Abi Whitlock asks us to immerse ourselves and escape to calmer waters in her photorealist paintings. For Abi, water offers a place of seclusion, silence and serenity; allowing her thoughts to rise to the surface as she floats weightlessly. From observing the relationship between light and water, she is able to capture psychedelic patterns and colours through paint; enhancing the idea of a distorted reality.
It’s a place of complete seclusion and silence where you can float weightlessly and focus entirely on your own thoughts
Water is a big theme in your work, what does this idea of immersing oneself in water represent for you?
I think the serenity, peacefulness and the feeling of being completely alone when beneath the surface of the water has a really calming effect that appeals to me. The idea of immersing oneself in water is equivalent to entering a different world and a different state of mind; far away from the stress and strains of modern life. It’s a place of complete seclusion and silence where you can float weightlessly and focus entirely on your own thoughts.
The figures depicted in your work are generally positioned near the surface of the water or diving deeper – what is the meaning behind their movements?
I’d say the purpose of placing the figure close to the surface of the water is to emphasise to the observer that although the figure can be seen clearly and seem close, they are actually another world away – separated by the thin expanse of water. It’s almost the equivalent of a glass cage or barrier. The swimmer can be observed by the outside world but cannot be touched or communicated with.
The idea of immersing oneself in water is equivalent to entering a different world and a different state of mind
The figures also appear to be mainly women, is there a reason for this?
Yes, I generally gravitate towards painting women. I have painted men in the past but I prefer a female subject. This is partly because my models are my sisters (and sometimes myself!) so women naturally dominate my work, and because I think it’s empowering to be a female artist who makes women the sole focus of her artwork.
Light and reflection are also prominent in your work – can you tell us more about these elements?
Water and its interplay with light are very important elements in my paintings. I really like to capture the way the light and water interact and create unusual and complex patterns. In my paintings which look down on the pool from above, I focus on the way light reflects through water; altering the way the observer perceives the figure. Colour and shape gets distorted which emphasises the feeling of other-worldliness. In my paintings that feature scenes beneath the surface, I often put an emphasis on the reflections that appear on the water’s under-surface, directly above the swimmer. These often produce psychedelic patterns and colours; enhancing the idea of a distorted reality.
What prompted you to start portraying these scenes? how does your work link to your own life?
Water has always had a massive draw and appeal to me. Right from a young age (before wanting to be an artist) my dream was to become a marine biologist because I loved the underwater world so much. I used to binge watch Blue Planet all the time as a child and that interest in water has stayed with me to this day. I started painting water scenes seriously for the first time soon after I moved down to coastal Devon in 2014. The house was just a short drive away from the beach and there was a local pool nearby so I spent a lot of time swimming in both the pool and the sea in the summer. Those amazing long, summer days spent in the water really inspired me to preserve those memories to look back on during the cold winter months spent indoors!
I think it’s empowering to be a female artist who makes women the sole focus of her artwork
Can you share your creative process with us?
When I start a new painting I generally work from several photographs that I’ve obtained from photoshoots done in summer when the sun is at its highest and the light is most intense. I take elements I like from each of the photos and incorporate them into the painting. Sometimes I’m lucky and I have a perfect photo as is – but that doesn’t happen very often. I generally work solely with acrylics. I start by drawing out the outline of the figure that’s going to be in the painting in pencil. Then I apply a blocky base layer or colour to the canvas. This uses the deepest tones that will be found in the painting and roughly maps out light, shade and generally where everything is going to be in the painting. I then steadily add detail to the painting (starting with the water and leaving the figure until last). I do this by progressively layering up paint, using lighter and lighter colours for each layer. The final element is all the tiny details such as sparkles of light, bubbles and little highlights which I add with my tiniest brush. This is the most important and my favourite part of the painting – and usually takes the longest amount of time. I’m a bit obsessed with details, they really bring the whole thing to life!
How long do you tend to spend on each piece? And is it hard to let go of a piece once it is complete?
I usually spend around 150 – 200 hours on a medium/ large painting (around 80 x 80cm). Obviously smaller canvases take less time. I’d say generally no, they aren’t hard to let go of. I do find I have special favourites, which I am always a little sad to see go, but in most cases once I’ve finished a piece I put it aside and I am just excited to create next work. Each time, I try to make the next piece a little better than the last and that’s what really drives me forward.
What does a typical day creating look like for you?
I get up very early and take my dog for a walk by the river near where I live. This really helps to wake me up and collect my thoughts before I start work; it’s really important for my creativity. I then get back, go to my studio and answer emails and do some admin-y type stuff for an hour or so. I then try to spend the rest of the day solidly painting – up until 5:30pm or so before the light gets dark in the winter. I even eat my lunch and breakfast in front of the canvas as it means I can get back to painting more quickly! In the early evening, after the light is gone, I pack up any artwork I’ve sold ready for delivery to its new home!
For emerging artists or those looking to venture into art, what advice do you have for them?
If I had one piece of advice for emerging artists I’d say: if art is your dream and you know you can find a way to make it work as a living then do it. Don’t be put off by the naysayers who tut about having a career as an artist “not being a real job“. Know that it’s going to be extremely difficult at first and you’re going to have to commit to it and work super hard but it is possible. There will be massive lows and lots of struggle but also massive highs. And when you do make it work, know that it is likely the best decision you will ever make. It really is a dream job.
What are your hopes and dreams as an artist?
My absolute dream would be to have at least one piece of my art in a public collection. That would be absolutely amazing and probably the highlight of my career. However, in times we live in now (smack-bang in the midst of a global pandemic!) I’m thinking I might have to downgrade my dreams a tad. Simply being able to continue doing what I do; supporting myself whilst being able to make and share my art with the world is enough for me!
I’m a bit obsessed with details, they really bring the whole thing to life!
What have you got coming up that we can look out for?
Well as things stand (pandemic-wise) things are rather up in the air! I did have a group exhibition planned in London for April with a wonderful group of very talented female artists. However, this has quite rightly been cancelled due to the situation with COVID-19. As for the rest of the year – who knows! I’m not making any plans as of yet until the Coronavirus situation is over. I am still continuing to post and sell my work online though so you can still see what I’m creating (or even purchase a painting directly if you fancy!) despite the current crazy times we live in!
To view more of Abi’s work: