It helped me paint better. I know it can help others.”

To read Sutton’s published dissertation, visit

To purchase a copy, visit

For more about Sutton and her work, visit