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Underwater Themes - oil paintings by Patsy McArthur

Posted on Fri 29 Jan 2016

Growing up in Aberdeen, Patsy McArthur always knew she wanted to be an artist. ‘From the age of seven or eight, I wanted to be an artist. I wobbled a bit in high school, but ultimately when it came to making decisions about higher education, I really just wanted to go to art college.’ She took a BA (Hons) in Fine Art at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, and then an MA in European Fine Art at Winchester School of Art in Barcelona.

Otherworld, oil, (80x100cm)

‘The perspective in this painting is the fisheye view, as I call it! I generally have an idea of what I want composition-wise when I go under with the snorkel, so will direct the model a bit beforehand, but it isn't until I get under the surface and look at the figure that I see possible angles or compositions. This just looked like a good perspective, so I took some footage and lots of photos up close and worked on the final composition once back in the studio. The colour is very important in this painting – it's a pretty restricted palette, but there is a nice balance between warm and cool.’


Haunting, atmospheric images of the silent world deep underwater, Patsy's graceful paintings explore the fluid and rhythmic movements of the body suspended in water, where the light is unlike anywhere else on earth and there is no 'land' and 'sky'. While her drawings show soft and subtle tonal gradations, her paintings add the dimension of unusual colour ranges. ‘Although I studied painting at art college, I made only charcoal drawings for many years following my degree, so have only really gone back to painting properly in the last four or five years.

Having been working only in monochrome in the past, I really relish the richness and diversity of oil colour.

Being able to achieve both translucency and opacity with a medium is crucial to painting underwater scenes. My favourite brands are Old Holland and Michael Harding.’

In preparation for her paintings, Patsy makes numerous drawings. ‘I make small ink studies on watercolour paper, a lot of charcoal drawings on Fabriano paper, and have enjoyed making some pastels too over the last couple of years. Whatever medium I'm using, I prefer slightly textured surfaces. The paper I use has a groove, whether it be watercolour paper, drawing paper or pastel paper.’

The Shallows, oil, (80x100cm)

‘I don't find foreshortening difficult – it just seems to come naturally. There is a bright phthalo green acrylic wash as the base in this painting, which helps to give it a real glow. The oils that help it to really sing are the acidic golden green, phthalo green, phthalo turquoise and lemon yellow.’

Strength and liberation

It's always interesting to see an artist's mature style, and fascinating to know how much was conscious effort, and how much a natural evolution. ‘My style has developed organically and is still developing – I suppose consciously, I am now trying to make work that is looser. The human figure has always been central to my work: a result of the strong commitment to figuration in Scottish painting as well as an individual interest in depicting the human being and human concerns. I deal with various themes in my work but in many of the images there is a common feeling of strength and liberation. I've been fascinated by the human figure in movement for years, previously working with free runners, trampolinists and aerial artists – the figure underwater seemed like a natural step to further explore weightlessness and suspension.’

Patsy's underwater themes are original – and not something many artists would tackle because of the difficulties in obtaining primary source material. Her dedication is astonishing. ‘I go down with mask and snorkel and my underwater camera, and often stay in the water for a couple of hours while doing photo shoots. Then I generally make sketches from a number of photos and then progress to the larger drawing or painting from there.’

Back on dry land, it's time to plan compositions. ‘Mostly my compositions are planned, but occasionally happy accidents occur – I think it's good to stay open to change for that reason during the making of a drawing or painting. I'm an extremely messy worker, but attempts to organise/clean up my working habits have never worked. I usually work on one or two paintings at a time, and they're generally from (60x60cm) up to (150x200cm), with most at the (120x100cm) sort of size. I don't like to spend more than four or five days on any painting. If it hasn't worked by then, it generally doesn't happen for me. I find it very difficult to know when I have finished and when to step back from a painting and leave it alone, but I am (slowly!) getting better at it.’

