Artist Cindy Saadeh finds inspiration in the waterways of the Lowcountry


Explosion of Light, oil and cold wax on cradled panel, 30″ x 30″

A stroke of serendipity—being in the right place at the right time—can be a momentous experience. For artist Cindy Saadeh, a serendipitous encounter revealed her passion for painting and opened the door to an unexpected career path.

It happened when she was in France, indulging in her love of language in a study-abroad program offered by her alma mater, the University of North Carolina. She says it was a life-changing experience.

“It was actually a French school,” says Saadeh, who hails from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Everything was in French; it was a true immersion program.”

It was there, one evening at a dinner party, that she met artist Richard Palomino—known as Lilla Duva in the art world.

“We started talking about oil paintings, and that was it. They say when the student is ready, the teacher will come,” she says with a smile.

Saadeh explains that Palomino had been teaching himself the old master techniques mainly through reading and reproducing the classic styles that were prominent prior to the 19th century.

“He said, ‘Come over and you can paint with me, and we can learn together,’” she recalls. “He was very disciplined and strictly adhered to the old processes—grinding his own paint, making his own medium, stretching his own canvas with rabbit skin glue. That’s how I learned, in this very small apartment in Montpellier.”

Evening Color, oil and cold wax on canvas panel, 8″ x 10″

Saadeh’s artistic style evolved from those sessions—the classic techniques they practiced, layering color with very small brushes and painting realistic, representative works during the course of her stay in France. After graduation, she shelved plans to become an interpreter and returned to Montpellier, where Palomino set her up in an empty space in his building that featured 18-foot ceilings, dusty antiques and no furniture. They cobbled together the basics, and she got a job teaching English and resumed painting with him for another year and a half.

“It’s kind of crazy when I think about it,” she says with a laugh.

For most of her career, Saadeh had adhered to the style in which she first learned to paint in France, producing realistic renditions of the coastal landscapes she loves, until a recent shift in perspective.

“Everything I do now is abstract, self-expressive,” she explains. “It comes from my imagination. I’ve done a lot of plein air in the past. I’ve always been focused on following the rules of light and how it plays on the landscape, but now I can be a little bit bolder and break some rules. Which is fun. But I wouldn’t be able to do that without that training. You have to learn how to draw before you try to paint.

“A lot of what I’m drawn to is the interplay between the sky and water. So that’s mostly what I’m painting, but in such a way that you’re not sure if that’s a mountain in the background or a marsh. It’s kind of fun to create art that the viewer can interpret any way they want. Maybe it reminds someone of a place they’ve been, and they connect to it that way.”

Saadeh says that exploring new media like oil and cold wax to create texture in her works has allowed her to paint more abstractly.

“Adding in these other elements is really fun,” she notes. “I drip solvent down on the paint that’s just been applied and then scrape it off. It’s an effect you can’t get with just oil. And there’s no brushwork in my painting, it’s all done with silicone tools that I apply and blend color with. Other elements I play with are powdered pigment I sprinkle in and tissue paper I dab in to break up the paint, or even bubble wrap.”

Copper Beach, oil and cold wax on cradled panel, 20″ x 24″

Saadeh’s initiation into the world of oil and cold wax occurred when she operated a gallery in East Tennessee, where she resided for 16 years before returning to the Lowcountry. One of the 80 artists she represented was working in the medium and gave workshops in Saadeh’s studio.

“I’d never heard of the process, so I decided to take her workshop,” says Saadeh. “I played around with it, loved it, but never took it any further, until I moved back to Charleston last November and took an online workshop and then launched into this brand-new direction, which has been a lot of fun.”

Saadeh is now represented by the Gallery at Sweetgrass in Wild Dunes Resort, Isle of Palms. The gallery showcases regionally and nationally recognized artists who have created pieces celebrating the beauty, color and tranquility of the Lowcountry coast.

Committed, completely, to her new stylistic adventure, Saadeh removed all her former work from her website and showcases only the works that reflect her experimentation with the new media.

“It’s a big change for me,” says Saadeh. “It’s different than what I’ve been doing for most of my career. It’s all about layers—I work on hard cradled panels and begin with a layer of acrylic and add the oil and cold wax. Then I decide which colors of the underlayer I want to expose and scrape away that part of the top layer. You can do as many layers as you want.”

The palette for her ethereal, abstract landscapes is dominated by delicate hues that evoke the water and sky, and the added interest produced by the icing-like texture of the cold wax.

Saadeh notes that she’s expanded her collection to include a sailboat series and is considering the possibility of sailing lessons in the future.

“I can’t stop painting sailboats,” she confesses, laughing. “I don’t know why—I just think they’re so beautiful.”

It seems a natural evolution for an artist who teases the imagination of the viewer with dreamy scapes of land and sea. *

Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based freelance writer (sweetgrassandgrits.com).

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