Words by Lowenna Merritt
Gemma Lessinger is a painter in awe of the ever-changing nature of the ocean.
'Breaking on the Rocks'
The ridged textures, bold colours and fluid swirls of Gemma Lessinger’s paintings appear to be a homage to the ocean, and my conversation with the artist herself about her love for the sea confirms this idea. After growing up in Berkshire, Gemma’s holidays to the Cornish coastline, with her husband, became increasingly harder to return home from. Eventually, a strong admiration of the ocean was what tempted her to stay for good. This sense of marvel is what is most striking about her work – each piece brings the ocean to life in a textured myriad of colour that almost appears to move around on the page. And this seems to have been Gemma’s intention, especially during lockdown. Living just out of walking distance from the sea, Gemma tells me of the need she felt to feel near to the coast. Working from whatever images she had on her phone of the sea was how she reignited her love for painting and brought the ocean to life in her own home during the weeks of isolation.
Gemma details to me her journey with creating artwork. After studying art and design in college, her painting temporarily took a backbench as she branched off into fashion.
“I have always loved art,” she tells me. “I remember being little and the only thing that would keep me quiet was painting and drawing.” This passion returned with her move to Cornwall and, since lockdown, her artistic career has snowballed. “I don’t know how I forgot how much I love doing it.”
Her work is all about the ocean. It depicts the sea’s fascinating ability to change every day with the lighting, weather and seasons, being an ever-altering source of power. In Gemma’s paintings, the visible strokes of the paintbrush mirror cascading waves and ripples of water, whilst the flicks of paint replicate salty sea spray. One of the most distinct elements of her work is the texture – layers of paint form a thick crust mimicking a sand dune or a breaking wave barrel. Yet paint alone is not all that is layered onto her dazzling canvases. “Since the start I was really focused on texture – on the shorelines you’ve got the waves, the sand, the dunes and the sand ridges, and I didn’t feel that the acrylic was giving me that kind of texture”. Gemma details how she began using sea salt and mixing it in to create the texture of the waves, and then progressed to using real sand to emulate the sand dunes. “Depending on how heavy you build the layers, it creates the most amazing depth,” Gemma details, and this is indisputable.
'Rock Beach' left, 'Daymer Bay Shoreline' right.
Every piece looks and feels like a mini beach scene. Her inclusion of actual elements of the beach adds a personal touch, too, as having one of these paintings in your home must feel as though you have your own little bit of the coastline to keep. Keeping things natural is key to Gemma’s work and her ethos. “I would love to work with natural paints. I tried that in lockdown and made my own paints with plants from the garden, but you can’t get the same breadth of colours. But I like that the sand and the salt is natural.” As a member of Surfers Against Sewage, Gemma donates a certain percentage of every painting sold and supports them monthly. “I realised very quickly how precious the ocean is, and that it is being damaged, and that we aren’t helping to look after it. And it is so vital for us. I just want it to be known that we’ve got to look after it.” Gemma refuses to celebrate the ocean without raising awareness of its need for conservation and protection. “Every little thing helps, even picking litter up from the beach…such a small thing really will make a difference. If everyone does that, we are heading in the right direction.”
'The Power of Polzeath'
Perspective is another fascinating element of Gemma’s work. The angle you view the ocean from alters it entirely, and Gemma’s paintings play with this. Whilst some position you as almost amongst the waves, looking at the curve of a breaking wave from side on, others offer an aerial point of view, displaying the vastness of the ocean from above. Working with drone photographers George Stevens and Matt Warren is what inspired Gemma to experiment with bird’s eye view shots. Matt from ‘Kernow From Above’ produces beautiful aerial shot prints of Cornwall, all taken by drone. From above, you see things you wouldn’t usually see – hidden coves, patterns of rocks, the bubble of water behind a breaking wave. “It became apparent,” Gemma says, “that to get what I wanted from locations I needed to have my own drone. So my lovely husband bought me one, and since then I’ve become a bit of a drone addict.” To plan a piece, she will head out to the desired location and take as many photos as needed to get the perfect shot to work from.
Gemma’s latest project is, in her words, “a big one”, a collection for St Enodoc Hotel in Rock. “I love Rock and Polzeath and work there during my day job,” explains Gemma. “I look at it on a daily basis so for me it was really exciting to do a body of work based on the section of the shoreline from Polzeath to Rock. It’s so beautiful and varied, you’ve got Polzeath which is powerful and fierce, and the further you get around the coast path it gets calmer and calmer.” The selection of paintings will be on display in the hotel for people to buy and will encapsulate the different moods and atmospheres along this short, fascinating stretch of coastline.
'The Estuary, Padstow' left, 'Perran Shoreline' right.
Gemma is also working on a commission project for a wedding, she tells me, creating artwork for the wedding stationery with an original painting of Porth – where the couple got engaged. She is also working on a plan for the reception, with each table featuring a different shoreline painting. Woven within the fabric of each of her pieces is authenticity, thoughtfulness and a personal touch. Projects such as these really set Gemma apart.
Beyond creating fantastic pieces for sale, painting offers an abundance of wellbeing benefits, which I ask Gemma about. “Lockdown was such a weird time, it made me stop and realise how busy I was, and how I wasn’t taking any time for myself. So even now I’m back to my day job, painting helps me to switch off after. It’s very calming, if you’re stressed it helps you to release that. I have days where I’m a bit stressed, so to be able to release that onto a painting is really cathartic. If you can’t get it out in words, just put it onto canvas or paper.” Indeed, the blue tones and sweeping curves of Gemma’s work are immensely relaxing and creating such emotive pieces of work must be a release in itself. I ask her, should art be something everyone should try? “Definitely. People say ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I can’t paint’ and I say just give it a try – don’t let the white paper daunt you, don’t let the thought of what it should be daunt you, just do something and see what happens. There are no rules, no good or bad, but what surprises me is that a lot of people think art is restricted, that it has to be fine art. This is what I want to help people realise, I studied art, but I was not a fine artist in any shape or form. I do it because I love it.”
And this is what I take from Gemma’s work overall – a love and admiration for the ocean itself, Cornwall, and self-care. Through stunning colours and playful textures, Gemma creates an incentive to look after the ocean, and the self.