See How These Abstract Aquatic Paintings Reflect Human Understanding


Artist Abbey Messmer standing in front of a grouping of paintings

The abstract paintings by artist Abbey Messmer, such as Navigating the Contours of Cool and Warm, Filling In The Blanks, and Inheritance capture distorted images as seen from beneath water.

An afternoon spent in the pool on a sweltering summer’s day isn’t just a reprieve from the heat for Phoenix-based painter Abbey Messmer—it’s part of her artistic process. Her dreamy works render the view from the bottom of the pool, aquatic distortions of the world above. 

Abby Messmer on a desk surrounded by tubes of acrylic paints and paint brushes

Messmer interprets her underwater photographs using acrylic paints.

an in-progress acrylic painting by Abby Messmer

"There are so many ways that we react to situations or experience this world and I'm interested in consciousness and how we experience this world," Messmer says.

an abstract acrylic painting in shades of blue, black and white

"Ideally, I want views that were a bit disorienting with highly cropped and clustered elements like fabrics, limbs and pool feature, and their reflection off the underside of the water," Messmer says of pieces such as Untitled.

a detail shot of an abstract painting

"My pieces look a bit different than the wider vistas, expansive skies and full figures that are often depicted in the work," the artist explains about the piece Filling In The Blanks.

For the past 11 years, Messmer has made a practice of using an underwater camera to take photos of people and objects on the surface, then turning those images into paintings. But it all started as a bit of fun with friends. “We’re in the Sonoran Desert, so it’s kind of a must to be around water in the summer to survive,” she says. “My cousin is a photographer, and he shared this underwater camera with me. I just fell in love and was playing with my friends, having them model for me, and it evolved to be a really interesting way to make art.”

She soon learned how to hold her breath for long periods while waiting underwater for the right shot. “It’s a really beautiful, meditative thing when you get down to the bottom of the pool,” she says. “You can just be in that quiet, cool space and start looking for interesting frames.”

Using those photos as references, Messmer reproduces the scenes on canvas. Though she used to work in oils, these days her paints of choice are acrylic, gouache and sometimes aerosols for background skies. While her pieces may appear abstract, it’s not the work of the artist herself, but rather the water in the original photo. “I love how it distorts the image, bringing little lens flares and rainbows into the picture and really changing the objects on the horizon,” she says. Though she may occasionally edit elements such as clouds or superfluous figures, the artist feels success in staying as faithful to the original as possible.

While working on pieces for her current show at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum (on view through August 6), Messmer shifted her process slightly, favoring imagery super zoomed in to particular sections of the frame. “I really encourage viewers to consider that everyone has such a unique perspective,” Messmer says of what she hopes people take away from her works. “I’ve recognized that two individuals in the same exact scenario can experience things in totally different ways, and I find that fascinating. It’s important for people to be empathetic and to cultivate a curiousness about life and our experience here on Earth.”