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Waxing lyrical

An artist inspired by the allure of the Helford River, words by Jilly Easterby

From Saturday 25th May to Sunday 2nd June, hundreds of Cornish creatives will throw open the doors of their studios and workshops to showcase their skills, peel back their layers of process and share their stories through Open Studios Cornwall, inviting us on a journey of self-discovery that inspires ideas and stimulates the senses.

As we emerge into the light after the darkness of winter and seek out the distinctive orange Os that denote these intriguing spaces – from Mullion to Millbrook and Lamorna to Looe – this popular annual event heralds a cultural awakening as we engage in conversation, dive deep into the human psyche, open our eyes to new worlds, explore the ambit of art forms and embrace the power of creativity to ease the mind and mitigate the relentless pace of modern life.

From painting to pottery and woodturning to weaving, in potting sheds and piggeries, chapels and courtyards, Open Studios Cornwall allows us to view familiar destinations afresh, explore places that we have never visited before and purchase original art and design, direct from a myriad of makers.

A creative life can be a lonely life, with only a ticking clock and a whistling kettle for company during hours spent engaged in artistic pursuit. This year, several clusters have emerged, energised by a spirit of community and collaboration.

One such cluster is the Helford Artists Collective, in Mawnan Smith, which includes six female artists with a shared passion for their local landscape, who work in a variety of mediums, underpinned by mutual support, and have created an Open Studios Cornwall art trail for visitors to follow.

Oil and cold wax artist, Sophie Velzian, paints serene seascapes and alluring abstracts inspired by the eponymous river.

Whether it is the velvet verdancy of moss at the water’s edge; the brooding skies that declare an imminent deluge or the tangerine blush of a new day, Sophie captures the incandescent light of the Helford River through her expressive use of paint.

A smear of neon pink foretells a summer dawn. A pop of gorse yellow explodes like a rocket from the hedgerows. A vibrant dash of violet imbues the shoreline with a purple haze. The limey zing of lichen illuminates a craggy outcrop. These bold accents combine with moody hues and muted tones to evoke this magical place in all its guises.

“The ebb and flow of the river fascinates me,” Sophie explains. “The sinuous currents offer reflections and shadows, unlike open water, that make interesting shapes, particularly at the beginning and the end of the day.  The way that water seems so alive, how it glows and wraps itself around objects, is something I love to paint. There are no people in my paintings, but they are teeming with life, the life of the river and the life that it supports.”

Her work brims with the poetry of place and the language of light. Grebe. Glendurgan. Gweek. Porthgwidden. Polwheveral. Port Navas. Luminous. Translucent. Shimmer. Sparkle. The preternatural pink of first light. The bubbling cry of the curlew. The muffled quiet of secret creeks.

Sophie has long been inspired by those masters of light and atmosphere, Monet, Turner and Cézanne. After graduating with a First Class Honours degree from the Slade School of Art, a career in user experience design preceded the revival of her interest in painting seascapes while sailing around the west coast of Scotland.

“I always wanted to be an artist when I was young. I had an amazing art teacher at school who introduced me to Peter Lanyon and his abstract landscapes. My tutor at the Slade was the great Phyllida Barlow, who created imposing installations and encouraged audiences to walk around and through them. I still feel their influence in my work today.”

Ever eager to challenge and develop her artistic voice, Sophie has recently been accepted onto the year-long Professional Landscape Artist programme at the renowned Newlyn School of Art. “To be mentored by some of Cornwall’s leading contemporary artists and explore the rugged environs of West Penwith is an opportunity that I shall relish and learn much from. Like the Helford, it is a terrain with an inherent sense of Cornish past. Archaeology has long piqued my interest and I think the scenes I paint and the way I apply pigment are all about revealing layers of history and a strong sense of place.”

Sophie was also drawn to water as a child. On visits to the seaside, that first glimpse of the sea always made her feel joyful and alive. “I always wanted to live by the sea and Cornwall felt like the place I needed to be.”

In 2020, Sophie and her husband made the life changing decision to make their home in the county.  With its sailing waters, thriving creative community and vibrancy during the winter months, Falmouth ticked many boxes as a place to live, but could they find a way of relinquishing their corporate lives in order to settle so far west?

