Interview with artist Tess Williams

Tess Williams is an artist based in London who has exhibited across the capital and the country and has upcoming shows in Munich and Cáceres. She studied at De Montfort University and Central Saint Martins, where she graduated with an MA in Fine Art last year. She creates large, striking paintings, primarily using oil, acrylic and inks on canvas, but has also created pieces with different background fabrics such as linen, leather and cotton to create different textures. She has also incorporated materials such as chalk, emulsion, bleach, pastels and spray paint into her work. Her paintings are captivating and commanding, featuring many interesting textures and bold colours. We caught up with Tess to discuss her process, inspirations and what she hopes to convey in her work.

What made you want to create and become an artist?

There’s nothing else that captivates me nearly as much, and nothing else that I could imagine doing for the rest of my life!

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How did you develop your own artistic style?

I guess it’s been a process of exploring what I find really engaging and where my deep-rooted interests lie. It’s also about finding what it is that makes me gravitate towards painting in the first place and what suits my sensibilities. For me, some key factors I need to have in my practice are freedom with scale, physicality in the making process, variety in materials, and attention to surface and tactility. Without those things, it wouldn’t be the type of work I wanted to make. It’s really important for me to make a range of work, and feel free to make pieces that don’t necessarily look alike. So although I have been conscious of trying to hone down a narrower area of painting to work within, I still try to keep it an open exploration so as not to restrict myself to one style too much. This means that my works can vary quite a lot from piece to piece. And in that sense I guess I have a less instantly recognisable or distinct ‘style’ than some painters.

Tell us about your creative process.

Before anything starts I do a lot of looking. Always absorbing imagery – taking photos, looking at books, the Internet, visiting exhibitions and looking back at past works. Thinking about what worked and what didn’t, and what aspects I would like to bring forward into new pieces. I also make smaller works on paper, and small collages which help feed into the bigger pieces. I have a lot of different sorts of materials collected in my studio that I experiment with to give me new ideas; playing and manipulating them, thinking about the different variables, and visualising the physical aspects of the work. My mind is always trying to plan one step ahead, about what the final outcome might be. I am often ripping things up or destroying previous unsuccessful/unfinished paintings in order to get parts to use in new works. This process of destroying to rebuild is an important part of my practice, as sometimes it’s only when taking something apart that you see how to put it back together in a more interesting way.

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Your use of different textures and materials is really interesting – tell us about this.

I hope to use materials in way that brings tactility to the forefront. I guess with a normal stretched canvas painting the canvas is completely hidden by the paint and the edges are tightly stretched around the wood. With my work I want the materials and their sculptural qualities to have equal importance as the paint itself. The grain and weave of the materials are very important to me and their interaction with the different types of paints applied can either hide or keep that visible. This is why I tend to use thinned down paints and inks, which I then build up in stages. They are applied in many layers so they absorb into the material rather than sit on top of it. This way the texture of the fabric stays evident. Then often in the darker, more industrial pieces I use thicker oil paint to give the canvas a heavier and more weighted feel. I am always trying to use and push the materials in different way; testing them out for new results or looking out for new things to bring in – that’s a big part of my work as it keeps the process fresh for me.

Do you have a favourite piece you’ve created?

There are pieces that mean more to me than others, but I wouldn’t say I have a favourite. After finishing a painting I may be happy with it at the time, but then I always think I can do better. And that’s one of the things that pushes me forward to continually make new work.

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What do you want to explore or convey in your art?

A lot of what I am exploring is the possibilities of what materials can suggest beyond themselves. Referencing the human body, for example. I am often exploring what can be identified as the masculine and feminine aspects of materials and colour, and playing with the relationships between these polarities. Heavy blacks and greys on thicker bodied materials contrast with the light, delicate translucency of finer cottons and fleshy colours. Folds, seams, drapes, layers – these characteristics all hold different associations. Similarly, sewing introduces a commonly thought of female domain, whereas metal staples and nails introduce the male.

Ideally, when in front of my work, I would hope the viewer could feel more aware of themselves, their physical presence amplified, particularly with the larger pieces where I explore the sensations of being grounded, rooted and small. This is how I feel when making the larger paintings/installations, and is why I love working on a large scale. Also running through my work are industrial and urban influences. Much of my research photography is of decay, over-usage of inner city materials and dilapidated facades. For example, a big iron clad building wrapped in a fine mesh while construction work is taking place, rusting steel panels, or a flaking wooden hoarding. In addition to these elements, the continual central focus of my work is the exploration of painting itself as a medium.

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What are you currently working on?

I am currently making work for shows that I have coming up next year. First is a solo show at Galeria Kernel (Caceres, Spain), which runs from March – May. And before the work goes abroad for this show, I will have a short exhibition in the gallery space at my studio building in London (The Bomb Factory Art Foundation). Then I have a couple more shows after this, including a solo show at Nir Altman Galerie (Munich, Germany) later in the year.

Do you have a dream project?

One day I would love to hang some really large work in a rough stone building or some kind of historical ruin. I like the idea of the textures, forms and colours of my paintings contrasted with old stone walls. Installing work outside of a gallery setting is something that really interests me – where there is more of a conversation between new and old. I like my paintings to feel worn, rugged and unfinished, so there would be some similar aesthetic traits with an old building that would compliment one another.

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What’s your aim as an artist?

To keep evolving and challenging myself. I would never want to feel I had become stagnant in what I was making. I love to see artists’ practices evolve – you never know what kind of work someone will be making in 5 to 10 years time.

View more of Tess’ work on her website www.tessrachelwilliams.com.