Sophie Abbott is totally obsessed with the sea. ‘I get itchy feet if I don’t see it every day!’ she exclaims in her tiny blue and pink paint-splattered studio, more than making up for her lack of actual sea view by surrounding herself with her many seascape works in progress. The Brighton-based artist, whose paintings can be seen adorning stylish properties on many an interior design show and have even been turned into a rug for Habitat, is in reflective mood as she considers her relationship with salt water. ‘I don’t necessarily have to get in it, but I just want to see it, and there’s something really meditative about having that massive expanse of space open to you.’
How did a native of Leamington Spa – ‘about as far away from the sea as you can get, actually’ – become such a passionate coast dweller? Formative family holidays to Cornwall in the 1980s created a treasure trove of sensory memories to explore later in life, and a chance move to the seaside in Brighton after her degree in Fine Art in Chichester reignited her childhood love of the escapism and freedom of the coast. After a few years in various jobs while painting images of her world travels in her spare time, a move to a seafront studio gave her the epiphany that she could instead paint the immediacy of the ever-changing drama on her doorstep. ‘That was the turning point. I was painting my travels, but seeing the sea every day was having more of an effect on me,’ she says.
SEEKING OUT BEACHES
Although Sophie is now inland, she makes sure she gets her daily quota, and it isn’t just the beach at Brighton that enchants her. She travels frequently to the surrounding beaches, such as Rottingdean, where the rocky shoreline creates different textures and interactions, contrasting with the stark chalk cliffs that start to appear along this stretch of coast. She also returns frequently to her childhood haunt of Cornwall (Marazion and the Isles of Scilly), Devon and Dorset (she’s a particular fan of Eweleaze Farm campsite near Weymouth). It is when she is in the verdigris sea and perfect light of Cornwall that she’s particularly drawn to not just the water and beach, but the sea ephemera that is to be found in different spots: fishing boats and their various ropes and buoys; plastic or glass that has been washed up on shore; the flotsam and jetsam of human interaction with the vastness of the water.
‘Everything’s got a little story,’ she says, looking at a little bit of blue and white crockery that might have come from a ship long ago. Sophie collects these found objects – both natural and man-made – to take back to her studio and will spend time handling them, allowing them to ‘trigger a sensation, a memory’, to tell their story that she can then weave into her paint, as it were.
Making watercolours in the field helps give Sophie the sensual immediacy she thrives on and craves, and will help her to capture colour more effectively than, for example, photographs, she says. Colour for Sophie is of paramount importance and she is known for using a deep, rich blue ‘almost like an infinity plane. I just get lost in it’. She has stacks of beautiful small moments captured in vibrant watercolour, an intrinsic part of her process as they evoke the moment of being by the sea when she is back in her studio. ‘If I was just looking through a load of photos, I might not remember in the same way, but because I painted it I remember certain things that I was thinking at the time,’ she explains.
Watching her paint is mesmerising – find her on Instagram (@sophieabbottartist) where she posts regular short films of herself at work. It is undoubtedly a sensual experience for Sophie. Her whole body is engaged in the act of creating a moment in paint. ‘Painting in itself is quite an absorbing experience, and it’s really physical for me the way I paint,’ she says, and looking at her work it is easy to see why. There is always the sense of fluidity, of change in her seascapes, as if in one minute, if we look away, that rich pink sky will transform again into something else.
She mixes her own acrylic paints and glazes, and is very precise about the selection of colours she uses (including a long-held veto on black) and adds a lot of water to loosen it up. There is an element of control in her work, but also of allowing the marks in her work to ‘emerge’. ‘I’m in control in that way, but I’m not in control of exactly what happens because I don’t want to be. I want it to have a little life of its own and be its own thing.’
For her, the experience of being in the sea is crucial to her multi-layered evocation of those ocean moments. ‘It’s very important to me to get in the sea and be absorbed and immersed in it and have it around me,’ she says. Swimming all year round, she values the revitalising and invigorating quality of the sea in winter, its mutable quality in summer – she can never envisage tiring of the sea.
When swimming, she instantly feels ‘my shoulders drop, like taking a really deep breath’ and does not mind whether the sea is smooth or rough, peaceful or invigorating. She likens it to being cocooned in the womb – a deep and vital connection. It is partly the variety of the experience that makes it so endlessly inspiring and intrinsic to her being as an artist. And it certainly helps her cold-weather swimming that there is a handy beachfront sauna nearby (Beach Box Brighton), which has now become an essential part of Sophie’s autumn and winter routine.
SUNSETS AND ROCKPOOLS
Within her seascapes, she focuses on different aspects of the terrain, where water meets land and air, meaning there is no prospect of ever feeling that she has painted every possible permutation. Recently, the rockpools in Rottingdean drew her attention for some months, inspiring the painting that became that Habitat rug. Some of her paintings ‘are much more based around the feeling of being in the sea and looking back to shore or just surrounded by the sea’. But now, she is drawn inexorably to sunsets. There are numerous examples of these in progress in her studio, vivacious, radiant and profound – the kind of art you can lose your heart to.
And could Sophie ever imagine not living by the sea? A flat ‘no!’ is her response. Her lifelong love affair with the coast will always inspire her to create and give us access to her vision. For anyone not lucky enough to live near the sea themselves or who longs for a sea view, Sophie’s work evokes a strong sense of the space, depth and light to be found at the ocean – like opening up a portal to a new, watery world. Her pieces allow us to imagine ourselves there, stimulating all of our senses. No wonder so many people tell her they ‘just want to dive in’ to her glorious, vivid paintings.
Find Sophie’s work for sale at sophieabbott.co.uk