Sarah Bold won the Landscape/Seascape/Cityscape Award in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with her oil painting Incoming. In her work, Sarah seeks a genuine connection with the landscape surrounding her Scottish island home and studio, pushing herself beyond the comfort zone of the sublime landscape and engaging with the visible realities of climate change. Here, she talks about her daily practice and processes, the challenges of working with fluorescent paint and her early memories of painting in the Australian Outback.
Above image: Sarah Bold in her studio, a converted Nissen hut on the Isle of Skye.
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Sarah: I grew up in rural Australia and have always painted from an early age. Maybe it was the isolation of living remotely that made me learn to amuse myself and so to draw and paint in my spare time. When stuck with ideas I use to draw my own hands or feet. My dad gave me an old paint box of oil paints he had from when he was young and so I used to look at books of Australian landscape painters like Jack Absalom and try and copy the paintings of the Outback. I continued to paint on and off all my life and moved to London in my late twenties. It wasn’t until I had my second child that I went to Wimbledon School of Arts (UAL) University part time and finally studied painting. I absolutely loved it, it was the best thing I ever did, although it was an awakening of how much I still had to learn. After I finished my degree (it took six years part time!) we moved to the Isle of Skye. Although on the map Skye couldn’t be further from Australia, I definitely feel a connection between the two. I think it’s a combination of the big skies, the rugged landscape, the remoteness and the extreme weather.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Sarah: Living on an island you spend a lot of time driving around it. Everything is spread out, nothing is nearby. This is great in the sense it gives me thinking time whilst driving and also lots of opportunities to stop and take photographs. The weather and light here is constantly changing, we are on the west coast and our weather comes in off the Atlantic.
The Highlands and Islands are absolutely stunning and the beauty here never fails to stop me in my tracks. I tend to take loads of photographs of things that might catch my eye, like a certain colour, the lines in the landscape, or how the light hits a particular spot for example, and when back in my studio I will make note sketches to work out the movement of the painting – I guess it’s almost like working out the wind direction within the painting. It can get very windy here! The paintings always evolve from my mind’s eye and are often an amalgamation of the photographs I have taken and the memory and feel of the place. I never paint directly from one photo, the photographs I take are more like prompts or reminders.
I have previously painted many paintings of the Scottish landscape, particularly of winter when it is at its most dramatic. The paintings definitely had a leaning towards the Romantic Sublime as the beauty and the scale of the landscape is so captivating. However I was beginning to feel like I was stagnating and wasn’t sure how long I could keep painting this way.
The Seaweed paintings (Seaweed, Plastic & Detritus) were a push for me to get out of my painting comfort zone and so try to see the landscape around me with a fresh perspective. Rather than look to the immense landscape around me I decided to look at what was right on my doorstep. We’d had a winter of terrible storms and the bay by our house was absolutely deluged with plastic and detritus that had been thrown up from the sea. It was devastating, once I started looking I couldn’t believe the enormity of it, just on our little beach alone. At the same time I had been reading about ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, which refers to a ‘continuous lowering of standards and acceptance of degraded natural ecosystems’, measured from a baseline set by each generation of observation. I thought about how this would apply to our beaches. I see the beach littered with plastic and rubbish – yet my kids see the beach simply as a beach. They see the detritus but this has become their normal, this is how a beach looks within their generation. Beach cleans and picking up plastic waste goes hand in hand with the sea. Within our bay, amongst the tangle of seaweed, plastic and detritus they still see beauty. With the acceptance of each generation resetting the baseline, we slowly lose site of the original environment and what we have truly lost.
The Seaweed paintings were definitely an exploration into trying new techniques and also thinking about the subject matter or narrative. I have always been interested in environmental issues and ecosystems, but it is important to me to have a genuine experience or connection with the landscape that I am painting. Although plastic is topical at the moment, it feels relevant to me and painting because unfortunately it is the reality of what I experience every day, fifty yards from my house. It would be easy and in some ways more appealing, to paint the beautiful lochs and bays without the plastic, and I guess thats what my previous paintings did, but this doesn’t feel truthful to the relationship I am having with the landscape right now, nor reflect the times we are living in.
Clare: What canvas do you favour and which paints do you most enjoy working with?
Sarah: I have really been enjoying working on the smaller paintings of late as this has allowed me to be more experimental without being precious, and to explore more ideas in shorter time periods. I like to use the Jackson’s cradled boards, I love the fluid way the paint moves around on the board, it is a different experience to canvas. I use a mixture of Jackson’s oil paints, Winsor & Newton and Michael Harding – they are beautiful paints, the richness of colour is amazing.
