Tess Gray is an artist born in South Wales, UK, who currently works in Cardiff. Studies from life, automatic sketching, photography, and found images are used in her process, resulting in works which reflect human experiences, from the mysterious and fantastical to the banal. As explored in her work Bacterium Stroll, shortlisted for Jackson’s Painting Prize 2019, she creates images that represent ideas, moments and impressions, exploring romanticism and narratives of myth, magic, and absurdity. In this interview, Tess shares insights into her practice and talks about her experiences of painting in the beautiful Goan landscape during a residency.
Daniel: Hi Tess, please tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education?
Tess: I just never grew out of a childhood fascination with making pictures. My grandfather had a collection of profiles of famous artists with huge colour prints. Botticelli and Bosch were my favourites, I don’t think I ever copied them as such, but would just look at them repeatedly. I think that’s how I got hooked on painting.
I’ve had some excellent drawing teachers over the years but when it comes to painting, I’ve pieced that together in various ways. I think that’s quite common for painters now. The Art department at my school wasn’t particularly inspiring, so you had to be really into it or foolhardy enough to choose it as a subject. I seem to remember there being only two of us doing Art at A-level.
After that, I very nearly decided to study geology, but did an art foundation at the University of South Wales, and then BA Fine Art at Winchester School of Art. At the time it was deemed a bit radical to do any traditional work there, so I spent a lot of time doing sound and video work, as well as painting.
Daniel: How would you describe your practice?
Tess: I would say my practice is project-based but honestly, I tend to ascribe to the ‘I’ll paint what I want, when I want’ attitude. If a subject captivates me, or I think of a composition, I’ll go with it.
I’ve never really thought that there needs to be a consistent style or thread to work, although I obviously look at landscape a lot. For me, it’s best to paint what’s inspiring you, and go with what you’re really thinking about at the time of working. If that means diverging from an ongoing project then do it, because the passion shows through in good work.
Daniel: Your painting Bacterium Stroll was shortlisted in the Jacksons Open Painting Prize in 2019. It is part of a body of work about the human gut and microbiome. Can you tell us some more about how the work came about?
Tess: I started this whole theme of work around 2016 after looking into gut health, because of some personal health issues, and eventually became quite obsessed with it. I was making paintings for a different project at the time but naturally shifted the work to follow my research, which began making connections between mythologies and new discoveries in understanding the human microbiome.
This particular painting happened during a residency in Goa with two other artists. We went out for a walk in the surrounding area to get a feel for the place. I’d already been sketching ideas about magnifying bacteria to a size that’s more representative of their essential role to almost every living thing on the planet. I then started visualising the giant bacteria in these environments that were completely new to me.
Daniel: In your artist statement you quote Carl Jung: ‘Unconscious fantasy is an amazing witches’ cauldron. This is the matrix of the mind.’ You use automatic drawing as part of your creative process, how does it help you access your unconscious mind?
Tess: Traditional, observation drawing and oil studies make up the majority of my practice, so automatic and intuitive drawing is a way of balancing the very formal and considered aspects of my observational works. I use the term automatic drawing because it most closely describes what I’m doing, but it’s more like drawing by gut feeling, and that’s what my current work is about, making connections between the gut and its effect on our conscious experience.
Inside my sketchbooks there are pages and pages of these sorts of automatic drawings. I often consider them quite ugly and useless but they’re essential to the process. I don’t really do anything with them but they’re a catalyst… But, then I will use this technique a lot in larger-scale paintings. In my painting Untitled Gut VII, for example, I painted by just marking out lines by feeling and choosing colours intuitively as well – not questioning them.
This can happen sometimes when working from reference as well, just by not questioning why I want to paint something. I’ll find out by making the picture why I was so drawn to the subject and how or if it informs something else.
I really think absentminded doodling is another underrated exercise. I’ll draw for hours at a time while on the phone, on hold, or if the tv is on. The things that appear are often nothing like my work and I find that really fascinating.
Daniel: Why is oil paint your medium of choice? What qualities does it have that resonate with your practice?
I’m of the opinion that painting and drawing are fundamentally the same thing. Oil paint is the material I sketch with most naturally for landscapes, but for figures I favour dry media. After working in acrylic as a teenager, I switched to oil. The vibrancy of the colours in oil and the texture was inimitable and I never went back. I just discovered an affinity with it and find it so versatile.
Once I really took an interest in the history of it, oil paint, just became fascinating; the way painting had been shaped by access to materials and the environment, and how this affected other aspects of society.
