EARTHY & HEARTY – ‘Metamorphosis’ of colours and watercolours

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Watercolourist Tessa Neish is having her artistic homecoming this month with a much anticipated solo exhibition at Sacarello’s, guaranteed to make your coffee sweeter and your day brighter.

Despite being a seasoned exhibitor both in Italy, where she resides, and in Gibraltar where she already graced the walls of Faceframes Gallery with her innovative style, this is her ‘coming of age’ introduction to the local community at large. Having rippled waves within the international artistic community, her watercolours feature a contemporary and yet fantasy vibe, banking on the wondrous versatility of saturation and reinventing what is usually considered a classic tranquil medium for picturesque landscapes and picture-perfect village scenes into a dramatic bold statement of avant-garde search for novel avenues of abstract portraiture.

Living in the vibrant university town of Bologna, the buzz for inspiration is beckoning from the quaintest and most recondite medieval lane as much as contemporary ateliers, but Tessa knows how to keep her voice out of the choir, and style original and true to the Mediterranean light shining in her Gibraltarian gaze when it fuses with the earthy – and hearty – hues of central Italian sceneries. No surprise then, if a kaleidoscopic collection both in colours and subject matters was assembled in just over two years around the central theme of personal artistic growth: “I titled it ‘Metamorphosis’, and it represents my own emotional metamorphosis since I embarked on my artistic journey,” Tessa says about the 30 paintings on offer, mainly watercolours, but also mixed media and pencil sketches, sized A4 to A1 and priced between £250 and £600.

The subject matters are almost exclusively portraits, some of which in the form of personification of zodiac signs – although the few landscapes do deserve the onlooker’s attention and awe – or, as Tessa describes them, ‘portraiture of emotions through the sitter’s eyes, regardless of who he or she is’. “I favour portraits because that is what interests me: the challenge of facial proportions and depicting emotions through paint fascinates me, and I will never tire of it,” she says.

Her style is a sapient blend of Impressionism, Art Déco and Expressionism stirred within the abstract palette, but still varnished with a patina of expert attention to figurative detail and technicality, and the outcome is charming and uplifting, not just because of the elaboration of shapes, but also for the liberality in the use of jewel hues, sharp contrast, and the audacity with which they are juxtaposed to sculpt dimensionality, and often blurred in the dripping effect that seems to suggest how a painting is never truly finished and most importantly, that art will never dry out.

“The message in my artwork is that the language of art unites mind, body and soul,” Tessa adds. “It gives us the opportunity to express ourselves, revealing our inner world into a concrete reality. In my paintings, it is always the eyes which speak. The eye of the observer is drawn to, becomes part of, and unites with, the look and feelings of the sitter, joining them in the universality of the feeling I am trying to express in that particular painting.”

Claiming that she feels an inner ‘urge’ to express herself about particular moments, Tessa reveals how her inspiration derives from personal emotions and life situations experienced prior to deciding to put brush to paper. She is still ‘revelling’ in the novelty of her artistry lifestyle, which allows her to ‘grab the paintbrush and the card with both hands’ and just let her emotions drip on paper, as this has been her dream since a young age. As a watercolourist, she seldom paints on canvas, but she always uses card, and the thickest at it that she hails, in-keeping with the pride of her adoptive Italian region, as the ‘Ferrari’ of all watercolour papers.

There’s a downside to watercolour, as all budding painters know: mistakes. “As opposed to oils that take much longer to dry, so you can always paint over them, watercolours are usually difficult to correct. This is because you cannot paint over it as it dries so quickly absorbing itself into the card. However, the more you practise the technique the better you become and the fewer mistakes you make. I have now painted over 50 watercolours repeating the same technique over and over again. The key is practice and perseverance.”

As a teacher, Tessa used to tell her students not to be afraid of making mistakes, because you can always learn from them, and the worst case scenario simply lies in having to throw the paper away, but the best case scenario is the discovery that an apparent mistake may actually turn into the centrepiece visual effect. “You must approach painting with confidence and an open mind.”

Watercolours are versatile, she preaches – and successfully practises, and they can achieve dizzying heights to shed the undeserved repute they are a démodé pastime for Edwardian forlorn gentlemen with too much time on hand, but they actually become a powerful instrument in asserting the artist’s independence within the whirling currents of decorative minimalism.

According to Tessa’s tips, keeping watercolour funky is easy if you use plenty of bright colours, and you invest in good quality paint and paper. “Think outside the box when it comes to techniques and subject matters, without limiting your expression to the same old landscapes. Watercolours are much more than that.”

She names her mentor maestro Demetrio Casile as her main influence, together with his circle and other hubs around Italy he liaises with. “I have learnt to develop my style and I continue to learn by watching other artists. It is important not to stagnate by always painting with the same people. Italy has offered me this opportunity.”

If inspiration free-flows through borders and can break boundaries, some practical difficulties arose when Tessa took her Bologna-produced artwork to Gibraltar for framing and exhibiting. “The Italian postal service requires a special stamp from the Accademia, which involves copious amounts of paperwork, to prove they are not stolen! It took one week to deliver other paintings by courier and I ended up buying an extra suitcase for my flight.”

All worth the wait for Gibraltar art lovers to be able to appreciate them at Sacarello’s after the official opening last month.