I’m a swimmer and a figurative painter. For years I have wanted to paint the transformative nature of swimming—not the meditative quality of water—but the sense of strength that comes from the physical practice of swimming.
Painting this transformative feeling was intimidating, and I didn’t have good visual references. I took photos and videos at my niece’s swim meet in Texas, but they did not show many racially diverse people. I did not want to only portray white swimmers. Living in Atlanta, I was aware the Black community had been denied access to swimming pools in the past, and this tragically carried over into generations who couldn’t swim. Now this dynamic was actively being changed, and I wanted to make sure this was evident in my paintings.
I’m on a master’s swim team, and in late 2019 I asked the coach if I could attend a high school meet and take photos, explaining they would be inspiration for paintings. She said a meet was coming up that weekend, so I went to a pool in southeast Atlanta with my old DSLR camera. The meet was at an indoor pool with harsh lighting coming from all angles. Despite the bad lighting, I had a few good action shots and rough sketches.
I started painting the series last year in 2020. My first attempts were painting from photos. I ruined several canvases this way. I was documenting swim meets but not capturing the spirit of transformation.
After a couple of failed paintings, I tried doing quick loose sketches, trusting my imagination a bit more.
I posted this shot on Instagram, and a friend bought the one of the diver. It was my favorite, and I decided to scale it up to a large size, 40 inches wide by 30 inches tall, hoping to keep a sense of playfulness but making a powerful statement at a larger size.
I started the initial composition intuitively, with splashy watered-down acrylic paint. I then blocked in the diver and felt it was in a good enough place to show a painting critique group I’m in. The feedback was positive, especially around the feeling of movement, but there was confusion over the diver’s arm. It is coming right toward the viewer and is really foreshortened.
Unfortunately my reference photo was blurred and not helpful. I painted and painted over the arm until the painting looked completely dead to me.
I was ready to give up but was in too deep (so many water metaphors). I bought a new canvas. Despite the drudgery involved I knew this was the right thing to do: I started over.
I studied dramatically foreshortened arms, from Michelangelo’s figures in the Sistine chapel to Spiderman. This helped my knowledge but still didn’t give me the specific information I needed. Because this was right around the COVID lockdowns it was challenging to hire a model. I finally set up a camera with a self-timer and posed myself.
With that, I got the arms right and finished the painting.
The final painting has much abstraction, but that quality may hide how much effort it took: from getting my own references to creating failed paintings. It was a process that spanned several months. I felt like I swam an exhausting long-distance race.
Ultimately though, I was happy with the end result. The diver’s outstretched body and arms communicate a sense of power and freedom. I also gained confidence that I can make my ideas work, even if they’re hard. After this painting, a new mantra came into my art practice: I’m a strong swimmer, and I will get to the other side.
Jessica Cook creates figurative paintings to move beyond first impressions and empathize with others. At the University of Texas in Austin, she earned degrees in English and Advertising that led her to careers in teaching and communications. But she recognized her need for creative expression and, while still working full time, she took up her pencil and paints and began a disciplined practice of life drawing sessions and a daily visual journal of everyday life. To further her art studies, Jessica worked with several outstanding and inspirational teachers.
Using lively brushwork and bold color, Jessica paints in oil and watermedia, creating expressive figurative scenes. Now living in Atlanta, Georgia, both the people and the nature surrounding the city are an inspiration. Her paintings hang in collections across the country.