“How did you find art or how did art find you?” In Sara’s case, quite befitting for a former Maths teacher, the starting point can be pinpointed exactly: when she retired from teaching and her family suggested she might take up painting as a hobby. Fast forward to sometime later, and her ‘Fishermen’s huts’ and ‘Thames barge’ are proof of a remarkable turnaround for someone who says she was not artistic at all and could not draw.
Born in Brenchley, Sara Smith went to school in Chislehurst and then moved up to Yorkshire for her teacher training. She taught Maths at Kidbrooke School in London where she enjoyed organising large careers conventions but then retired to raise a family. Eventually, now based in Tenterden, she was coaxed back to teaching at Homewood School. While there, she studied for a degree in Education from Christchurch College, Canterbury, and finally retired from teaching after 17 years.
“Don’t say you can’t draw because you can”
At that juncture, Sara thought her family’s suggestion a good challenge and decided to approach learning to draw and paint in an orderly fashion. First step was attending a class in Folkestone twice a week where she learnt everything from scratch. When she was expected to produce some sketches for her first picture it became quite obvious that she could not draw. Undaunted, Sara went with the class on a watercolour painting holiday and this marked the point at which she realised that she was starting to enjoy herself. Sara then found a more local class and continued to have sessions once a week, learning slowly but surely how to draw and how to use watercolour and acrylic inks. Sara now says: “Don’t say you can’t draw because you can!” It is a matter of persevering.
When Sara sold her first painting at a WoKAG (as WoKAS was then called) exhibition, this gave her confidence to carry on and exhibit her work in other venues in Kent. She sees painting purely as a hobby and selling is secondary. The reason for painting is to be transported into another existence – into a sphere where all the worries of this world don’t exist.
“Items like twigs and feathers are used as a brush”
LOVE OF COLOUR AND DETAIL
Sara has always loved detail and colour. Typical motifs for her are flowers and landscape views or boats, ideally painted en plein air. Her sketchbooks accompany her on all her travels. She has mainly worked with watercolour and acrylic ink but has recently become interested in acrylics. Twigs and feathers or bamboo sticks are used as a brush, and bits of bracken, seedheads, sand and grit feature too in her paintings. Sara does not spend a lot of time on preparation – she sits down with her paints, may draw an outline and then gets started, mainly working wet-in-wet so that the colours merge. The colours used tend to reflect how Sara is feeling. You get the sense that she doesn’t over-analyse her work: for the Thames barge painting she started off drawing some outlines, then painted the water and took the colours of the water as starting point for the boat.
When you ask Sara about who has influenced her she feels it’s been predominantly demonstrations by other artists. She mentions Wendy Jelbert, Jean Haines and Ann Blockley who have all inspired her with their take on watercolour painting.
The Weald of Kent Art Group (as WoKAS was then called) has played a big part in the life of Sara the artist. From the WoKAG/WoKAS perspective, the society has benefitted greatly from Sara’s active support. Soon after joining in 2002 she was helping to organise the outdoor painting sessions and then seamlessly slipped into the role of exhibition organiser (from 2006-2011). Used to organising large careers conventions from her teaching days, Sara tackled the task at WoKAG with love, diligence and enthusiasm. When her husband Gareth was elected Chairman of WoKAG in 2010, Sara agreed to be Vice-Chair to lend support. The benefits of belonging to an artists’ community such as WoKAS are clear for Sara: to learn and be inspired, to meet people and paint together. She feels this is especially useful for new members, whether they are young artists starting out or older painters who have discovered art.
“Painting preserves memories”
WHAT ART MEANS TO ME
The answer to this question would be for Sara: “Painting is part of my life but not the main part of my life.” Painting means getting enjoyment from seeing something that she likes and reproducing it on paper. Far from being just an exercise, it preserves memories of places she has been, flowers and animals she has seen, people she was with at the time. Looking back over her work, there are lots of highlights, each enshrined in a painting. Sara now produces her own range of cards based on her original paintings – another way of bringing back the memories.
“Get good quality paper and paints right from the start”
GO FOR QUALITY
When you ask Sara what she wishes she had known starting out and would like to pass on as advice to fellow artists, the answer comes without hesitation. Get good quality paper and paints right from the start! Her first teacher told her to buy cheap paper and student quality paints and she says she so came to regret that: it meant wasting a lot of time on producing pictures that were no good because the materials did not allow her to fully realize what she wanted to do. Sara now uses 100% cotton paper and likes the Khadi paper with its rougher finish.
These days, a special pleasure that painting affords for Sara is passing the art on to the grandchildren, guiding and motivating them. However, in the time of coronavirus, Sara admits she has not been as productive as she might have been. She has accepted lockdown, she says, but at present the inclination to paint is somewhat lacking. It is probably true to say that we all experience such periods at one time or another and Sara is confident that when the inspiration comes she’ll return to painting. To capture some more precious memories of places visited and shared with other people.
Sara Smith is based in Tenterden.
Gunda Cannon was in conversation with her in February 2021.
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