Femme Visuale: Sarah Hull

At the beach? Smile and wave! You just might be in Hull’s next painting.


That bathing suit isn’t the only problem you’ll have on your hands this summer. With Hull’s drone flying overhead, you may have to worry about being immortalized forever in water-soluble oil paints.

“With the drone, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) made regulations where you have to be five miles away from an airport, and you have to have eye contact with it at all times,” Hull corrects my exaggeration of being able to fly a drone anywhere over unsuspecting beach-goers. “It’s been a real learning curve for me. I thought it would be as simple as, ‘I’m going to get this drone and take all of these pictures!’ but I had to do a lot of research and many practice flight simulations before taking flight.”

In the current body of work she started in January, she focuses on beach scenes from a seagull’s-eye view, using the drone more as a reference tool than anything else. Drone exaggerations aside, she creates her reference sketches from life and takes her beach photos another way.

“For these paintings, I’ve been going to a lot of hotels like the Don Cesar and the Sand Pearl. I get up to the top floor to sketch and get reference photos that way, but I am using a lot of different research tools, and then creating a painting with all of that information in mind. The done has helped me most with understanding the topography and geography of the coastline,” Hull says.

She mainly uses the drone to map out and understand how the land moves by observing the curves of the coast where shallow waters dip off into deeper, dark blues.

“When I came across the whole concept, I was actually on a flight home to Tampa. Ironically, I get a little motion sick, so I know I’m going to throw up, but I have to look out the window anyways,” she laughs, “but that’s where it all started.”

Surveillance is always a hot-button topic and as an artist, there’s a lot to be mined in these fertile grounds. Instead of taking the approach of “Big Brother is watching you,” Hull’s main interest here is in perception, which stems from her childhood memory of helping out with her father’s hobby of collecting lobster pots outside of Scituate Harbor, MA.

“I wasn’t always big enough to see over the edge. Growing up over time, it was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t so big and huge.’ I’ve always had this interest in perspective. Things look so different from different points of view. In some ways, I think that relates to the concept of empathy. When you can see something from a different point of view, you can be more understanding,” she says. “I’m also interested in the concept of loneliness in a crowded place, especially with the rise of technology where everywhere you look, someone is on a phone or some electronic gadget. It’s that feeling that a ton of people can be together, but they’re not really together. Often times sitting under an umbrella with my sketch pad and paints, and making notes on my surroundings, people around me don’t even notice me because their heads are tilted down and focused on their phones.”

Even in her previous paintings of donuts and other still life sets (see donut painting in image gallery), Hull showed an interest in playing with different points of view.

“Working with the landscape is a little different because it’s always moving and changing. I really like painting from life better than photographs, and these are really painted from my perception and that has been a fun challenge. I try to study my sketches and reference photos, but I’ve been also using a lot of maps and charts to understand how the land moves, and then putting all of this information together on the canvas to capture my perception of the mood of the beach that day,” she explains.

The beaches you see today aren’t the same as they were even just a year ago; the shape of Florida’s coastline is constantly in flux.

“If you look at some of these topographical maps and isolate a piece of it, it becomes this amazing natural composition. Depending on the weather and how the water moves, the lines don’t always look the same from day to day,” Hull says. “I have a tendency to jump around with subject matter a lot, but I’m trying to stay in this realm for 30 paintings. It’s been good because you have to figure out why you’re interested in what you’re doing after than initial excitement.”

Katherine Bradford’s paintings of swimmers first came to mind when first seeing Hull’s works, but it's apparent who her influences are with Wayne Theibaud and Alice Neel books sprawled across the only clean table in her studio at the Santaella Studios for the Arts.

I see the artist looking to Theibaud for stylistic choices and color palette, but Neel always portrays empathy for the sitters in her paintings; Hull seems to gravitate to this sense of compassion and understanding with her past in nursing. During her undergrad years, she worked as a volunteer at a rape crisis center. This experience led her pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from Johns Hopkins.

“I think those life experiences will probably come up in my art at some point. As a certified nurse midwife, you get to be a part of the happiest part of a family’s life, but sometimes it can be the opposite if someone loses a child in a miscarriage. You’re someone who wasn’t part of their life before that happened, but then you’re the person they feel safe with during that moment—it’s that kind of intimacy. I feel like I learned a lot about empathy during that time," she says.

"I really loved what I did, but there was something missing. I made doodles everywhere all the time, but I think there was an element of fear, or maybe it just wasn’t the right time,” Hull confesses. “When I first started really painting every day, there were a lot of emotions like, ‘How could all of this time go by and not be painting? How could I not do what I love for 20 years?’ As a kid I always knew that I wanted to be an artist, it just took me a while to get there. I’ve come to terms with that, and just embrace the present. I am so grateful for the learning opportunities, mentors, and hard work that have helped me develop into a full-time professional painter.”

I stop to look at one piece sitting on her easel. As a distant spectator, we are outcast from the action on the beach, leaving a sense of longing to be a part of it. The multicolored umbrellas serve as a mask to hide the beachgoers, adding anonymity to them.

The warped perspective in another painting stops the viewer from reading the image so quickly because something is off: part of the painting has an aerial perspective, while the other part is a lower perspective since you can peer under some of the umbrellas.

“The more I look at that piece, I’m reminded about what Columbus said about the world not being flat. It’s interesting because we really do think and see ‘flat.’ The capability to see something and draw it as it is doesn’t interest me as much as catching the moment and emotion, so there’s a lot about perspective that can change with perception, and there's a bit of fun in that,” Hull says.

Since these are very new works and thoughts for Hull, sometimes she has a hard time concentrating on one idea (as she has many new ideas that she’s anxious to get on her canvas). To help her focus, she begins her day by doing quick 30 minute paintings.

“After I’m done, I just chuck them or paint over them later. Most of the time I don’t even take a picture of them. It’s been a weird experiment. As much as I love painting, sometimes it’s a challenge to get the creativity flowing, but this warm-up practice has been joyful and fun, and once I get going it’s all good,” Hull chuckles. “Knowing I’m not going to do anything with these pieces is really refreshing.”

Once she gets warmed up, she’s able to really get in there.

“I’m a tactile, get-in-there kind of artist. Sometimes I leave the studio with paint in my hair. I come in and feel like I’m having a sword fight with the painting,” the painter says with a laugh. “The physical movement of it is just so fun  — but sometimes it looks like a hurricane came through my studio.”

Now that Hull has been working on these series for about 6 months, she’s starting to shift focus in her work by exploring different palettes as weather and season conditions change.

“A lot of my images are sunnier, happier days, but it does rain here. There are some not-so-pretty—or maybe just different elements—that I’m excited to explore, so that’s the direction I’m taking it,” she says.

Rain or shine, Hull’s compassion for her subject matter never ceases.

To see more of Sarah Hull’s work, visit sarahhullart.com

Urban Dictionary defines Femme Fatale as “a woman with both intelligence and sex appeal that uses these skills to manipulate poor helpless men into doing what she wants. May cause death.” Keeping in line with this concept, the women highlighted in Caitlin Albritton's "Femme Visuale" series aims to highlight local women artists and show off some lesser-known talent that's been hiding in the shadows. In the art world, if it ain't big and loud, it ain't being seen (looking at you, Koons). Art as a grand spectacle leaves little room for modest, sincere, or quiet voices, especially women's voices. And I promise, we won’t bite.

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