Prize-winning artist Faye Bridgwater seeks inspiration for her paintings on the Sussex coast, spotting birds, beaches and beautiful vistas
Words Caroline Wheater
‘You feel so small in this huge seascape, looking across the shoreline to the horizon and the jagged edge of the sea and the cliffs,’ says artist Faye Bridgwater of the spectacular South Downs that hug her hometown of Brighton & Hove. A non-driver, she loves to walk in these chalk hills, taking the bus to the Seven Sisters coastal path perhaps, or staying local, striding up Race Hill after dropping her children off at school. ‘It has the best view across Brighton, and on a clear day you can see Shoreham and over to the Isle of Wight.’
The Sussex downs, with their smooth, undulating forms and ancient history, are behind most of Faye’s expressive, abstract paintings, executed in a bold palette of acrylic paints, oil pastels, watercolours, pencil, and pen and ink. ‘When you’re out walking, those shapes capture your eye – it may be the curve of a cliff, or a coloured square of a field miles away. Sometimes, I feel my arm moving as I walk, as if capturing the shape of a hill so that I can replicate it on the canvas when I get home. These downland views feed continuously into my work.’
A couple of years ago her palette was dark and moody, but since early 2020, after taking two professional courses on colour, she’s embraced brighter hues – introducing dazzling pinks and yellows, even fluorescents. She makes marks, too, using seabird feathers, driftwood and hag stones (stones with a hole in them, said to have magical powers) that she finds among the flotsam and jetsam of local beaches.
Faye grew up in landlocked Watford, studied sculpture in Sheffield and, after graduating, lived in and around London. She discovered Brighton when she got a job in a local gallery, commuting from the capital. By 2009, she and her husband David decided to relocate to the coast, with their one-year-old daughter, Dotty. ‘I haven’t looked back, my only regret is that I didn’t move here sooner – I’d have had so much fun in those clubs when I was younger!’ she says, laughing.
The family, which now includes son Fred, lives in the hilly Queen’s Park area of Brighton, with an enviable sea view. ‘I’m always running upstairs to look at the sunset, I have to pinch myself that I’m living by the sea, which takes me 13 minutes to walk down to,’ remarks Faye. ‘I didn’t know anyone when I moved here but it’s a really accepting place and now I’m part of this wonderful community – it was a good life choice.’
This community grew hugely a couple of years ago, when Faye set up a Facebook group called Brighton Skies – a forum for people to share photographs of south-coast skyscapes, from Eastbourne to Littlehampton. From tiny beginnings it has now attracted 16,000 members and people post images from dawn to dusk. ‘Brighton Skies is a place to escape to and to feel connected to other people. There’ll be a rainbow, for example, and members will post how it looks from where they are. These images are a huge inspiration to me, and I sometimes make them a starting point for a painting,’ explains Faye.
Now 42 years old and the recipient of two important art prizes in 2020 – the People’s Choice Award in The Derwent Art Prize, and the John Purcell Paper Prize awarded by the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours – Faye feels happier than ever in her own skin. ‘Winning those prizes gave me more confidence and my paintings became more confident as a result, with a bolder, more spontaneous line. At art school it was all quite conceptual and I struggled with the judgement of other artists. Now I feel that fine art expressed in a domestic setting can be beautiful. I’m making a living as an artist, I feel relaxed and I’m enjoying it, and other people like it too.’
The growing popularity of Faye’s art has allowed her to build a garden studio, a homage to Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage at Dungeness, where she paints inside and out on the lawn, when the weather is nice. She describes her creativity as being like the tide, going out, then crashing in again – at the beginning of the first lockdown she found it hard to paint, but within a few months the muse had returned and she created her Summer Collection, a sell out.
‘For me, painting is almost a meditative process – I never know what’s going to come,’ Faye says, explaining how she works on a single collection of canvases all at once, and tends to move quickly between them. ‘I want the brushwork to be spontaneous on every painting, and it gives me the opportunity to be as expressive as I want.’ She may work in a flurry, but her paintings reflect something more peaceful and permanent, the timeless natural beauty of the South Downs coast.
Find out more about Faye's work
• Faye Bridgwater’s Winter Collection of paintings is available now, at prices from £285. View her online gallery and check for details of upcoming shows at fayebridgwater.com.
• A small selection of prints is currently available from King & McGaw in Newhaven, Sussex. To order, call 01273 511942 or go to kingandmcgaw.com.
• Faye’s Studying Murmurations, which won the People’s Choice Award in The Derwent Art Prize 2020, will go on show at gallery@oxo, the exhibition space at Oxo Tower Wharf on London’s South Bank, this year – see website for dates (oxotower.co.uk).
• In 2021, Faye will also be creating some new work for Gallery 94, the shop and art gallery at Glyndebourne, East Sussex, where the famous annual opera festival is held. Browse glyndebourneshop.com to find out more.
Find Brighton Skies on Facebook and Instagram.