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Time beside the water

Words by Mercedes Smith

Sarah Woods’ new collection captures the wide blue space and tranquil beauty of summer on the Cornish coast.

Sarah Woods was drawn to Cornwall by the vast openness of its landscape. Originally from Liverpool, she came south to study Fine Art at Falmouth University, and has since made Cornwall her home. “It seems a long while ago,” says Sarah, “when I think of a time when I was not living in Cornwall”. During her studies she explored her creativity at a studio on Falmouth’s Wood Lane campus which overlooked the university gardens and the sea, and she spent the holidays exploring the Cornish coast. “Breaks between term time really influenced the direction of my work,” she says. “Just before my graduation I spent a lot of time on west Penwith discovering its coves and beaches and finding a real sense of home here in Cornwall. Some of the paintings from my degree show were displayed at Newlyn Art Gallery, and not too long after that I was offered one of the Porthmeor Studios at Trewarveneth in Newlyn, which is where I have been working for the past few years.”

Artist Sarah Woods at her studio

Like so many artists drawn west over the centuries, Sarah is making work that responds uniquely and subjectively to the landscape, work that, in her case, achieves a pure and perfect translation of Cornwall’s special light, wide spaces and low-key colour. “I think the landscape is something we will always be drawn to,” says Sarah. “There are some parts of the coast that I am drawn to for their feeling of space, and for me there is an easy sense of home – something timeless about the landscape here. In a way the studio is my space of total calm and clarity too, where I can begin working in a way that reflects this in the landscape. As a subject the landscape can be interpreted in so many ways, from an impression in a painting, to the colours or glazes or textures in ceramics. There are so many takes on what landscape means and what it holds – it is unique to each person. Beside the water you become aware of the constant motion of the waves and of your sense of ‘being’, aware that the day comes and goes as the tide rises and falls. Studying the waves brings balance - the water is immediate and grounding, and my time in the studio is a reflection of that. I think there is something considered and gentle about living and working beside the ocean, it feeds into your every day and somehow shapes you. It instils an understanding of ebbs and flows, and I think my practice sits well in that space, in that it is malleable and able to move where inspiration appears.”

Etchings at the studio

This autumn, Sarah is exhibiting at the New Craftsman gallery in St Ives, as the lead artist in their all-important September Festival exhibition. “This is going to be a really beautiful show,” says gallery Director Ylenia Haase. “Sarah’s work is a flawless reflection of the west Cornwall landscape and is part of the progression of landscape painting more widely here, which is becoming more and more about colour and mark. What is special about her work is that it captures not just the visual beauty, but the feeling, the emotion of being beside the vastness of the sea”. The exhibition, titled September Collection, includes both paintings and etchings and focuses on the simple but beautiful shape of the Cornish coastline. “The link between painting and printmaking within my practice is something I often think about,” says Sarah. “In the studio there are elements of my process that weave in and out of both methods, but internally they are very much one – I am taking a vision of tone and shape, looking at the land, sea and sky and using the materials I am most drawn to. To me, painting and printmaking share the process of mark-making and are an immediate way of working by hand. There is a certain amount of method and technique in both, but also freedom and play.” Each work follows the edge of the land, balancing, through simple marks and subtle changes in colour and tone, the topography of the coast against the wide-open space of sea and sky. These simple marks and subtle colours are a distinctive aspect of Sarah’s work. She describes them concisely as ‘minimal observations’ that have a major impact on the viewer. “I find this way of making marks really important to my process,” she says. “Single marks can be seen in my work in the form of repeated lines and brushstrokes, and there is an element in each painting that seems tactile because of this approach.” Also important is the handmade nature of each of her works: “My choice of materials and preparation of the canvas or linen has equal focus to the mixing of colour and the application of paint,” she explains, “– it is slow and intimate. There is a meditation in something slowly made, and I would really like these works to share that feeling of being worked by hand. My studio process shares a connection to the land, sea and coast in that my paintings are created slowly, over time.” Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Sarah’s work is her approach to colour, and her finely tuned palette, which reflect the west Cornwall landscape so well. “My palette is inspired by the times of day I mostly spend along the coast. Morning light over the sea, and slow evenings, are much quieter than the rest of the day and are almost meditative. The process of mixing each colour reflects this time, and I hope the colours I use convey this feeling of space. There are parts of the coast that I am most drawn to and that inspire the colours I use. In the summer, for example, there is a warmth to the rocks and the land, which can seem bleached by the grasses on the cliffs and hilltops near Zennor. These tones are soft and light, yet the texture of the land is often harsh. In a way this inspires my single brushstrokes, which bring texture and movement to a painting that is otherwise so soft and still. I often try looking a little further into the tones of light and dark that influence my drawings and paintings, and I find shades of Naples Yellow and Burnt Umber, or the heavier blues in the land. These subtle changes in colour and tone reveal the distinctive shades you find all along the Cornish coastline.”

‘Last Light, Porthcurno’

‘A Study from the Headland, St Ives’

Sarah’s New Craftsman collection is created from studies of the west Cornwall coast – “from the changing landscape in the summer months, when the colours are soft with warm air and the land is at its most gentle. The sea has a stillness – it is grounding and calm. What I would like people to take away from this collection is the calm and balance which comes from spending time beside the water: the paintings are simple in their form and there is a focus on the immediate. I hope that there is an element of softness, and a language of paint, that comes through my subtle marks.”

Left, ‘Hide Tide, Sennen’, right, ‘Last Light, Sennen’

Left, ‘Newlyn Shore’, right, ‘West Porthmeor’

Left, ‘Zennor Carn’, right, ‘Land from Sennen’

Left, ‘From Low Tide, St Ives’, right, ‘Warm Evening Study, Sennen’

Left, ‘Evening along Porthmeor’, right, Light Evening Sky Porthmeor

See Sarah Woods’ September Collection from 11th September to 2nd October at New Craftsman Gallery, 24 Fore Street, St Ives TR26 1HE


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