Stephanie Tuckwell’s paintings are an orchestration of media, where she allows the properties of the materials she works with to steer the direction of her picture making. They are an evocation of the natural world, as well as a record of time. In this interview Stephanie explains her need to return to basic materials after a time exploring mixed media, and her fascination with permanence and impermanence, transparency and opacity, abstraction and representation.
Lisa: Can you describe your relationship with painting and how it’s developed over the course of your practice?
Stephanie: I trained at Goldsmith’s School of Art in Embroidery during the early 1970’s; the course at that time was considered to be at the forefront of expounding textiles not for its decorative value, but for embroidery to be recognised as a valid art practice that could be included within Fine Art contexts. This appealed to me as I didn’t feel that I quite fitted into Fine Art painting.
I have always used my locality and immediate surroundings as a catalyst for my work, whether it was the urban areas of South London or more latterly the wild coastline of West Wales. For a good part of my career as an artist I worked with mixed media and textiles, although painters have always been my source of inspiration.
When I was at Goldsmith’s I was influenced by American painters from the 1930s. I was fascinated by Arthur Dove’s painting “Fog Horns” and how such a simple image could convey the sense of sound and movement. I was also drawn to the work of Georgia O’Keefe long before she became popular in the 1980’s. I was enthralled by the abstraction of her work, especially her painting Sky Above Clouds IV.
Living in South London during the 1980’s I used mixed media and was influenced by artists such as Mick Moon and Anthony Whishaw, whose work explored the myriad of possibilities when creating surfaces through a variety of painting processes. I painted plaster onto thin silk that I then glued onto flat pieces of wood, let dry then ripped off; the resulting surfaces were always a surprise and usually interesting. I used Japanese papers with these surfaces and frequently used stitch to make collages/assemblages.
About twelve years ago, I felt that I could no longer achieve what I wanted with mixed media; it had become too convoluted process for me and I wanted to get back to basics. For a year or so I concentrated purely on drawing, then began to focus on painting; I wanted to simplify my practice. I loved the idea of creating something large on paper from a small paint box; it seemed very pure and natural. No technology, no long winded processes, just me, paint and paper. Since that time I have continued to explore water based media on paper grounds and working on a range of scales.
Whilst working towards an MA in Multi-disciplinary Printmaking I enjoyed the whole romance of the process of etching but would often use paint to disrupt the surface or edge of my prints.
My husband Robert (McPartland, interview here) has always been an influence and inspiration; his keen eye, sensitivity and rigour all contribute to his poetic and meditative paintings. I admire Ian McKeever’s paintings; his work, although somehow familiar is also enigmatic. I first saw one of Sarah Sze’s installations in Boston and was intrigued by the way she can use non-precious materials to create such magical and poetic spaces. Winifred Nicholson can imbue a very ordinary scene with joyful light and sunshine. I also find Hilma af Klint very influential especially her paintings, “Largest of Ten,” which were shown at the Serpentine Gallery in 2015. This group of paintings are so unashamedly joyful and, I think, speak to many people right now.
Lisa: Why do you paint and how would you describe your work?
Stephanie: Because painting can give form to my sensibility and it allows me to be me in the truest sense. I am naturally restless; I work very directly and intuitively, orchestrating marks and shapes to let each painting evolve to find its own identity, somewhere between abstraction and figuration. Living and working in Wales has led me to convey the cyclical movement and energy of the natural world, to create work that is of an elemental nature. My work is based on my experiences, memories and responses to particular moments. I seek to convey a sense of time unfolding, where nothing is static but forever in a state of becoming and where a sense of permanence and impermanence are implied.
Lisa: I’m interested in the materials with which you work – watercolour, ink, charcoal, gesso. Why are you drawn to these materials in particular?
Stephanie: I like to explore the physical properties of the materials I use: the soft, sootiness and blackness of compressed charcoal, the watery-ness and translucency of watercolours and inks, the differences of opacity/transparency and textural qualities of gesso. It is important that my paintings have a sense of the physical even if it is very subtle and that they cannot be made using any other process.
Lisa: Can you shed some light on how you work – do you work on several paintings simultaneously, do you tend to finish a work in a single session, and what preparation do you make for a painting?
Stephanie: I work on several paintings at the same time, perhaps four or five and then tend to focus on one or two for a while. I work very intuitively and try to respond openly to the initial shapes and marks that I lay down on the paper. If these are strong and insistent I have to paint up to them or, sometimes if they are passive and gentle, they need coaxing to make a statement. It is easy to be seduced by one area you feel is working and then try to make everything work with that area, but more often than not the whole painting needs to disrupted, shaken up. Everything is relational, I have to keep a lot of ‘balls up in the air’ until they settle and find their place. Each painting has to determine its own identity, there has to be a sense of this is what I am. It has to look back at you.