Clare: The fluorescent paint in your work is so striking. Can you tell us about your use of these and do you find they require any different handling compared to non-fluorescent colours?
Sarah: Thanks! I was really mindful of how the plastic on our shores was a mixture of non – landscape colours, yet they somehow blended in. The plastic is like an invasive species, you don’t really notice it until it has infiltrated and taken over. It’s only when you really started looking amongst the seaweed it became apparent what a jumble of multi colour there is and the devastation it is causing. When you live by the coast fluorescent colour also represents a warning. You see it on buoys, boats, life saving equipment, high vis clothing worn by support crews such as the coast guard, mountain rescue etc. It is an artificial colour that leaves an everlasting impression in your mind, much like the plastic that never truly disintegrates.
The fluorescent paint is also difficult to apply, especially when used with oil paint. It is important to think about the layer beneath because if it is too oily the fluorescent won’t adhere and bubbles. I usually have to build up a few thin layers, depending on how intense I want the colour to look.
Clare: Do you have any favourite techniques you employ to get the qualities you seek? Any special mediums/blending tools?
Sarah: Good tunes! Music is really important to me when I paint, it helps me get to that place where you are almost not thinking and just trusting your intuition, then the hours fly by. Apart from that, I have always had a secret yearning to be more of an abstract painter so I am forever telling myself to loosen up – yet I somehow always end up painting figuratively in the end.
On a practical level, when painting I generally start with a coloured ground and then I seem to spend a lot of time applying paint and scraping it off in certain areas to reveal the layers below. I use a mixture of brushes, palette knives and old credit cards. Sometimes I use nails to scratch in marks towards the end. I tend to work in two sizes, either large canvas (120 – 150 cm) or smaller (23 x 30 cm) on board.
Clare: What would you consider is the greatest source of frustration in your creative life and do you have any tried and tested ways of overcoming this challenge?
Sarah: Like most artists I’d imagine, it’s time – trying to carve out not only the studio time but also the thinking time. We have kids, we live on a croft (smallholding of about forty acres) and run a business so its always a bit of a juggle. I try to stick to certain days regularly a week so that’s it clear in my head and so I can start to gather my thoughts prior to going into the studio. We are fortunate to live in an amazing place, it is truly beautiful but we are also a long way from being able to visit galleries and the stimulation of seeing a variety of other artists work. During lockdown a lot of gallery exhibitions became available to view online and this was a great thing for folk who live rurally and don’t always get the opportunity to get to cities.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Sarah: I think my favourite tool is one particular palette knife I use. It has just the right amount of flex. I like the effect it has when I use it to scrape off relatively wet paint.
Clare: Can you tell us about your studio?
Sarah: My studio is on our croft, not far from the house. It’s an old Nissen hut with big windows that look out over a sea loch towards the mountains. It has a lovely big log burner for the winter months, I love it.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Sarah: It jumps around a bit, depending on what happens to fall my way. I’ve always been attracted to abstract painters and also landscape photographers. Painters that I always return to are Andreas Eriksson, Mark Rothko, Gerhard Richter’s landscapes and the Australian artist Fred Williams. I have always loved all of Tacita Dean’s work, she has such an amazing diversity. Recently I have been looking more at Mamma Andersson’s landscapes and the fantastic brushwork and fluidity of Lynette Yiadom Boakye. The photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto will always be a favourite.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Sarah: I like to get all my chores done first thing, (kids to school, then I sometimes have a run, chickens sorted, check the sheep and horses) then grab a coffee and head into the studio. If it’s winter I’ll try and have the fire ready to go even before I do my chores as it takes a little while for the studio to warm up. I’ll put on some music, have a bit of a potter about while I have my coffee and then get stuck in. It’s amazing the way a studio day can unfold. Sometimes you can be so excited to be there and then everything goes pear shaped, then at other times everything just flows and it’s like you have been handed a beautiful gift or moment in time from out of nowhere. That’s what it’s all about. Obviously not all moments in the studio can be like that, otherwise they wouldn’t be special, but it certainly is the thing I love about painting. I think a good day is when you’re not trying too hard but still trying hard enough. It’s a fine line but I love the immersion of concentration that comes with that, it’s almost like a meditation of sorts.
I try to be mindful of how my mood is when emerging from the studio, particularly if it’s been one of those days that went a bit crappy. It’s hard to not let the painting determine your mood, and so I try to remember that good and bad days are all part of the process – although it is much easier to finish when I’m feeling good about the work!
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Sarah: I have a painting in the John Muir Open exhibition at the moment with North Light Arts in Dunbar. I have a website sarahbold.com and I also post most recent work on Insta @sarahabold. Thank you.