Ask any artist about their origin story and they’ll probably tell you they started out doing something that seems completely different than what their concentration is now. But the truth of artistic expression is that there’s a lot of overlap between different artistic mediums. Someone who started out doodling in their notebooks might now be a graphic designer or entrenched in the film industry. In Heather Perry’s case, her years of photographic experience came in handy when she decided to pick up the paintbrush.
Heather, who is based in Bath, Maine, specializes in underwater photography, saying she feels happiest in, on, or under the water. She’s never been trained to paint but back in 2006 — when recovering from a lengthy illness — she started dabbling.
In 2006, a dear friend asked if I would do a large painting for his NYC apartment. I was terrified but agreed, and he sent two 4’x6’ canvases to my home. I designed a composition in Photoshop using photos of him and painted the design on one of the canvases. I fell in love with the process.
However, after a full recovery, Heather became busier than ever. With her booming photography career, the second canvas her friend had sent sat untouched in her studio. Fast forward more than a decade to 2020, when the pandemic hit and the sky fell. The painting was picked up once again.
Even as I realized how drastically my photographic career would be impacted, I concurrently knew I was going to paint that canvas. I ordered materials that night and selected one of my underwater photographs to paint.
Of course, Heather was always going to choose her underwater photography as a starting point for this creative endeavor. In a moment that was frightening on so many different levels, she decided to recreate her happy place.
Underwater is where I am most myself and most uninhibited with a camera. Reviewing my underwater photographs has always made me feel the most connected to who I am as a visual artist. It’s where I began my photographic career — I can’t imagine starting a painting career anywhere else.
Heather began painting humbly, with no real aspirations to sell her work. However, in the back of her mind, she hoped that, if she could produce something decent, she might be able to convince someone to commission a painting — maybe even one of the individuals she guided and photographed for SwimVacation.
I hoped [to sell] and, thankfully, wasn’t wrong. When I step back from it, I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to pivot at this moment. I’ve found a way to replace some lost income while keeping close to who I am as a photographer.
Of course, this was no slight pivot. While there’s plenty of overlap in the two visual mediums, painting also requires an entirely different skillset, which Heather was tasked with teaching herself. She chose to use acrylic paints, as they seemed the most forgiving and have a shorter dry time than others.
Painting water is also pretty forgiving. While there are patterns and reason to it, there’s a lot of leeway regarding shape, hue, and texture. I can create the feeling of movement and energy without exactly matching my original photograph, something that’s pretty hard to do with fixed subjects.
Heather’s process is relatively simple: she starts with her favorite images of the person who has commissioned the work. She then examines them differently than before, studying areas of contrast and separation between elements to make sure she can feel confident about reproducing them with paint and brushes.
Great reflections are a real plus, as they add a dynamic element to the painting. Bubbles are a bonus but much harder to get right than you’d think. There is actually a pattern to their apparent randomness: thicker areas with screens of tiny bubbles and areas with larger, glassier bubbles. They taper in size depending on their direction and the action that created them.
Heather chooses a few images with the qualities she needs and then lets the client pick out the final frame. After that, she sets to work, completes the piece, photographs her painting of a photograph, and sends it off to the client.
There is something to be gained with this protracted study of an existing image. The act of capturing a photograph is so swift — fractions of a second — and then I’m on to the next. Painting a photograph on such a large scale can take me anywhere from 40 to 80 hours, which is a long time to re-examine light, composition, and moment (and bubbles!).
Heather describes this deep dive into an image as “almost indulgent,” and is not only grateful for what this endeavor has provided but also excited to see how this experience might inform her photographs yet to come.
This iteration of my work has allowed me to exercise and stretch my creative skills while keeping me close to home. Painting has given me an opportunity to fill this string of confined, ordinary days with color and splash with presence.
See more of Heather Perry’s work on Instagram.