Out of hours: At the beach with Nell Kerr
April 14, 2021
Cornish artist Nell Kerr evokes the ever-changing spirit of the ocean in paint. From roaring waves to sparkling ripples, her paintings get up close and personal with the surface of the water – exploring how the light interacts with it, how it swells and flows. Nell’s studio sits right next to a stream that feeds into the creeks of the beautiful Helford River, giving her unlimited access to the South Cornwall coast any time the mood takes her.
She downed brushes to tell us about the joys of having the beach to yourself, the hypnotic effect of the sea, and the art of capturing that magical last light, as part of our Out of Hours content series.
When I start a painting, the first thing I look for is the light.
The same scene can be completely changed by the conditions minute to minute, which is what makes living close to the sea so inspiring. The water reflects what is happening around it, meaning it’s different every time you look.
Having the coastline close by brings so many opportunities, whether that’s swimming, surfing, boating, walking the coast paths, or just sitting by the water. I feel incredibly lucky to have the Falmouth Bay and Helford coastline on my doorstep. It really is a beautiful place, with so much variety of landscape.
“The same scene can be completely changed by the conditions minute to minute, which is what makes living close to the sea so inspiring.”
What I love most about Falmouth and Helford is that there’s always something new to see and to notice. It’s in constant flux. Tide, light, weather – it’s an endless resource for paintings.
I spend a lot of time in, on and next to the water. I think we approach life through the prism of our interests, so where some people see a surfable wave, I see a painting opportunity.
Psychologists have studied the human response to natural fractals such as waves, and the evidence suggests that there is a stress-reduction effect that is somehow triggered by a physiological resonance inside the eye. In fact, a 1986 NASA study measured a significant decrease in participants’ stress response when they were viewing fractal images. I think it’s something we can all relate to – who doesn’t love gazing at the sea? It’s hypnotic. I wanted to replicate this effect in my paintings.
Early mornings before the beaches get busy are always an inspiring time, the sun still low in the sky and very few people about. There’s something really special about having a beach to yourself, even if only for a little while. It’s a real privilege.
The evening light here is especially magical. There are fewer people around and often the wind drops and the water takes on a glassy languor that is so beautiful and ethereal.
“There’s something really special about having a beach to yourself, even if only for a little while. It’s a real privilege.”
On a practical level, the surface of water is a challenging subject to study and so provides myriad learning opportunities for me as a painter. I enjoy playing with micro versus macro, and the illusory nature of scaling up the tiny waves that break on the shoreline. I also love the meditative exercise of attempting to capture the light in a way that transports.
My studio sits right next to a stream that feeds into one of the Helford creeks, which is a constant reminder that the river and its beaches are right there whenever I need them.
I usually take photographs and make sketches outdoors and then work from them in my studio. But there is definitely a more immediate quality when working from life that I hope to take advantage of now that the weather is being kinder.
I love being out on the water in our Canadian canoe with my camera to hand. It’s a wonderful way to get really close to the water’s surface much further out from the shore where the water behaves differently. It’s also a really fun and non-intrusive way to explore the coastline and see it from a different perspective.
Immersing myself in the water gets my eyes on a level with the surface, which I love. That experience then informs my work; it’s an effect I enjoy trying to replicate in my paintings.
“The evening light here is especially magical. There are fewer people around and often the wind drops and the water takes on a glassy languor that is so beautiful and ethereal.”
Spending so long gazing at the water, I see lots of seabirds and the occasional seal. Also, dolphins last summer – that felt like a very good sign. Working with the sea has given me a real appreciation for how essential it is that we protect and preserve our precious marine environments.
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