INTERVIEW WITH HELEN MEAD 2018
TESSA Houghton loves dramatic skies.
“I like to play around with perspective, and using low perspective with focus on big skies can create a feeling of depth and distance,” says the internationally acclaimed artist.
She captures the radiating colour of light, softly blending sky into clouds, and earth into sky. There’s something ethereal about her paintings, something other-worldly, dreamy, and captivating. Tessa’s land and seascapes are at the same time calming yet powerful, the intensity of colour and carefully worked shapes giving depth and movement.
“There is so much inherent symbolism in natural landscapes and I think that's what drives my work,” she says. The West Yorkshire-based artist uses “the power of suggestion and hinting at certain things rather than describing them figuratively”, to create a sense of mystery in her work.
“By focusing on certain aspects of the landscape, like the way light reflects on water or the way land and sky can sometimes blend into each other, and by using glazes and building up layers of paint to conceal and reveal what has gone before, allows the viewer to form their own personal interpretation of what they are looking at.”
Growing up in a village in Lancashire, Tessa’s love of art developed at an early age. “I was always drawing as a child - it's something that's been there for as far back as I can remember. I was lucky that my family were always very supportive and encouraging, so I developed confidence and enjoyment from it.”
A creative gene runs through her family. “My mum was an academic and worked in education. She wasn't an artist herself but was definitely an appreciator of the arts. We have quite a few musicians in the family, including my dad who is a brilliant jazz pianist. His sister is also a pianist, another aunt is a textile designer and felt maker and my uncle paints and sculpts.”
Tessa studied fine art at Liverpool John Moores University. “After completing my degree I didn't expect at that stage to be able to make a living from my artwork and the pressure was on to start earning money, so initially I pursued other areas of work.”
A year after graduating she moved to Barcelona and began working as a language consultant and business English teacher. “I juggled this type of work with maintaining my creative practice for several years,” she says.
While living in Spain Tessa became involved in an arts collective, sharing a gallery space and staging regular shows. “I think this period of time was really important to me in terms of developing a substantial body of work that I felt represented me and what I wanted to express,” she says.
The inspiration for what she describes as “semi-abstract” work came from the Catalonian coast, as well as the Pyrenees. “Although the paintings were inspired by real places, the images were for the most part imagined and evocative of journeys and pathways with unknown destinations and blurred horizons,” she says.
“After a couple of years I decided to try and push myself a little further and began writing to galleries back in the UK. “I was offered an exhibition in London which was well-received and things developed professionally from then on.”
Returning to the UK four years ago years, Tessa taught briefly before becoming a full-time painter.
“When I moved back, and after experiencing a couple of significant life events, I went through a period of being quite reflective and my work shifted to explore real places that had strong personal significance and strong emotional attachments. The focus became more about where I came from rather than where I was going.”
She paints in oil. “I love it for its vibrancy and intense colour pigment which you don't really get in other types of paint,” she says. “I think people assume that oil paints are highly technical and difficult to use, but actually once you know the basics they are a very versatile and easy medium to work with.”
“Traditionally oils are slow drying which means you can work on a painting for longer and it is easier to alter things and go back to correct mistakes. You can also add other mediums to it that make it dry faster or more slowly, appear more translucent or glossy, thicker, thinner and so on. There are so many possibilities with oils that I really enjoy experimenting with.”
Tessa was drawn to abstract work by her interest in the abstract expressionist painters of the 1950's, in particular Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn. “Their belief was that art should come from the unconscious mind and its purpose should be to create an emotional response in the viewer,” she says. “That directness of expression combined with the physicality of the paint and the effects it could make really resonated with me and still does now. I don't create work that is truly abstract but I do share those principals and my work is created in a very instinctive and gestural way.
“The whole painting process for me is an intuitive and instinctive reaction to the landscape and in turn the landscape is a vehicle for me to express my own mood.”
Her work has been exhibited extensively throughout the UK and as far afield as Singapore, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and New York.
The Yorkshire landscape inspires her. “It's so dramatic and beautiful. I spend a lot of time walking on Ilkley Moor and by the North Yorkshire coast. My colour palette is changing as I'm embracing the northern landscape.”
She likes to experiment with texture. “Recently I've been using marble dust and cold wax medium to get different effects. I also use impasto gels and a palette knife to create interesting surface qualities. It depends on the piece and what I want to create. I like contrasts so will have heavily textured areas juxtaposed with smooth layers to create more impact.”
Tessa is working towards an exhibition with Wills Art Warehouse in London called Land, Sea and Sky, which will open in January.
She feels a sense of pride when she sees her paintings hanging in galleries. “It is gratifying when you have worked hard and struggled with a painting to finally see it on the wall, but I feel more fascinated by watching people’s reactions to it. I think the real motivation for me is creating something that other people connect with, and I get a real sense of satisfaction when I feel I have achieved that.