Olga Nikitina is a Russian painter involved in the growing field of underwater painting. After moving to Egypt and working as a scuba diver instructor in the Red Sea, Nikitina fell in love with the vibrant corals and marine life in contrast to the surrounding desert landscape. Totally immersed in the marine environment, Nikitina paints using a special canvas cover and non toxic oil paints, thanks to Andre Laban, the original pioneer of the practice and the engineer of Jacques Cousteau’s team. Discover her daily routine, combining her love of painting and the sea, and her unique creative practice in this exclusive interview.
Hello Olga! What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
Early morning time for me is very important- I love to wake up at sunrise and spend these hours outside. I live in a small village near Safaga, Egypt, just across the road from the Red Sea. I love to start the morning by doing some sports outside, running along the sea or doing yoga on the beach. If I don’t scuba dive that day, the best time to spend in the sea and get inspiration is by snorkeling early in the morning. I also love early morning underwater painting sessions. The sun is still low in the sky and the light underwater is very colorful– yellow, red, and orange. All of the fish wake up and start feeding, and it is a very quiet and nice atmosphere for making art.
What inspires you to create every day?
My inspiration comes from being by the sea every day. I scuba dive or snorkel almost everyday, and if I am at the diving center office I can still see the seascape all day long with different colors, depending on the sun’s position. I spend probably half of my daily routine in the sea where I create my art. While scuba diving, I always look at the underwater marine life through the prism of my artistic vision. Or the opposite– what I see goes through my eyes, then to my heart, soul, and brain and creates images in my mind. Very often, if I don’t have the opportunity to paint immediately after scuba diving, I make some notes in my book of what I wanted to reflect through memories and ideas.
This is how I came to create my art underwater: I express my feelings of what I experience right there, at that particular moment in the underwater environment.
What does your work space look like?
If I am working on traditional painting, I do it in my home studio, at the beach, or on a boat. I love working in plein air.
For the underwater painting sessions, I choose mostly local reefs in shallow areas from 5 to 10 meters in depth or other beautiful dive spots which are available from the boat. At the moment I spend a lot of time in the Red Sea, and my main underwater painting collection is called Red Sea influence. I have also started projects in other countries, in other seas and oceans, and hopefully I will share these new underwater painting collections soon.
Describe the core of your technique or style, and how you originally got involved in this particular practice.
Getting into underwater painting was a very long but interesting process full of research. The underwater artist community is not big at all and there are just a few people around the world who practice it. There were no books, manuals, videos, or any kind of instructions about how to do it- there were just a few other artists to speak with and learn from. I had to investigate by myself through practice, full of both mistakes and discoveries. In the end, I found a more convenient technique through oil painting on canvas with a palette knife. Another important thing to be able to paint underwater is that the colors should be water insoluble and stick to canvas. It is environmentally friendly, nothing runs into the sea, and everything I bring underwater comes back with me after.
As for my painting style, I first started painting from nature, whether that be still lifes of corals, portraits of fish or humans, seascapes, or amazing reef walls. But as soon as I improved my skills and got more experience, I could focus more on my feelings and emotions. I noticed that underwater you experience some kind of trance and it is very exciting to reflect exactly that mood and perception through abstraction.
What are your top essentials while painting?
When I work in the studio, I like morning time, natural lights, and either silence or nice relaxing music, depending on my mood and what I am creating. I love eating chocolate while I am painting. When I work underwater, I just listen to my breath and the fish grumble.
How do you know or decide when an artwork is finished?
Sometimes it is hard to stop working on an artwork. Every time, I come back with some new ideas or want to change or add something. Very often I overwork the piece and it becomes a bit heavy. However, this is not the case with underwater painting. First of all, you are limited with air supply and no decompression time limits. I try to finish underwater painting work in one session, because you can never catch the same mood, environment, lights and colors next time. Artworks may look unfinished sometimes but I am absolutely happy with that.
What do you like to do to unwind after a day’s work?
It depends on what I did during the day. I can spend my time at home quietly reading or listening to music and cooking. I don’t watch TV, but I like to watch a good movie sometimes. In Safaga, we don’t have a lot of options for social life, just a few bars or cafés where I go meet with friends. The closest big city to me it is Hurghada, 50 km from my home, so twice a month I go there for shopping and “big city” life.
What’s your overall favorite aspect of the creative process?
The creative process is part of me and my life. It is an international language for me to speak with others, show my world, and share my opinion. It is a tool if you need to scream about some problems or great things and an environment where you can learn and develop yourself. If it can touch somebody else and stir emotions in their heart, then this is the best reward for me.