Priscilla Watkins

I studied Visual Art at Lancaster Uni in the 80s and then went into magazine design (I was art editor of NME from 1990-1993) but gave it up when I became pregnant in 1998. I have two grown-up children now. Parenthood liberated me from the office and also stimulated me to draw again. I taught myself to oil paint properly at this time and have been selling my work ever since. The first pool painting came from taking pictures of my children in the shallow end of Brockwell Lido on a disposable underwater camera.


Brockwell inspires me. Not just because it’s a beautiful old Art Deco building but that it’s been saved and nurtured and so it always has that slight air of fragility that means we have to carry on caring and looking after it. British cold water Lidos are unique in the world I think. One thing in the summer, for that brief season, and another in winter. I swim right through the year. You do feel slightly nuts going swimming in the snow but it is fantastic and other cold water swimmers are very encouraging and give excellent advice – like wearing two hats – and I have felt the benefits! 

Lido light is also very special. It falls directly onto the water so it has a special intensity and an endless fascination for me, especially when it interacts with the human figure. There is a transcendent quality about it. A real tonic for the soul! I really do try and celebrate those two things, the light and the people. Also, I think London needs spaces where people can connect whatever your age, gender, class, sexual orientation or ethnicity and the Lido has been doing this in South London for years.


I love to paint the figure but I also love to capture the light on and beneath the water – the pattern on the bottom of the pool, the shadows, the rainbow light interrupted by the human presence. For me light is a magical ingredient in painting, particularly oil painting. Light gives depth and drama because when you capture light you also deal in darkness. You cannot have one without the other.


I want my pictures to be full of the joy of colour, sun and cold water. I also want to inspire and move. My figures can seem vulnerable and lonely but also free and floating in space. This gives them emotional resonance. Light and darkness working together. You cannot have one without the other and its combination triggers an emotional response in the brain. Also, the underwater pictures often show a figure from the head down, which for me symbolises the unconscious, that ignored bit of ourselves. It reminds the viewer that they can always be peaceful and themselves, even when it’s noisy up top. I think when you simplify an image to just a figure, light, and water you create a sense of leaving the world behind that can be quite powerful.


With the oil paintings I take photographs first, of models, and work from those. It’s the only way to get the effects that I do. Saying that, the photos I work from can be pretty unpromising, needing a lot of ‘correction’. I work using my hand and my eye, no projectors, and I edit and improvise as I go. As I have got better my style has become looser and more interpretive. I think it has come with confidence and a knowledge of what water does and of the complex patterns on the pool floor. In oils I can really explore the immense subtlety and prismatic quality of the lido light when it hits flesh. I can paint whole rainbows in a single shoulder.


With the watercolour and mixed media paperpools I wanted to find a way of creating swimming art without always using a photo, so I started experimenting with texture and randomly created folds in cartridge paper. Trying to recreate the pattern of light. I then created a figure from my imagination and set it on the painted paper, with its own movement and shadow. It’s a collage really. A marriage. I often make these works as part of a series or in linked pairs. I like to have a character in my head first before I draw and my inspiration comes from the history of art, Hollywood, music, sport (like last years inspirational Coco Gauff), even once a quartet of Victorian novelists. I imagine what they would be like hanging out at the Lido, putting down their towel on Brixton Beach. You never know who’s swimming. 

THIS SEASON’s PAPERPOOLS drew on my love of TV’s Pose (which my daughter brought me to) and the wonderful Warhol exhibition which I saw at Tate. Especially his drag queen portraits. Eva is from a series celebrating Picasso’s people. She appears in his early cubist paintings accompanied my the words Ma Jolie. Also, like many others I had to find other places to swim during lockdown and was inspired to create new wildswimming and seaswimming pools, exploring the different colours, depths and individuals, to be found in open water.

HOW LONG DO THEY TAKE? My large oil paintings often take several months to complete. Collections of paper pools the same, although the individual pieces can come together very quickly.

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