‘My work has been such a solace for me, my hope is that I can share with people a sense of vitality in my painting.’

Thick paint the colour of burnt orange and ochre spiral and collide around two nude figures. Their bodies are tightly embraced; intertwined in the shallow waters. Desperately clinging on to each other. Light touches their pale skin though their faces have become blurred in a haze of waxy paint. It is as though they have become one. ‘I Can’t Wait To Hug You’, a new painting by the artist Emily Ponsonby. In this new series, water brings a sense of freedom and a feeling of new possibilities.

Pencil spoke to Emily to hear about her creative process and how dipping into icy waters has become a huge inspiration for her latest paintings. 

When Emily was 16 years old, she developed Polycystic Ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition that affects the regulation of hormones in women. Her love of drawing and experimenting with paint became a hugely supportive practice for her during this time. “The art room became a place of solace. I wanted to hide from the world and spending hour after hour painting was the perfect answer.”

Emily started her training in London at City & Guilds, where she did an art foundation course. She then went to Leith’s School of Art in Edinburgh for three years, working in an old converted chapel by the docks. “My studio was up in the spire which was truly magical. During this time, I learnt the real core basics of painting whether this was priming the canvas, grounding the pigment or mixing the egg yolk. This was followed by a year at the Royal Drawing School where she learnt how important the action of painting is. “It really taught me to appreciate even the smallest, most mundane object and it is the way that you paint it, that brings it’s true essence to life.” 

After working in London, Emily moved to Cape Town and it was during this time she started to experiment with her craft, working with the physicality of clay and practising life modelling. “It was a hugely special experience to see what it was like to be on the other side of the canvas and to understand how disciplined and in tune with your body you have to be in order to stay still for long periods of time.” Emily noticed a real shift in her creative process; she became drawn to painting with an emotive sensitivity rather than focusing on literal representation. “The friends I made in Cape Town taught me to be acutely aware of my feelings and to question every emotion that arose. This triggered a change in my work and gave me the courage to peel away from my representational training. It felt incredibly liberating.”  She began to use the red, earthy soil of South Africa, ink and the freedom of watercolours. “I was playing with the translucency of silk, layering it on canvas, pushing watercolour into it and then blotting parts away. I had no idea how much of the paint would seep through the silk onto the layer below. The materials were in control. As I lifted the silk it would catch the breeze in the studio and bring the figures to life”. 

Since early autumn, Emily has been painting in Tuscany and has been able to focus entirely on her swimming paintings which looks at the relationship between the naked body and the icy depths of the water. “It is the wild side of Tuscany; we are living on the edge of a forest in a farmhouse surrounded by olive trees. When we look outside the window all we can see is green and at night the only sound is the ruffling of the wild boar and the deer.” Her swimming series have been largely influenced by the discovery of an old stone pool at the bottom of the wood where each morning she plunges into the water. “It was built years ago by the villagers to wash their clothes in. One of the flagstones has been built at an angle so that they could rub the clothes with the soap and make the lather.”

Each morning Emily has been plunging beneath the water and responding to this experience in her painting. Thick layers of beeswax and oil cover the canvas so that the viewer becomes completely submersed within the painting. She adds, “I have been really conscious of just feeling the sensation of the water and tapping into my memory more, rather than working with a specific image in front of me. It is such a physical approach to painting; I am using far more the back of a paintbrush or a Stanley knife to create these thick brushstrokes. I want the surface of the painting to feel like the movement of the water.”

During her time in Tuscany, she has really noticed the beauty of simplicity whether this is watching the landscape subtly change from late Autumn to Winter, her routine of morning swims followed by painting or seeing how Italians cook their dishes. “They use such simple and basic ingredients, taking the time and patience to prepare each meal. This is exactly how I want to approach my painting. I don’t want to dilute the canvas with decorations, everything is channelled into one pure emotion.”


Contact for available work. 

Oblivion (2020)
I Can’t Wait To Hug You (2020)

Emily Ponsonby: Painting the nude in water