Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature
Roger Swainston, who didn’t see the ocean until he was nine, sketches for hours on the seabed

The seabed is such a peaceful place, only the bubbles from the air tank disturb my thinking when I’m drawing down there. I’m so caught up in the moment that I never feel vulnerable, although a diver once saw a shark hovering behind me as I sketched. Tiger sharks frequent the waters off Western Australia, where I work, and, although I’ve never seen one while sketching, there are some days when things don’t feel right, so I just pack up and go home.

Sitting on the ocean floor to draw is like meditation. My breathing slows down and it feels as though I’ve become a part of the reef. There are fish all around me, darting in and out while I work beside them. And there are magical moments when normally shy creatures appear from the coral, right in front of my eyes.

I had an unusual path to becoming an artist. I was born in the Cotswolds but my family moved to Australia when I was five. Dad was a farmer and took on a place in the outback. It was incredibly hot and dusty during summer and my primary school was a 30-mile bus ride away. I always carried a sketchbook and liked drawing nature but never had any formal tuition. We lived so far from the coast that I was nine years old when I first saw the sea. Then we went on a camping holiday to the beach and I was hooked. I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life.

After school, I worked on fishing trawlers and then studied zoology at the University of Western Australia in Perth. I was disappointed that marine life didn’t feature more in the course but I left hoping to find ocean-related work. It was a tough time to get any job and I became a volunteer, cataloguing thousands of fish specimens preserved in alcohol at the Western Australian Museum. It took eight months and I thought that was a pretty mean thing to ask me to do. Looking back, however, it offered me a unique insight into Australia’s fish fauna.

Later, I spent many years working on marine survey trips, using my drawing skills to create thousands of illustrations for fish identification guides. Then, in 1991, I moved to France after a holiday there. I was living in Paris when I came up with a proposal for a television documentary: diving to draw a coral reef in the Red Sea.

The film people liked the idea, so I had to find a way to do it. I bought every kind of drawing material I could find, filled my bath with water and started experimenting. The exact method is a bit of a trade secret but involves a sheet of white Perspex attached to plywood, which gives the board buoyancy underwater, and a graphite pencil. I have the same equipment to this day.

In 1996, I moved back to Australia and set up a studio in Fremantle. Since then, I’ve drawn underwater all over the world but now I concentrate on Ningaloo Reef, 800 miles north of Fremantle. I drive up there and camp for five weeks at a time at a place called Coral Bay. I take my boat to the same spot each day, drop anchor and dive down, five to 15m. I don’t like to dive too deep because it restricts how long I can spend underwater. It can be very cold; I’m immobile for long periods so I spend a lot of time shivering. Each drawing takes three to four hours and I can spend up to a month on one small site.

Once I have my detailed drawings, I go back to the studio and transfer them to canvas. I take hundreds of underwater photographs of the coral area but it’s impossible to capture the true colours so a lot of my acrylic painting is from memory. The finished scene will take months to complete. The largest one I’ve done was a commission: it measured 7.2m x 1.5m and sold for A$110,000 (£64,000).

I’m 53 and I hope to carry on painting for the rest of my days. Each time I dive, I see beautiful things that most people never experience. I feel blessed every time I’m down there.

Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article