The Ephemeral, oil, (150x190cm)

‘The figures in this painting are in a large outdoor swimming pool. The arches are just the walls of the pool where it meets the bottom and the effect of the water. It is a big painting and took me about five or six days to complete. It's a slightly more complex composition because there are two figures, but they help it in a way, as it makes it easier to describe the space, as one figure is closer to the viewer than the other.’

Under the surface

‘I've long been interested in unusual perspectives – foreshortening has always come pretty naturally to me and the atmosphere emerges from the subject. Underwater scenes have a very particular atmosphere with light only coming from above.

‘I usually start each painting with a wash of Golden acrylic medium, heavily diluted in a colour that I feel nicely underpins the painting – usually something very bright like violet, or golden green or phthalo turquoise, as a light wash can really lend a great glow to my underwater paintings. I try to vary the temperature of these as much as I can. I apply that to the white canvas and leave to dry before progressing with the underpainting in oil. Once dry, I go straight in with oils to sketch out the composition, referring to sketches and block in the basic tonal values with thin paint. I block in dark and mid-tone areas and leave light areas at this stage blank to reveal the acrylic medium below. I work the whole thing up from there. I generally use very big brushes for background areas, which leaves nice blurry areas that depict water fluidly. I tend to work the whole painting up gradually rather than working on bits in order. It stays fresher that way, for me.’

Breakthrough, oil, (60x60cm)

‘The model is wearing a dress and has bare feet. I was using clothed models in Australia a fair bit, as movement of the fabric underwater can be interesting – also to see a clothed figure in the water is unusual and raises more questions. If I use a swimming pool, it has to be outdoors, generally in a warm sunny location as I need strong light from above to get the right amount of light under the surface. Indoor pools don't work for me.’

Future plans

Patsy rarely accepts commissions, preferring 'all the highs and lows of working for myself'. But she does exhibit often, although ‘not as often as I used to. I do a lot of art fairs with my galleries and usually a solo show every couple of years as well as group exhibitions. I'm unsure of where I stand with competitions – on the one hand, they can be great exposure, but ethically many are dubious with high entry fees and the statistical chances of getting your work to the final stage are slim. I've had a couple of successes but many more disappointments. As a professional artist, exhibiting is essential. A solo exhibition particularly is an extremely stressful undertaking on many levels, you are really putting yourself out there, but what a fantastic opportunity to show the world what you're about as an artist and push yourself to the limit.’

What of her future plans? ‘I would like to find a gallery in the US – I think my work would be a great fit for cities like Miami and Los Angeles. I'm always looking for exciting new waters as locations for my paintings – this year it was Australia, but next maybe I'd like to go to the islands of Polynesia!’

Ascension, oil, (80x100cm).

‘I blocked in the figure and worked on the underpainting before building the whole image up in thin layers using Liquin medium to keep the layers thin and quick drying. I used blues, greens and browns – a fair bit of raw umber – and phthalo turquoise with some golden green in there and hints of magenta and violet in the bikini.’

Patsy McArthur studied art in Aberdeen, then spent a productive few months in Florence on a Royal Scottish Academy scholarship. After completing her MA in Barcelona in 2000, she has lived and worked in Australia, Spain and Berlin. She is now based in Brighton and is represented by several galleries, including Lilford Gallery (Canterbury), Blackheath Gallery (London) and Union Gallery (Edinburgh). Included among the many scholarships and awards she has attained are: The Royal Scottish Academy John Kinross Scholarship, The Paisley Art Institute Award and an International Residency at NY Studio Gallery, Manhattan, NYC. See more on Patsy's website

This Masterclass is taken from the March 2016 issue of The Artist

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Underwater Themes - oil paintings by Patsy McArthur


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  • is an awesome piece. Definitely worth all your work! I want to recommend my favorite artists Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frida Kahlo, Roberto Matta Gabino amaya cacho and Pablo Picasso.

    Posted by derek bernahe on Thu 14 Sep 15:43:59