“I thought ‘sod you, I’m going to do this'”

18th April 2023 by Imogen in Blog

Sophie Abbott on art, inspiration and the importance of determination.

We’re thrilled to welcome Sophie Abbott to Livingstone St. Ives, and her bold, beautiful seascapes are currently on show at our Clifton gallery. We caught up with her to talk about how she works.

What has been inspiring you recently?

I went to Morocco with my best friend for a relax-and-reboot trip – it felt like it had been a long winter and we decided we needed to do something together. We spent three days in Marrakech and then three days in the Atlas Mountains.  I don’t put any pressure on myself to paint while I’m on holiday, but it always happens. I took my watercolours with me and found myself going up to the roof terrace and painting the sunrise, the rooftops and of course the palm trees. It’s so beautiful out there, and it was really refreshing to get absorbed in a different culture. 

Historically, travel has been a big part of my painting career and I felt like I hadn’t been abroad for a couple of years, so it was so good to go away and absorb a new landscape. I’ve already started painting my Morocco experience. I stretched some big canvases as soon as I got home, and just got on with it.

Sophie Abbott in her studio, Brighton

Can you tell us about your practice? How do you prefer to work?

If I’m travelling, I just take my watercolours because they pack down quite small, and I can get quite a lot of work onto an A4 sketch pad. I take photographs and videos, and also work en plein air, usually I take little canvases with me by the woods or the river, and paint one or two small canvases a day. It’s been a revelation to work in that way, it’s very much about making a painting within a timeframe. I’m trying to capture something – the light, the shape, the form, the colours. I’m just painting in a spontaneous way, trying to capture what’s in front of me. Then that leads into bigger paintings in the future. 

When I start a painting, I have no idea what the end result is going to be. I let the layers build up, wipe them away, add a wash, add massive swathes of colour. The paint can often dictate to me how it wants to be. It’s an intriguing process and one that never gets boring. 

I film myself working and building up the layers within a painting. When people see the finished work, it’s an intriguing insight into how the painting was made. It can be a way of connecting someone to what you’re making, the history of the work. 

Years ago, I wouldn’t have taken a video, it wouldn’t have occurred to me, but I’ve found it really useful to capture the painting process in this way – we live in a 3D world, reality isn’t flat.  It’s also really effective online; somehow if you’ve got a video, demonstrating the process, people make that connection between the 2D painting and the process of creating that piece of work.  It helps me personally with what I’m trying to say and it helps other people understand what I’m trying to do.

Have there been any recent developments in your work that you are excited about?

In the last couple of years, I’ve been working more en plein air. I used to go down to the beach with an artist friend, but now I go into the woods and paint. Lockdown just leant itself to that. If you look at my work, the subject is quite clear: I make these big sunsets and seascapes, but also these smaller and more naturalistic paintings of flora and fauna, woodlands and trees, although they are still abstract in nature. I  make a lot of these smaller paintings that are made outside into bigger canvases in the studio,  they really excite me!  I’m trying to capture a sense of somewhere familiar, a walk in the bluebell woods or down by a river, a blossom tree in Spring. Everyone’s experienced these things, I suppose I’m trying to capture the essence of that landscape in a painting. 

I love the area where I live. In ten minutes I can be by the sea, or ten minutes the other way I can be in the South Downs. I feel really lucky to live here, it’s gorgeous, you have everything you want. You can walk on the hills and swim in the sea. 

You’ve done some amazing collaborations, including designing for glamorous non-alcoholic spirit Amplify, and a hugely sought-after Habitat rug, as well as working on selected private commissions. How does working collaboratively differ from your solo paintings?

There is a definite difference in working to a brief, and there’s a bit more work involved because you have to fulfil the desire of the client. Ultimately, it is a collaborative process, the client has their ideas and you are trying to realise them, but at the end of the day, I have to be proud of what I’ve made and feel that it reflects me. Collaborating with brands is something I’m interested in and seeing my painting made into a wool rug was an amazing experience without any of the stress – I handed over the design and then someone else handled all the production work. 

Can you tell us about your journey into painting?

I got a really bad report for my GCSE and it really spurred me on – I knew I had some ability but I didn’t know quite what that was. I was upset at the time but looking back it was very motivational – I thought, “sod you, I’m going to do this” and completed an Art foundation and then a painting degree in Chichester. I always knew that I loved painting; I can’t imagine my life not doing that. 

I moved to Brighton after the degree because I wanted to live somewhere vibrant. I ran a pub and worked in nightclubs to make ends meet but I always carried on painting. People would buy my work which gave me confidence to continue painting.

Eventually I got a studio in 2005, right on the seafront under the arches. that’s when i really started painting the sea.I painted there until I had my children, and then  once they were at school full time, I thought, “I’ve really got to commit to this and make it work” and it’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Painting is my life, my form of expression. 

I was determined to make it work and for it to be my living. It’s taken a long time and a lot of self belief and determination. It does take a lot of effort; I paint in the day, then I’m often working until late at night on social media, but I always feel like I’m pretty lucky. Sometimes It feels like I’m just at the beginning, every day there’s the potential for something new!   I’m always excited to get to the studio in the morning.  I’m very grateful that this is my life and I’ve created it!

What draws you to St. Ives?

The first time I went I couldn’t get over how beautiful the beaches were –  it felt very islandy, these big expanses of white sand and turquoise sea. I heard that the colour comes from the old copper mines washing onto the seabed, the Verdigris gives it that distinctive clear, bright green-blue. That whole area has always appealed to me, historically we had some family holidays there and I’ve been visiting a dear friend in Penzance recently.  

Patrick Heron is one of my favourite artists, so it was a bit of a pilgrimage for me to go there and visit his house. My friend knows the gardener there so I got a tour around the garden which was a pretty special moment in my life!  There are so many reasons to love that area. Along with that historical link with other artists, there’s something about the remoteness of the location. Perhaps because it’s slightly cut off and you have to make an effort to get there.

You can see all of Sophie’s new paintings on our website here, and look out for her work in Spring Tide, our group exhibition showing in Clifton throughout April 2023.

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