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Artweeks: A Liquid Palette

Susie Helm is a fresh face in Artweeks this year, and an artist inspired by water (Artweeks Venue 73).

She combines her love of open-water swimming with drawing and painting, using the odd shapes and lighting involved in her aquatic pursuits as inspiration.

“I always loved swimming in the Isles of Scilly during annual family holidays and then some years ago”, Susie recalls. “Before it was trendy, I discovered wetsuits designed specifically for swimmers: swimming in all seasons and all weathers became possible. If I see water, I want to be in it - I think I must have fish genes, I’ve been on swim ‘trekking’ holidays all over Europe where seas, rivers and lakes feel very different. It’s magical to discover a plain of waving kelp stretching into the distance or to spot meandering marine fauna in crystal clear water.”


“I spend lots of time diving down looking up at the light streaming down from above, and underwater the shapes of fish, weeds, ripples and shadows are softened and have a misty quality. There’s also a weightlessness and a timelessness underwater which is almost meditative. In my paintings I am trying to capture that feeling of being surrounded by the water. Each is an amalgamation of moments and places, so there’s a degree of abstraction, although the forms of the swimmers gliding overhead are clear in most of them. The colour palette is wonderful, with greens and aquamarines, azure and dark blues, and there’s a cool yellow that seems to penetrate them and shimmers through almost gold.”

“I also love swimming in rough water too, but I haven’t painted that yet. The power of water is part of its attraction; you’re always apprehensive as you go in because of the cold and the unknown – like weird eddies in the water – so you need to be really careful.”

Caroline Ritson (Venue 431) is another artist inspired by water. Her reflections that depict only the surface of the water are both photorealistic and almost abstract, and have an intriguing allure. “It fascinates me,” Caroline says, “that if you take just part of a reflection and paint it true to what you see, the end result appears such an abstraction.”

Caroline’s passion for capturing reflections began in Amsterdam. “I spent hours sitting by the canals watching the world go by and sketching the changing light. I was fascinated by the way the reflections seemed to capture the essence of the city and the time of day, and then I was looking for the perfect reflection on the surface of the water, to paint,” she explains. “Reflections vary as much as the vistas above – with different shapes and striking colours distorted by the ripples. Venice was golden peaches and orange gold with pinks and purples against the bright blue of sky, Amsterdam had a whiter light, with greys and touches of primary colours framed by the black shadows and inky water where the sun didn’t reach. Buildings are the most striking on the water; their edges are softened the movement of slow flowing water and they reflect, even reimagine, the soul of a city and its dynamism.”

“I’d love to paint London this way, but the tidal Thames moves too fast: a painting would be a kind of furious impressionism rather than a tranquil reflection! I still hope that one day, I might be in the right spot and catch it on the turn when the water stands still momentarily. Fortunately the Thames closer to home flows more smoothly. Even so, to paint Abingdon in this way I had to catch St Helen’s Wharf reflected on a day with no wind and the sun in just the right direction.”

The direction of the sun is equally important to Vital Peeters, a contemporary glass artist in Oxford who creates windows, doors and panels for buildings, and decorative pieces. “It’s funny,” he says, “I grew up in Belgium, which has the richest tradition of glass in the world – there is  Flemish glass in the oldest English churches, and in University College’s chapel too – but I didn’t start working with glass until I was living in the UK.”

“I am totally intrigued by all materials and their different properties,” he continues, “but I’m best known for my glass. I’ve been making glass art for nearly thirty years and I never get bored. There are so many types – a whole kaleidoscope of possibilities. At the moment I’m experimenting with ‘stringers’, straws of glass which can be sculpted into every shape imaginable.”

Vital works with multiple layers of glass and one of his trademarks is the trapping of tiny air bubbles between layers of glass as he fuses them. “I love the way this adds an element of unpredictability to what I’m making and an almost organic quality,” he explains.

“Of course, the real magic of glass happens when you add daylight and there’s this explosion of light and colour as the light fractures into amazing effects. Each bubble catches it differently so with thousands of bubbles, the effect is different every time you move or the light shifts, even slightly – the piece is different every time you look at it. It’s forever changing, like the surface of water.”

“Glass has enchanting qualities,” says Vital, “because it combines colour and texture and as daylight goes through it, it is transformed. I love that transparency, though I do add some opaque elements for contrast and interestingly, there’s a certain half-light at dusk that opaque glass suddenly seems to glow.”

Vital is known for strong striking colours, although not all of his work uses a bold palette. “I recently spent three weeks in China, walking on The Great Wall, seeing the terracotta army and visiting the Forbidden City, and that’s reflected in my latest pieces too. The Chinese colours of red and gold are some of my favourites,” he says, “and dark celestial blue is perennially popular. The colours in each piece charge them with a certain emotion, whether that’s the joy of spring and sunshine in a daffodil-yellow, passionate red or the calm and tranquillity of a water-blues palette.”

“Each year I choose a theme to focus the mind and for some years now it has been the current animal in the Chinese zodiac. Last year I created Roosters, and I’ve made dragons and monkeys in the past too – drawing them and using stone and clay as well as glass. I’m particularly excited this year as it is the Year of the Dog, and I’m a dog lover – I have pointer called Dexter who inspires me every year.”

For Artweeks, Vital invites you to his garden studio (Venue 199). You can also find three fun hanging ‘mad mutant’ monsters by Vital in the giant Sculpture at Kingham exhibition near Chipping Norton (Venue 90).

For further information on these exhibitions and hundreds more throughout May, visit www.artweeks.org