Evoking Photorealism

An award-winning artist based in New Zealand, Shirley Cresswell has developed a technique that evokes photorealism through an attention to light and three-dimensional composition, in order “to feel like you can walk into a painting, feel the sand, the light breeze and see the waves crashing in.” Her works are featured in private collections around the world.

A: Your works often use the natural landscape as inspiration. Why do you think that it still ultimately evokes a great amount of interest for artists and audiences alike?
SC: My paintings remind the audience of places they have been. Special memories, family holidays. For some it just takes them to another place, a place they can dream of, like looking out the window at somewhere you would love to be.

New Zealand is such a beautiful country and there is an abundance of gorgeous beaches and mountain scenes for artists to capture.  I paint places that inspire me, in particular the ocean walkways and sea … I just love the beach.

A: Your style approaches photorealism, with an attention to light, dimensions and reflections. Why is it that you have developed this type of practice, over say abstraction?
SC: I enjoy the challenge of creating an artwork that appears 3-dimensional and real, verging on photographic. When I first started painting I dabbled at abstract techniques. But what excited me was the thrill of painting a scene that looked like a photo and how to manage that process in acrylics. To achieve the clarity and light by layering of acrylics.

A: Who are your biggest influences?
SC: The old masters paintings inspire me.  Paintings of incredible scenes that the people and places look so incredibly real, in times where there was no such thing as a camera.

A: How do you begin your processes for a composition – do you use photography as an introduction into the image or do you eliminate all digital process altogether?
SC: My husband and I take photographs of beaches and scenes that I envisage to be a painting. I then examine the photos and look to see what part of the image I can see working to suit my style. As my paintings take a few weeks to complete I need the photograph as a reference to achieve the realism and light. I crop the photo often finding a small part of the picture that will become the painting.

A: Do you think there’s an importance for the audience to relate to paintings through the senses?
SC: Absolutely. To feel like you can walk into a painting, feel the hot sand between your toes, the light breeze and hear the waves crashing in. To feel like you want to climb inside the boat, hear the lapping of the water or dip your toes in.

A: What is it that attracts you to a certain place: is it colour, subject matter, or sheer spontaneity?
SC: For my seascape / walkway paintings it is the pathway. Does it draw me in? The beauty of it, the light on the water, afternoon light or morning. My boat paintings….it is very difficult to find old dinghies and boats suitable. These days there are more plastic ones than old wooden boats. So once I find one I take hundreds of photos. Often setting up the scene to achieve the image I would like. Also to capture a photograph on a sunny calm day to achieve reflections. It is difficult to get the lines of a boat in perspective so that it sits in the water or on the sand so the photo is very important.  My paintings mostly involve water so I am always drawn to places such as the beach and lakes.

 A: What do you have planned in terms of exhibitions / projects this year?
I have a solo exhibition opening called Splash at The Exhibition Gallery in Wellington on the 31 May. I am planning to have some iconic paintings of the coloured boatsheds in Wellington and large beach walkway paintings.

I am working on a special project for 2017.  I have commissioned a wooden sculpture from a Woodturner which I plan to paint as a three- dimensional piece of art. Once I have the sculpture I am hoping to create a mould from it to so that new sculptures can be made from it. This is an exciting new direction to take my art.


1. Shirley Cresswell, The Boardwalk. Courtesy of the artist.
2. Shirley Cresswell, My Place to Be. Courtesy of the artist.
3. Shirley Cresswell, Serenity. Courtesy of the artist.