“I get so much inspiration from the world around me,” Em Fennell says. “The tropical scenery here is insane, [so] it would be hard not to.”

Fennell is talking about the Gold Coast, but specifically she’s talking about Rainbow Bay. When Broadsheet calls the Burleigh Heads-based painter to ask about the places that inspire her most, this sandy oasis at the city’s southern end is what she mentions first. Just a short drive from her home studio, it helps fuel work that’s celebrated for its sunny depictions of flowers, blue skies and exotic animals.

“I think it’s one of the most beautiful places on the coast,” she says. “I usually go there with my friends in the morning or afternoon to go longboard surfing. There’s also a little hill on Greenmount Point, which is the next beach across, that you can sit on and watch the surf. Or you can go to the surf club at Snapper Rocks and have a beer and watch the sunset.”

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Originally from the eastern suburbs of Adelaide, Fennell moved to the Gold Coast five years ago after getting a scholarship at Bond University.

“I loved it up here and never wanted to leave,” she says.

And while she has surfed since she was young, Fennell only started getting really into it in the last three years, thanks in large part to Rainbow Bay itself.

“There’s a huge surf scene, especially [in] winter,” says Fennell. “It’s so busy in the water then. But it’s nice [in summer] when the waves are smaller because all the girls paddle out and everybody is longboarding. It’s such a nice environment to be a part of, with so many other girls surfing. It’s amazing.”

Rainbow Bay yields small, beginner-friendly waves in the summer, whereas the winter can bring in 10-footers that attract a strong contingent of pro surfers. Besides the water itself, Fennell enjoys walking the trail around the headlands, soaking up the atmosphere with the locals and spotting turtles, sea snakes and dolphins. It doesn’t hurt that the beach is also close to several cute cafes and pizza shops, including The Bread Social and Little Mali.

Having a communal, outdoor activity practically at her doorstep provides Fennell with the perfect mood-setter for her workday.

“It feels like the most grounding thing in my life,” she says. “I love my painting, but I also draw creativity from exercise and getting in the water. And it’s such a social thing. I leave so happy, and then I’m in the best mindset to start my day painting.”

Fennell has been painting since she was young, growing up around the studio of her artist mother, Cathy Fennell. Originally her work was more realistic, but she was eventually drawn to the expressive qualities of more abstract painting.

“I really love expressing my emotions through paintings,” she says. “I love a warm colour palette. It’s abstract, but you know what you’re looking at. I like painting symbols of strength, too. So, I like putting leopards in my work. I like my paintings to feel really strong and stand on their own, and sometimes have hidden messages.”

Fennell’s layered mix of symbols, text and bright colours gives her work a feel-good quality that echoes her relationship with the world around her. Even her upcoming online series The Sunburnt Ladies – a rare dip into portraiture – draws deeply from seasons and scenery.

“The paintings are all summer-themed,” says Fennell. “I’m also looking at the vintage architecture here, with all the tiles, sundials and fountains. Summer here really inspired me, and all the amazing women that I surround myself with.”

Rainbow Bay informing Fennell’s work is no accident. By creating a space that consistently feeds her imagination, energises her creativity and giving herself the time to soak it in, it’s a perfect example of how and why to step back from the busy times of life.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Good Tides Seltzer. For 2023, with their hard seltzer range of Raspberry, Mango, Lemon Lime and more, Good Tides takes you good places. 18+ only. Drink responsibly.