Looking at Samantha French’s larger-than-life paintings of swimmers submerged in crystal-clear turquoise water, an overwhelming nostalgia sets in. Memories of idyllic summer swims and the scent of suncream come rushing up to the surface – or, in our case, memories of swim-caps, talcum powder and water-logged nostrils.
Either way, Samantha’s paintings are utterly immersive. She tells us: “My paintings first came out of my own reflections and memories of my childhood summers spent in the lakes of Northern Minnesota. We spent nine months of the year dealing with the winter so when the lakes finally thawed and warmed it felt like you had been waiting for a lifetime to dive in.” It’s a feeling that those of us who grew up in the chilly, cloudy UK can certainly relate to.
The paintings hover somewhere between portraiture and abstract chromatic compositions. Samantha says: “I’ve always loved painting the figure. The first water piece was a painting from an old photograph of my mother and aunt at the lake when I was a baby. With this element of nostalgia and these beautiful abstracted qualities of green reflections in the water, I knew I had found something that deeply resonated with me. My early work was slightly more ethereal and less structured than it is now, but the progression to underwater swimmers was organic.”
Samantha attains an incredible level of detail and texture by using her own photographs as visual references, which she renders in a magnified format using oil paints on canvas. The result of this meticulous process is that the water in Samantha’s pictures is so tantalisingly close, the play of light on water and the fizz of rising bubbles of air painted with such precision that you can almost feel the air being expelled from your lungs as you kick to the surface to gasp for air after wowing your pals with a perfect handstand. (You inhaled half the water in the pool in the process but it was worth it.)
Speaking of the huge scale of her works, which are often taller than herself, Samantha says: “There is just something about painting larger than or at life-size. It’s easy to get lost in details but step back and feel the paintings have a real presence.” Up close, the colours begin to feel like a dazzling patchwork or mosaic of interlocking shapes, tessellating out across the canvas. As Samantha notes: “the reflections and refracted light add an abstract quality to the work. Having the figure as a reference point allows me to focus on those abstractions that the reflections in the water provide. You discover how the two things react with one another – how the light bouncing off the skin mimics the ripples in the water.”
For Samantha, painting allows her to inhabit the clear green-blue waters of her summer memories. There is, in the pictures, a sense of serene tranquillity, akin to the calm silence that presses at your ears when you plunge underwater to compete in a breath-holding contest. Samantha reflects: “My paintings frequently represent summer, which is an escape or getaway for people, or mine is at least. A lot of my work is trying to shut everything else out – quieting the chatter and recreating these memories I have of the quiet, weightless feelings of being suspended in water.” The work, with its interplay of light and colour, is completely mesmerising.