Zee Van Gils

We chat with Dutch-born, Cornwall-based artist Zee Van Gils

Zee van Gils’ abstract seascapes are nothing short of mesmerising. Each glossy ripple of colour appears to have a mind of its own, fluid and unpredictable like the sea itself. The Dutch-born, Newquay based artist has found a way to tell her own unconventional story through these unique resin artworks. Having traversed the globe in pursuit of her passions, Zee has spent the past decade mastering her medium of choice and embracing the transformative power of the ocean. Today, you’ll be lucky to get your hands on one of her popular, abstract creations before they sell out. But it hasn’t always been plain sailing for the 30-year-old artist and surfer…

By her own admission, Zee van Gils was an introverted child, who learned to express herself through her creativity. “Growing up in the Netherlands, I lived nowhere near the sea,” she confesses. “It was a four-hour train journey to the coast, but I was always drawn to the ocean. I was always daydreaming, and I would pretend that the clouds were huge mountains. Everything in the Netherlands is completely flat, so creating these extreme landscapes was a sort of escape from reality.”

At the age of 23, having side-tracked her creativity in favour of her academic studies, Zee felt the inexorable urge to discover the world beyond Dutch borders. Compelled to rekindle her childhood imagination, she packed her bags and swapped the flat landscape of canals and tulip fields for sandy beaches and warm waves. Little did she know that arriving on the island of Lombok, Indonesia, would trigger a cosmic chain of events.

“Lombok is where everything fell into place for me,” says Zee. “It was the first place where I felt really good in myself, in both my body and my mind. I felt like I belonged there”. Stripped of everyday luxuries, such as internet access and clean running water, Zee immersed herself in nature and through the act of simple living, found that all her creativity came flooding back.

Zee Van Gils

As well as reigniting her imagination, Zee credits her move to Lombok for finding her calling in life. It was here where she truly connected with the ocean, learned to surf, and fell in love with her soulmate, Anthony (spoiler alert, he was her surf instructor).

“There’s something almost spiritual about surfing,” she explains. “It’s helped me overcome quite a lot of mental health issues and physical insecurities. It pushes you both physically and mentally and it forces you to appreciate your body for what it can do, rather than criticising yourself for what you look like. I would say it has ruined my life in the best possible way. Since I first started surfing, everything has been about art, surf and being by the sea with my partner, just enjoying nature together.”

When she wasn’t in the ocean, Zee was busy balancing work as a surf photographer with her part time role at the local shaping bay. It was here, assisting the islands only surfboard shaper, where the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place.

“I knew a guy who had broken his board in this crazy wave, and he ordered two new boards, which he asked me to paint. That was when I discovered resin. I was like: ‘Oh my God, what is this?’

Zee Van Gils
Zee Van Gils Art

Resin is a vital component in the surfboard shaping process. The body of a board is made from fibreglass, and resin is used to harden the board’s surface and to make it water resistant. Zee had never considered using it as an art material until she saw how puddles of resin would form when it dripped onto the floor. “All these textures were happening and the more I worked with the resin, I knew I was becoming completely obsessed. I started thinking about other ways I could use it to make art, and that’s when the idea of the abstract paintings came in.”

It’s easy to lose yourself in one of Zee’s resin paintings. There’s an implication of movement – a dance of blues and iridescent pinks – as fluid and as unpredictable as the tides.

“I describe my work as abstract interpretations of the ocean from a merged perspective,” she explains. “I try to capture the ocean simultaneously from an aerial view, but also from under the water’s surface. I want to blend together textures, colours and the patterns to create one cohesive picture.”

To achieve the desired result, Zee uses many different layers of resin to create a sense of depth. “During the process, I pour and heat the resin and then tilt it and I pop any air bubbles with a heat gun or a blowtorch. I have to wait for 12 hours between each layer and the clear topcoat has to dry for five days until I can hang it and ship it.”

Zee Van Gils
Zee Van Gils

“I’ve always worked intuitively,” she says. “I don’t really use reference pictures because I have a lifetime of inspiration and visuals stored in my mind that I can draw from. Whenever I travel or go surfing, I feed this inspiration bank so I can keep pulling from it. When I start a painting, I usually just have the colours in mind and then I pour whatever feels right and work layer-by-layer.

The composition and the textures tend to come together naturally. It’s more reactive than planned. I only have partial control over the result because sometimes the materials can keep moving after I leave. I’ll come back a couple hours later and the painting might look slightly different. That’s what I love – I like the unexpected parts”.

Of course, using an unconventional medium is not always plain sailing. As well as its unpredictable nature, working with resin requires a degree of trial and error.

“I’ve been based in a few different climates now and they each present their own unique challenges,” says Zee. “In Indonesia, the humidity affected how the resin moved and flowed. I was working from our bedroom in a bamboo house and the wood started warping in the heat and the resin took ages to set. I was also on a local wage – which was around £100 a month – and everything had to be imported from Australia, which was expensive. I couldn’t even pay for health insurance at the time, yet I still invested in my art. I’m so lucky to have a studio here in Newquay where I can regulate the temperature!”

Zee’s move to the surfing hub of Newquay was another seemingly random twist of fate. After happening upon a room for rent online, she and her partner decided to take the plunge. At the time, they were unsure where they would settle, as visa complications had seen them move from Lombok to Australia and back to the Netherlands in a constant state of flux.

“Within two weeks of finding a room we had moved to Newquay,” she laughs. “Our thought process was ‘let’s just take this opportunity and see where it goes!’”

“I feel super lucky to enjoy the lifestyle we have here in Cornwall. I mean, the weather is pretty shit, and the waves aren’t always consistent, but you’ll find friendly and positive vibes in the water.”

Zee Van Gils
Zee Van Gils Cornwall

“Cornwall is peaceful and the people tend to keep to themselves. I’ve noticed they apologise for things even when it wasn’t their fault! Of course, there’s a big difference between the surf here and in Lombok. In Indonesia you’re surfing perfectly warm waves. Here, people are on a mission to get their surf in before it gets too cold, especially in winter.”

Since making the move to Cornwall, Zee has taken the opportunity to focus on her art full time. It’s a decision that has so far proved fruitful, with several commissions on the go and a myriad of collaborations under her belt. “I’m a pretty productive person,” she says. “I usually have at least five to ten pieces on the go or in different stages”.

Since landing in the county, Zee has collaborated with several Cornish makers, the likes of which include Hugh Brockman of BOS Surfboards in Penzance. But thanks to the power of social media, her art isn’t just thriving within Cornwall’s borders.

“I also worked with Marion from Surfista Surfboards in Seignosse, France. She’s one of very few female board shapers and we got to know each other online. We always said we should work together but then Covid happened, and I couldn’t get to France. One day I messaged her and said, ‘let’s just do this – I’ll send you the artwork and you shape it!’. We both filmed our side of the process and together we created a colourful and unique board. It was cool to be able to collaborate from a distance.”

With Cornwall as her base and an ocean of inspiration to draw from, it seems like Zee’s creative journey is finally coming full circle. In 2019, she was lucky enough to realise one of her biggest career aspirations to date, when she got to collaborate with Californian brand, Album Surfboards.

“They’re a huge inspiration for me and Matt Parker is my favourite shaper. I always said, ‘one day I’ll work with him’, so when that happened, I was like, ‘OK, I’m done. I’m happy now!”.

To discover more about Zee van Gils and to see what she’s currently working on, visit her website at underthezee.com or give her a follow on Instagram: @underthezee