The answer was resoundingly affirmative as they were drawn to a house on the banks of the Helford River where, in a purpose-built studio close to the water, Sophie paints her creek scenes from the heart. Here, the river is calm and clear; the rocky coves with shingle shores that crunch underfoot are studded with Monterey pine trees that tower majestically against the sky in the peaceful solitude.

“I am out on the Helford beaches every day with my rescue dog, Cassie, either taking early morning walks or bathing in the clear, cold water. Swimming in the winter has many benefits but for me, being able to swim at sunrise without having to wake too early is incredibly special. The kaleidoscope of colour and light overhead, and experiencing a new day in the moment, when the sun peeps over the horizon, is exhilarating.

“I am not afraid to immerse myself in weather either and translate its essence onto paper – the milky greens and graphite greys; the hazy hues of daybreak. The semi-abstract skies. The light fantastic,” Sophie adds. “Cornwall gets under your skin and I am in deep.”

Armed with photographs and the charcoal scratches she has etched in her sketchbook whilst perched on a rocky ledge, Sophie returns to her light-filled studio where she turns alchemist, mixing richly pigmented oil paints and cold wax into a soft paste, building up layers over time and cutting in with drips of solvent to create her signature droplets, like raindrops, which then exposes the colour beneath.

Using Arches Huile paper, which fully absorbs the colours while allowing the paint to remain on the surface, Sophie explores different effects, applying thin glazes with a roller to achieve a translucent chalkiness, or a coat of wax, buffed to a sheen, to seal, soften and smooth. “The wax looks cloudy but dries clear. It also accelerates the drying time – it is touch dry within a few hours – so I can build up layers of pigment more quickly, and that adds a shimmering quality of light. This technique also adds texture, which helps to create a sense of history in the painting and the passage of its development.”

From the titles of her paintings, it is clear to see that Sophie’s aim to convey the essence and emotion of the places she paints is elegantly realised, and that she finds immense joy in her surroundings. ‘Call of the Creek’ elicits moody winter dawns and dusks, and the sense of travelling back in time as the river narrows, the riverbank closes in, and the ancient woodland encroaches. ‘Polgwidden Tidelines’ relates to the original Cornish name for the beach that lies at the foot of Trebah Garden, the gentle patterns carved on the shingly beach by the winter tides and the tantalising turquoise of the Helford waters. “When the skies are resolutely overcast, the river still glows, uplifting the spirit. I actually love the time of year when winter turns to spring and draw energy from ‘finding the still,’ when blossoms are emerging on the magnolia trees, spring bulbs are starting to show and the soft light is lengthening each day.”

‘River of Life’ is inspired by the imminent arrival of spring and that spirit of new life on a sunny day where everything is sparkling and alive. The view is of Scott’s Quay where tidal arcs and shapes, either as waves on the beach or lines etched by the receding water mark the inevitable passage of time and provide an everyday element of constancy. ‘Sunbeams and Showers’ is a favourite vista and walk, where the creek snakes behind the trees to join the main river and wading birds, throng in the shallows: whimbrels, herons and redshanks. “The light on this particular day was beautiful – one minute, sun, the next, heavy showers which you could watch travelling up the creek, creating a soft haze of sunbeams.

“Painting is, and always has been, my first love in art. I love painting both expressive and semi-abstract landscapes, and the colours of half-light at the hour in the morning when the day is yet to decide what the weather will be make my heart leap. I am equally obsessed with the shimmer as the light fades and the subtle tapestry of colours it creates in the water and sky.”

This languid landscape, which has inspired so many writers and artists, is reflected in Sophie’s work as she encapsulates its subtle hues and textures at all times of the day and year. Evocative, ethereal, sensory.

“Trees crowd thickly and darkly to the water’s edge, the moss is succulent and green… the mouth of the creek… there is something of a mystery about it, even now, something of an enchantment,” wrote Daphne du Maurier in Frenchman’s Creek.

As Daphne du Maurier painted with words so Sophie Velzian manifests the enchantment of this majestic estuary with her oils, adroitly capturing this uniquely special watercourse in its beguiling and eternal beauty.

For further information about Open Studios Cornwall, and how to visit Sophie Velzian’s’ studio, the Helford Artists Collective and the hundreds of artists, designers and makers who are participating in this year’s event, visit

Sophie will also be exhibiting her work at Coast Colour Canvas in St Keverne from 27th July to 2nd August 2024.


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