Historically some pigments had massive social influence and meanings of colours in paintings or other works depended a lot on the source of the pigment. For example, angels or the Virgin Mary in many paintings of the Renaissance period are wearing blue or purple as the pigments and dyes for these colours were expensive and difficult to produce. They were most often worn by religious officials or the very rich.
Daniel: It can be easy to get comfortable with a particular painting style, but I notice that you use different techniques in your paintings, from the soft blending in First impressions (Daal) to the loose, textural passages in Shells. It suggests to me that your approach to painting is constantly changing. How do you make sure that your style keeps evolving?
Tess: There are a lot of conscious decisions, for things like painting in a certain style and some of it will come straight from whats inspiring the work. For example, in my series of house paintings, the houses were shown in quite rigid realist styles because I was looking at a lot of images for real-estate listings and architects’ digital drawings and I really wanted these structures to look rigid and at odds with their environments.
Then when I’m doing the works about guts, it’s really about feeling, and the forms can become very dreamlike and fuzzy, or smooth and crisp. I paint however I think a painting should look, if I think texture is going to work on it, or a limited palette, that’s what I’ll do.
Daniel: The landscape features regularly in your work. You mentioned that in 2018 you did a residency with Aamir Art House in Goa – beyond the influence on Bacterium Stroll, how else did the Goan landscape inspire you?
Tess: I think pretty much everything about my experience in Goa influenced my work. The landscape, the weather, the length of the daylight. The food of course definitely made a really important contribution to the subject of my work, there was a lot of attraction to vibrant colours of fruits. We started the residency at the end of the monsoon season so the weather was particularly erratic, and these gigantic rainstorms would blow into the landscape and back out again in minutes.
The colour of the light was phenomenal as well. Most days I would work on something in the studio but be unable to stay at my desk at around 5 p.m when this sort of psychedelic finale of colour and cloud would spread in all directions over the sky, so I’d have to get out and do some studies.
Daniel: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Tess: I keep it very simple: brushes, palette knives and paint. My field easel is probably my favourite tool, I’d be lost without it, but I don’t have much loyalty to it; it’s heavy and I’m definitely getting a lighter one before too long. My pocket warmer is essential for doing outdoor studies in the winter.
In the studio one of those razor paint scrapers is indispensable, because I love a clean palette but am incredibly lazy at cleaning it, so I end up having to spend 15 minutes, every two days, scraping things down. And my mahlstick, that thing changed my world completely in terms of how I work on details in a large scale.
Daniel: What is a good day in the studio for you? Do you listen to music, audiobooks, radio, or silence?
Tess: In the winter, any day it feels comfortable to go further than a metre from a radiator is a great day. Most often I cycle to my studio so that usually gives me a burst of energy to get into the work, as well as vegan croissants from the bakery next door.
I like the days I can focus on just making images, and not have to do any of the tasks that surround it, like preparing surfaces or anything computer-based. I particularly enjoy days that I do some life drawing at a friend’s around the corner and then come back to paint in the afternoon with my brain warmed up.
Talking can be quite distracting for me, so most often it’s either something thumping and electronic or Radio France classical and jazz stations, or quiet.
That being said, my studio is above a microbrewery pub and every so often they have a gig down there, and that can be very good to work to. For life drawing though I definitely favour complete silence.
Daniel: What are your artistic influences? Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
Tess: My environment, landscapes, and experience of events are the primary influences and inspiration for my work, but I find my sources everywhere. It’s difficult to give a concise enough answer here, about contemporary artists. In general, I tend to be a lot more interested in looking at figurative painting, people like Alex Kanevsky, Lisa Yuskavage and artists who make weird, playful, mildly horrific things, like David Shrigley, Aleksandra Waliszewska and Genieve Figgis.
Now we have social media there are so many artists out there and I see amazing work all the time, but then I think this gives more weight to the experience of seeing art in the flesh. Two exhibitions I saw recently, William Blake and Lisa Brice, really stayed with me and have been influencing my work a lot recently. Blake for his sublime and direct compositions and Brice’s colours are fantastic, from jarring primaries to subtle not quite monochrome pieces. Radical Figures exhibition at the Whitechapel this spring looks fantastic, it’s all works I’ve only ever seen online so I’m very much looking forward to that.
Daniel: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh or online?
Tess: This March I’ll be doing a local show with a fantastic women’s collective called Concentric, based in Cardiff. I’ll be entering some local and national open competitions as well, so with any luck my work might pop up somewhere soon.
Feature Image: Lighter than Air, 2019, Tess Gray, Oil on linen panel, 24 x 30 cm