Lisa: How important is it to you to work in series?
Stephanie: It is very important to me. Working in series means that my loose theme is on-going, never finished. I can return and develop the same series time and time again, possibly using different media and forms. A good example is last September I started working on a commission in which the client wanted 4 large watercolours based on a painting from some years back, from my first series of RockWaterAir. However, as I’d been working with colour on Livia’s Garden/Astral series for the past year or so, I needed to reinvigorate my love of monochrome. I spent a couple of weeks making roughs, which then developed into the final pieces and I continued with this work until spring.
Working in series keeps me focussed and prevents me from wandering too far and going off at a tangent! Sketchbooks have always been important to me as a wonderful way of collating ideas/experiments/observations. I found this particularly useful when I was doing a part time MA in Printmaking. I now paint full time (I retired from teaching three years ago), and I don’t feel such a need to keep one.
Lisa: Do you ever feel overwhelmed by everything you could put in your paintings?! How do you find the right state of mind to maintain responsiveness to all that inspires you?
Stephanie: Hmm sometimes! I try to be very present when I’m painting, to be in the moment; daily yoga and meditation help me maintain a sense of calm energy. Whilst working I cannot listen to anyone speaking on the radio but I can, although not very frequently, listen to music, such as Steve Reich, Manu Delago, Cinematic Orchestra to name a few, it can provide the space I need to maintain equilibrium. I can often repeat the same track over and over again so that it becomes almost meditative. When a painting is problematic I can become like a ‘dog with a bone’ determined to make it work; occasionally it does other times it ends up in the bin. I have to accept this as part and parcel of my working process.
Lisa: Can you tell us about the kinds of brushes, papers and paints that you most like to work with, and why?
Stephanie: For a long time I worked on 300 gsm paper that I had to stretch, I now use 640 gsm paper such as Fabriano Artistico; this heavier weight of paper has eliminated the need for stretching. However because I use a lot of water with my paint, I still usually have to flatten the finished work.
I tend to use mop brushes to create expansive washes, I love Japanese calligraphic brushes for their versatility in mark-making along with Fan, Dagger and Rigger brushes.
I use a whole range of brands of watercolours, and I like trying out new ranges. I am fond of using the Dr. Martin’s Hydrus range for large areas, Winsor and Newton pans for smaller marks but more recently I have enjoyed using Schmincke acrylic inks. I enjoy their vibrancy and luminosity.
When working with a monochrome palette, Indian ink and compressed charcoal, along with white acrylic ink are my staples; compressed charcoal can create dense but soft areas of black and Indian ink has a great tonal range, from the palest of pale washes to the darkest of dark.
Lisa: Was your creative practice affected by the recent Coronavirus lockdown, if so how?
Stephanie: On the whole my day to day life is largely unaffected as I am used to working at home with Robert; we adapted our early morning routine, swapping the gym for yoga and mediation. Out of the house obviously everything is different, there is no escape from the news reporting the worldwide devastating effects of the Coronavirus. At the beginning of lockdown I was finishing my newest RockWaterAir series but I felt a great yearning to work with colour, to make paintings that celebrated life and to be spiritually uplifting to counter the grimness of what was happening in the outside world. The weather was great, the light and colour in the garden was wonderful and it inspired me to start a new series.
Lisa: What are you working on at the moment?
Stephanie: I am currently working on Bloom, a series in which I am using inks with collaged Japanese papers. I introduced collage to establish more distinct shapes that have a vaguely botanical reference. So far I have completed seven paintings and plan to do more exploring colour and the relationship between firm and diaphanous shapes, the space that this relationship creates. As the seasons change my colour palette may become more tonal again…
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
I am working towards an exhibition called Thoughts on Paper to be held (date TBA due to the pandemic) at the University of South Wales. I will be showing alongside nine other artists from Wales who also work in series and have an interest in exploiting the versatile possibilities of working with and on paper.
I am also working towards a show next spring with my partner, Robert at the beautiful Gallery 57 in Arundel, West Sussex, which is owned and curated by the artist, Ann Symes.
I have work on the website of Area Environments, a creative studio based in Minnesota, USA. It curates original work from international contemporary artists to produce exclusive wallpapers and large-scale murals.