Have oil pastels, will travel

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
October 2023

Steffie Shields is inspired by Grantham artist Sarah Watson’s passion for landscape.

Oakham-born Sarah Watson graduated with a Fine Arts Degree (BA Hons) from De Montfort University, Leicester. She embarked on a 15-year career in the music industry in London before changing course, thanks to an absorbing passion for painting the beauty and dynamism of the natural world she explores. Returning to native roots, she is now based in Gonerby on the outskirts of Grantham.

These past 10 years or so, my husband Mike and I have been privileged to accompany Sarah on day-excursions with an intimate group of other artists. Sometimes we venture out to paint quiet, local countryside. Occasionally she organises a trip, to the most stunning and diverse areas of the UK and beyond.

We have both benefitted first-hand from her advice and demonstrations, but also enjoyed watching her hone her distinctive, abstract style of landscape painting. The immediacy of any given setting is always her starting point and inspiration.

Readers may be familiar with her wild and vivid works (see www.sarahwatsonfineart.com). Sarah won the Creative Leicestershire Prize in the 2014 Rutland Open Exhibition. She also featured on the Sky Arts TV show Landscape Artist of the Year 2016 and exhibited at the Guildhall in Grantham, and various other venues, including London and the Lake District. Most recently, she landed first place in ‘Art in the Barn’, the prestigious Lincolnshire Artists’ Society Spring Group Exhibition in the Barn Gallery at Doddington Hall.

Solo show exhibits
This October, Sarah is delighted to exhibit her most recent paintings in her fifth solo show, Iceland Landscapes, this time at Gallery 6, Newark. She explains: “The coastline on the south coast of Iceland was the most alien, dramatic and just plain beautiful I had ever experienced.”

Since that amazing trip, she has been striving to paint icebergs that she was able to observe close-up aboard a boat on the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in addition to neighbouring black sands and glittering, giant chunks of ice on Diamond Beach.

Finding herself so smitten, Sarah made the decision, there and then, to dedicate the next 12 months towards trying to portray, back home in her studio, what she felt in that moment. Of course, she realised this meant completely changing her exclusively ‘en plein air’ methods of working.

Outdoor inspiration
Sarah’s art class students, a friendly, loyal crowd, are well-used to witnessing her sitting flat on the ground. Typically, Sarah chooses her spot and spreads out a blanket. She lays out a chosen colour of paper or canvas before spilling out from her rucksack a rainbow range of oil pastels, easy to transport in plastic tubs.

She spends considerable time contemplating and surveying her chosen vista before determining which colour pastel sticks would best convey the scene and, more importantly, its effect on her feelings. She lines up rags to blend colours and various hard-edged tools to score the surface. Sometimes kneeling, mostly sitting, leaning forward, legs stretched out, or cross-legged, intentionally seeking to become part of the landscape. Her bare hands, the tips of her fingers, and often the side of her palms, are her most valuable tools, sweeping and smudging across the surface of the paper.

Occasionally, an out-of-date bank card or a forefinger nail will groove out delicate, leading lines or scratch hurried zigzags to change or roughen the texture.

Often when painting alone, she listens to vibrant music to heighten her mood, to focus her concentration and literally lose herself in the remembered experience.

Since her extraordinary Iceland expedition, Sarah has lived and breathed the exhilarating visual experience of those icebergs. Of course, forced to work from photographs, mostly a technique she prefers to avoid, she realised those select images were invaluable. “They allowed me to explore ways to replicate individual, almost mammalian forms of the icebergs, streaked with the history of their gradual formation.”

Visual excitement
Barren landscapes can prove exciting to explore. Special sense of space hangs on so many factors: the location of the country, its geology and topology, its plant life and highly significant seasonal circumstances of temperature and light. Depending on the climate, and earliness or lateness of the hour, Sarah finds herself in thrall to constantly changing colours and changing skies. One-off, heightened moments of visual excitement are exactly what drives Sarah’s creativity.

Her paintings engage from the word go. Many feature oil pastels, her favourite medium. An attractive, russet orange foreground beside the tranquil river, On the Road to Jökulsárlón immediately draws the onlooker in to the still calm before an impending storm.

The eye darts next to the misted summit of distant, brooding heights beyond, overshadowed in a darkening maelstrom of swirling Turneresque cloud. At the Jökulsárlón Lagoon demonstrates of discovering, thankfully under blue skies, an awesome monumentality of nature’s ice sculpture handiwork.

Haukadalur Geysers in the Rain is a tour de force. One can sense steam rising from the hot waters and drawing a veil over the land. In complete contrast there is Diamond Beach, a study of light bouncing off broken and jagged rocks of ice stranded on the dark shore, and captured in the fascinating froth of the incoming surf and chilly, restless waves.

Working in the cosy warmth of her studio gave Sarah the opportunity to spend long hours experimenting, as for instance in All the Colours of the Iceberg. Expressive mark making in oils successfully conveys the scale of icebergs, their magnificent, frozen bulk and strange, wintry ‘otherness’. Later, labouring in linocut, she endeavours to highlight a changing, fragile world, in their shapeshifting and breaking away from the glacier. Sarah uses dark soluble graphite and translucent pinks to conjure up stark, volcanic marks in icebergs.

In response to a wide range of emotions that surface, her work is sometimes almost completely abstracted, although the form is still held. Might there be slight touches of fear and vulnerability expressed in her seemingly uncomplicated work – Iceberg (pink and black) – a woman alone in a precarious environment?

In contrast, Iceberg Pair in oils is far from threatening. Cool shades of blue and green pastel capture an air of freezing cold yet gentle space under an azure sky. Charming touches of purple and violet, reflected in the ripples of the water, add depth to the iceberg’s ‘Ice maiden’ dress, and at the same time lend an intriguing air of mystery.

Sarah’s paintings make us think and look again. She frees up our imagination. By channelling her immediate emotional response to any given wild location, she shares, and we are able to detect, that frisson of joy and freedom.

How precious is our planet? The immediacy of Sarah’s sensational landscapes lends excitement and drama. Here are incredible and uplifting, breathing spaces.

This committed artist is definitely going places!

Sarah Watson’s solo show ‘Iceland Landscapes’ will be open 4th-28th October at Gallery 6, 6 Stodman Street, Newark on Trent NG24 1AN

Never miss a copy!

Big savings when you take out a subscription.

VOTE FOR YOUR FAVOURITE IN THE CATEGORY BEST RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR! We need your nominations – Celebrating Lincolnshire’s food, drink and hospitality businesses in our Taste of Excellence Food and Drink Awards 2024. Click here to vote bit.ly/tasteawards2024Closing date for nominations 31st August 2024. ... See MoreSee Less