Sid Natividad paints water in hyperrealistic detail as a meditation on the persisting and ultimately fragile nature of life.
By Mara Fabella
Artists find sanctuary in different places. Some look inward to conjure symbolic dreamscapes; others turn to their physical environment. For Sid Natividad, sanctuary is found in a bit of both. Natividad paints a quiet, contemplative world that lies underwater. A meticulous hyperrealist with a keen eye for detail, he renders his subjects obscured by bubbles, ripples, or variations in light. His works are so lifelike that viewers end up feeling immersed in water themselves, submerged beneath the rippling surface of Natividad’s canvases.
Though he comes from a family of creatives, Natividad did not initially think he would pursue a career in art. He frequently sketched as he was growing up, but viewed it only as a hobby. Even at a young age, he was already developing a natural curiosity for observing the world around him. He went on to study Nursing at Far Eastern University. He excelled in minor subjects and assignments that involved drawing. Anatomical drawings, in particular, helped him build a strong foundation for figurative art.
He became even more engrossed in art during his second year. Seeing student entries for art competitions such as the Shell National Student Art Competition encouraged him to shift to a Fine Arts course in Advertising. Though he was devoted to his new course, he still made time to regularly participate in competitions. He felt the competitive environment would only improve his artistic skills.
After graduating, Natividad worked as a graphic artist for his family’s advertising agency. He also worked as an event photographer. Eventually, he felt drained after a few years in the corporate setting. Around this time, he joined group exhibits with his artist peers whenever he could and started to look for other potential career paths and directions his life could go.
This period of reflection ended up bringing him all the way to Italy. With encouragement from his family, he decided to take a short course at the Florence Academy of Art. During this brief but intensive period, he became fully immersed in the study of traditional painting and drawing—at the very birthplace of the Renaissance itself. He studied portraiture, nude sketching, still life, and other skills that would make him more adept at Hyperrealism, and also learned to cultivate a more disciplined art practice. The artist describes his stay in Italy as enlightening, not only in terms of academic studies, but also because of the many artistic influences he was exposed to, including contemporary artists he encountered in Barcelona.
All these different life experiences became quite overwhelming for Natividad, and he found himself longing for inner peace and clarity. Water played an important role in Natividad’s childhood. His home province was situated right by the ocean so he would often spend hours at sea, floating calmly in deep waters. The ocean was never scary for him; it represented a state of relaxation. He eventually reconnected with his love of water after returning from Italy, when he then began to practice freediving. For some, freediving may be a daunting and scary experience of floating in deep blue space. For Natividad, it brings him to a place of tranquil stillness, his own “refuge of silence.” He considers that his growing-up years have shaped his signature visual imagery.
Freediving is a mental game for Natividad, wherein he has no one else to compete with but himself. Before going into the water, he meditates, though he also views diving underwater as a meditative act in itself. The artist sees water as a reflection of life. He recounts an incident when he got close to blacking out while diving and it made him realize how fragile life truly is. Thus, beyond serving as an eye-catching visual, Natividad depicts water because he has a personal connection to it, which he shares with viewers through his work.
Though most noticeably hyperrealistic, Natividad’s “water paintings” tread the boundaries between Realism, Expressionism, and Abstraction. Critics and peers often refer to his style as Hyperrealistic Expressionism. His expertise as a photographer and his study of photo references as basis for his paintings have trained him to look beyond what the lens and naked eye can see. Though he tries to capture nuances of light, form, and color, he also seeks to go beyond mere photographic verisimilitude.
The artist takes the underwater seascape that many painters have tackled before and imbues it with the personal narrative of someone who is not only familiar with being underwater, but also the feeling of being intimately and wholly engulfed by it. He takes his knack for Hyperrealism a step further by bringing to life a realism that expresses his own ruminations.
At the same time, his paintings almost verge on semi-abstraction. The model’s face appears less visible and extremely blurred, dissolving into biomorphic masses of flesh that swirl around light, darkness, and blue. Natividad sees two sides to his work: the side where one is in control, and where one isn’t. His works are a balancing act between controlled and painstaking Hyperrealism and the liberating feeling of quite literally going with the flow.
His artistic process can be as complex as his works suggest. He starts by taking photographs for reference. This often involves organizing an elaborate shoot with his chosen models in a private diving location. For his striking exhibit with Ysobel Art Gallery during Art Fair Philippines back in 2019, he rented a scuba diving studio and various equipment, including an underwater camera that allowed him to take photos of his models moving underwater.
The unpredictability of water often means there are several factors Natividad cannot control like light on the water, the movement of the models’ clothing, or amount of bubbles that end up appearing in photos. These are part and parcel of the process, and he accepts the spontaneous nature of his subject matter even if it means having to reshoot several times.
During his time in quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had to adapt to limited resources and instead use an acrylic vat that can hold water, under which he places his subjects, household objects, or even himself. While these photos serve as guides, he tries not to rely on them too much, as he finds that hewing too closely can be tiresome. The meticulous process is an exercise in introspection. He paints freehand when he can, especially with highly detailed works, intuiting minute details himself. His paintings can take anywhere from weeks to months to finish, depending on the size.
Looking ahead, Natividad plans to explore other kinds of subject matter and venture into sculpture. He hopes to do more collaborative works with fellow artists. He still wants to stay in the realm of Hyperrealism, but is also ready to explore and see where else he can go.
What has kept him busy during lockdown is preparing a series of large-scale works for an upcoming solo exhibition for Ysobel Art Gallery at the Yuchengco Museum. Diverting from painting underwater scenes, he plans to depict the surface of water—as a metaphor of rising from the depths and overcoming hardships brought on by the pandemic. From the dark tones of deep water to the constant motion of blue waves, the works symbolize the unpredictable yet perpetual flow of life.
While serene and calming, there is an inherent contradiction in Natividad’s paintings. How can one feel peaceful and at ease when one is unable to breathe? Therein lies the true beauty of Natividad’s works. He reconciles these opposites by depicting a precarious existence, yet still finds beauty in vulnerability.