• Sam Smith

The Big Plunge

Updated: Jul 18


One morning, faced with the perennial question of what to paint, I did a scan of my desk to see if there were any sketches on scraps of paper that might catch my eye, perhaps sparking the inspiration to develop into a full painting. On a wayward scrap of paper, I spied a simple ink sketch I'd done of a Victorian style diver demonstrably perched high up on a board. I liked it but it didn't immediately make me feel like it was worthy of developing into a big work. Taking the time to think through what to paint, I scrolled through Instagram as I arranged my thoughts. While scrolling, an illustration of a diver stood out (diving off things is something I really love doing), then shortly after a swimming pool scene also caught my eye (I also really like swimming pools - they are funny places where people behave weirdly). Seeing both these images in quick succession combined with the original diver sketch, I got that rare feeling that the universe was sign-posting to me very strongly.


With the wind of inspiration behind me, I rolled out a piece of lining paper and began inking in shapes with a brush. I started with the diver. He then got his diving board and a ladder. The pool came next, then I paused, unsure about how to continue. The diving character had such prescience and meaning to me it arrived on the page without doubt. Probably because I felt such identification with the character. I then paused and it wasn't obvious who I should paint next. Naturally I wanted the entire painting to be imbued with the personal relevance and meaning of the diver. Once I realised that this was unrealistic and not all the characters in the scene would be autobiographical, I just started to paint them in, not thinking too hard. The new characters would constitute my observations and experience of others. Where the diver embodies my feelings, the other characters show how I see. Without the pressure of having to express my feelings, these observed characters came out at a hell of a rate. It felt like the flow of my hand was going at such a rate that my mind was unable to keep up. It is a brilliant feeling, as if there was some external energy flowing through my hands.



Once it was finished, I took some time to look at it and let it sink in, knowing that it would make sense in time. The first thing to really stand out was the significance of the diver. For the last three months or so I had the aim to create 20 of the highest quality paintings with a view to presenting them to a gallery or hosting an exhibition. This would be my first show of paintings of my own ideas (I put on a solo show of my cycling paintings in a bike shop in Old Street, London - Look Mum No Hands in 2017 - but these new paintings came from within as opposed to pre-existing subject matter). The difference between presenting my own ideas compared to responding to recreating something real is a big one fore me. It feels a lot more exposing and is quite a scary prospect feeling like I'm laying myself bare for all to judge.


Around this point in time, I was approaching the 20 painting mark - the next painting would be painting number 20 - the finish line that I had been working towards for months. Painting involves working in solitude but with this next paining complete, the goal will have been hit, making the aim shift to the daunting task of presenting my work. The character on the diving board embodied this suspense. I had climbed each rung of the ladder and with everyone watching, the remaining question was whether the diver would dare to jump and would he do while sailing through the air?


Following the success of this painting, and given the significance of the moment, I wanted to see it on a large scale. Below you can see how the painting progressed.


The biggest difference I see between the two images is the sense of space in the second painting. I have a tendency to work under the pressure of feeling like there is no time, and as a result my work has an intensity to it. Sometimes, when this feeling is at a fever pitch, the work I do can be scrambled and completely packed. These paintings often end up in the bin. Similarly, I tend not to sketch ideas out first (there's no time!) but for this painting, I felt like I had room to breathe. Not only by taking time to do a preparatory painting but also the speed and intensity with which I painted the second canvas - I felt calm and was able to take my time. For me, this is a big development and one which I hope can return, if not hang about for longer.


Note: The night before painting this, I had a dream I was climbing a vertical ladder about 40 metres high. It was terrifying but I felt capable of doing it. At the top of the ladder there was an opulent celebration taking place where people were drinking and talking.






Notes: The surreal compartment in the top-right is the indoor pool of the Oasis swimming centre where, as a child, I ran fearlessly into the deep end and jumped right in!


The aeroplane features frequently in my dreams, which I believes symbolises the journey I am undertaking in this lifelong dream of pursuing being an artist working with their own ideas.







I felt like I had perhaps finished at this point but I kept wondering if the diver was right. I didn't really want to change him as I'd already worked hard to get him to this point and felt like it was a successful rendition of a diver. However, something wasn't sitting right - I didn't feel like he expressed what I was feeling at the time. He felt too comical and insignificant. I kept wondering whether I should change him, and the wise words of my old Art teacher, Mr. Bateman, came to mind: "if you have to ask the question of whether it's finished, it's not finished". Bastard.


I took the risk of changing the diver, and it really paid off. From a slightly comical, timid and stationary character, he metamorphosed into a big fat me taking action, wearing my favourite pink speedos.


Further notes: The vases were inspired by a trip to the British museum I'd made a couple of days previously to painting this. The lifeguard is based on my therapist.





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