Oils in untroubled waters

The Broader Picture

The light under the ocean is like no other, says French painter Malvina. Which is why she likes to take her canvas and paints, don her scuba-diving gear, and plunge to depths of up to 35m in the pursuit of her art.

"I've always been a painter - I studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts," she explains. "I started diving for fun, as a sport, and to get closer to nature - and it was a revelation. I come from a suburb of Paris and nothing prepared me for what it would be like. Underwater the light is wonderful, quite different to that on the surface, but I found I forgot what it was like when I returned to dry land. Then I had the inspiration of painting down below the surface."

Before actually taking to the sea bed, Malvina first experimented in the bath, then the swimming pool. She found that painting underwater was less difficult than she had expected: she uses oils, which don't dissolve. "Any technical problems are to do with the diving rather than the painting," she says. One of her main difficulties is the lim-ited amount of time that can be spent underwater. "It depends on the depth," she explains. "At a depth of five metres, you can stay under for two hours, but the deeper you go, the less time you can spend. Once you get down to 35m, you have to work very quickly - so I make sketches that seize the movement of the sea animals. It's actually a good thing to have to work fast. The shapes of the fishes are very simple, but what is difficult is to capture the way that they move, and that is best done very quickly." Weightlessness is another of the advantages of painting underwater: she can position herself at any angle to her subject.

Since starting, Malvina, 40, has worked in the Mediterranean, French Polynesia - where she painted the dolphins of Moorea - and the Red Sea. "I don't have a favourite location - I love them all - but I became particularly attached to the beauty of Polynesia," she says. "Diving there was a really fantastic adventure, because of all the big marine life. The dolphins of Moorea were a great experience, even though the time I spent with them was too short." She has been painting underwater for three years now, and has produced nearly 100 canvases. "The first year was difficult. I had financial problems: painting underwater is expensive, because you have to travel. Now that my work is better-known and selling well, I'm producing more." She currently intends to concentrate on an extensive series of canvasses of shipwrecks, particularly those in the Red Sea. Another current project is a CD-Rom on subaquatic painting.

Even on dry land, Malvina likes to continue the marine theme. "I look at the world from a painter's point of view. Mentally, I draw and paint everything I see. I enjoy doing frescoes - they can include underwater scenes, marine life, the marine landscape and so on."

Some of her most striking images are of sharks. "I love all my subjects, but the shark is particularly extraordinary. You have to overcome the in-built fear of them that you carry within yourself. There are about 350 types of shark and only three or four are really dangerous to humans. Conquering that fear of sharks is a real victory over our own limits, and once you get past the fear you can see how beautiful and perfect they are - then admiration of the purity of their form sets in. Their unique shape and the graceful way they move is a wonder to paint. I like to call them the Ferraris of the sea. The shark is one of creation's masterpieces."

! Malvina's underwater paintings can be seen as part of a permanent display at her workshop, 2 rue de la Nervaise, 60170 Tracy-le-Mont, France (telephone: 00 33 3 44 75 41 63).

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