Sandra Millar’s characterful prints explore the human form in moments of joyful movement and reflective stillness, from the excitement of a circus show to the faces we pull while putting on make-up. She talks about how she made “Bathers and Bridge”, and why she loves drawing people.
“Bathers and Bridge” is very dynamic, you really get a sense of movement from the different groups of people in it. Why did you decide to make this print? Is it a real place?
The inspiration for “Bathers and Bridge” was a photo in the paper of the Loony Dook, which is an annual ritual on New Year’s Day to swim in the Firth of Forth at Queensferry near Edinburgh. Folk were all in fancy dress, looking cold.
Seurat’s “Bathers at Asnieres” painting in the National Gallery was also an inspiration. There’s a young boy near the middle of my print that’s straight out of that painting.
The bridge in the background is the Forth Bridge, which I love and is quite an icon in Scotland. It’s a kind of rust colour. "Bathers and Bridge" is printed from one plate.
You often depict people at the beach or swimming. Is swimming something you like to do yourself or is it more about the aesthetics of the movements and the human form? There’s a sense of joy in your portrayal of bathers and beach scenes.
Right from when I was little I’ve loved looking at and drawing people, and I still carry a sketch book, just in case. At art college, we did some kind of working from life practically every day for four years.
I love the human form, especially female, whether upside down, swimming, dancing. It’s a way of communicating with each other.
I love the movement of the body, so sitting on beaches drawing the world going by is bliss for me.
The handstand one came from watching blokes on a beach in Morocco performing acrobatics by the water’s edge. I transformed them into women, hence the etching “One, two, three”.
Much of your work captures people in a moment of activity, or in a quiet moment in their daily lives. What is it that fascinates you about that?
Sitting on a tube, so many folk are on their phones so it’s easy to start scribbling away without being noticed.
Most things come from observation and I then build a story around them and they become like real people. More so with my paintings, but then they may become prints.
Some of the people are invented, some are inspired by works by Picasso or Cézanne, or else from my sketch books.
Sometimes things happen by accident. Inspired by foxgloves and big daisy-type flowers in the garden, I made an etching of a woman with her arms over her head. I was alone at Artichoke and, being high summer, the acid worked extra strongly, so instead of being daytime it became “Night Garden” after lots of scraping out.
So the form and the spirit and maybe the oddness of people makes me stop and want to draw and make it my story.
“Zebra Queen” is one of several images you’ve made of circus performers. That’s an unusual subject – how did that come about?
We had a circus on Clapham Common near where I used to live and as I was teaching part-time then, they let me in to draw them all practicing acrobatic skills. So circus images of people became my obsession. I felt they mirrored life – hazardous, exhausting, scary, beautiful.
“Zebra Queen” happened because I’d just been to the zoo where I spent time watching zebras, and I’ve often used stripes in my work, so she got stripes to kind of match her zebra.
In my large drypoint “Arieliste”, the performer is in a red-striped sort of swimsuit looking quietly confidant on a trapeze. I liked the chance of danger, though she’s just sitting with one arm holding the rope and one on the trapeze seat.
I love drypoint as it’s so immediate – scratching on to the plate makes an immediate mark. I was introduced to drypoint by the artist Ana Maria Pacheco when I was working on circus images.
You also like portraying animals. Is that as a contrast to human forms? Why do you like to draw them?
Animals arrive because there’s been a chance to observe them, i.e. a friend’s dog lives in many of my prints and paintings, as does a donkey I used to see in Cornwall. Birds too – we used to have a friendly blackbird, so that’s been a favourite.
What do you like about printmaking versus painting and drawing?
I probably paint and draw more because it’s easier, but I love the medieval-ness of printmaking with its mysterious processes. To produce multiple images at the end of those processes feels quite miraculous.
Originally I worked at Artichoke Print Workshop and learned the printmaking craft from there. Now I’m based at Thames-Side Studios, where there’s lots of room and there is a wonderful view of the river.
Sandra’s featured artist exhibition runs at there Greenwich Printmakers gallery from July 19-August 8, and her fantastic prints are available there all year round. For more information, visit her artist’s page and her website.