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Q & A session with Zanna Wilson

In preparation for her Solo Exhibition, "Ebb and Flow" starting on September 17th in our Bristol Gallery, we asked Zanna a series of questions about her work and the inspiration for the exhibition. This is what she told us:


How did you get into art?


Never in my life have I not been painting or creating. In childhood I was always doodling and drawing and every present involved art kit! An art scholar at school, I went on to do my foundation course at Winchester School of Art. Following that year, in the age of Young British Artists and Conceptual Art, I became disillusioned with many painting degree courses on offer and wanted to follow a more traditional approach to painting. I found this was on offer at Ruskin School of Art, the Slade and Charles Cecil Studios in Florence but without the support of my parents at the time, none of these options were available to me. The deal my father made, was that he would support me doing an academic course so I buckled and followed a History of Art and Spanish degree at Edinburgh University and worked in art galleries all the time alongside these four years. A turning point was attending art classes in Madrid in my third year and then evening classes at Edinburgh Art College on my return from Madrid. This further fuelled my interest to do Fine Art but it was not until 2005 (after three years working in an Edinburgh art Gallery) that I was able to self-fund Leith school of Art on The Painting Course with Paul Martin. It was after that when I took the leap to painting full time and enjoying an Edinburgh Studio at Coburg House Studios until 2008. Since 2008 I’ve lived and worked from a studio in Aberfeldy with my young family and have been busy with shows and commissions ever since.


Where do you get your inspiration from?


Currently my inspiration has derived from all my many trips exploring coastlines, especially on the West Coast of Scotland, the Outer Hebrides, the Isle of Tiree and the North Coast. These are all magnificently rugged and brutal landscapes where weather dominates life and I find it so exhilarating and a big enough subject to never tire of. Either in the peaty bogs, the machair or at the mercy of the sea, tides and whatever is thrown at you, there is always a moment when I just want to record it and get that feeling down. For the past 20 years the majority of our holidays have been spent exploring these areas and we’ve been fortunate to stay in very remote places such as in the depths of Lewis, the beaches around Sutherland and visiting family near Oban. I’ve also taken myself on solo art trips to Tiree, Crinan and of course many round Perthshire and nearby into Angus and Fife.  In Lockdown, all these memories and drawings and adventures have been vital material to work from. I quickly realised I’d spent so much time collating and gathering and looking that Id not slowed down enough to register just how much inspiration I had already recorded. All the places I’ve painted for ‘Ebb & Flow’ are very familiar to me and places I’ve painted again and again. The lockdown period forced me to consolidate and the life simplified enabled me to paint furiously and work with what I had already.


What are you striving to achieve in your paintings?


In my paintings, I’m striving to communicate the energy of the weather in Scotland, the sheer raw beauty of the Ebb and Flow of the tides, how the light that breaks suddenly from a sullen sky can transform the landscape in the blink of an eye.


How do you start each painting?


I start each painting with a rough wash and move around the whole board, canvas or paper, I do this with a broad brush as I get to know my surface. I try to be intuitive and impulsive and move freely in a great burst of energy. I then get into the nitty gritty for the subject and work on the surface as if its alive. All sizes of brushes are used, a lot of paint and its fairly physical!!


How do you know when a painting in finished?


The piece of work takes on a life of its own and it sometimes becomes a bit of a wrestling match. I’ve learnt to not just paint feverishy though and have found different rythmns to my work. The pause in working on a piece of work has become as important as the action. In the pauses, I often discover that I’ve done enough and then I see that the work is ‘finished’ although I rather disagree with this as a question as no work is ever finished (as Turner himself once said!). All decisions are guess really and sometimes it gets messy and sometimes one has to embrace the mess and all its complications. Much like life itself!


What materials do you use and why?


I’ve previously worked mainly in oil and beeswax and done my plein air work in inks and watercolour. Now with acrylic I’ve discovered the joys of combining my thick impasto with the immediacy of watercolour. The simplicity and immediacy of a water-based medium has appealed and for some reason the lockdown period has felt an even more urgent time for immediacy and output. The sense of time ebbing away was fuelled by my mother’s sudden death in December, ceasing the day in the moment when everything you’ve ever dreaded, has actually already happened, has meant that spontaneity and the need to just get on and be brave and daring has dominated my practice and spurred me on.


What is your studio like?


Literally the day before my mother’s funeral in January, I joined Wasps studios in Perth and boldly took on the lease for a 580sq foot studio space. Six weeks in, and Lockdown happened, I’m back to our garage at home, the tenancy agreement put on hold and working from home resuming. It seems that that the six week period in Perth acted like a residency, it consolidated my practice and spurred me to take a fresh look at my work and what I’m trying to achieve.  This in Lockdown, has stood me in good stead. I’m now back in the converted garage with renewed gusto and aiming towards a building in the garden… one day! The garage is so far sufficient with white walls, the ubiquitous cheese plant and plenty of messy paint all over the floors. Also a comfy chair and work space for a visiting daughter to be distracted by (my daughters are 9 and 11).


Are there any specific artists (past or present) that inspire you?


Having studied History of Art at University, a wealth of styles and artists have inspired me probably more than I’ve realised. Many Spanish artists such as the living Marcel Barcelo, the deceased Antoni Tapies and of course Velasquez are artists I admire. Recently I’ve been looking at the Skagen painters of Denmark and love their palettes and seascapes. Present living artists such as Hannah Woodman and Deborah Tarr inspire me and now with so many artists on Instagram there’s a whole network of support to discover daily. Other female artists have got to include Joan Eardley, Anne Redpath and Victoria Crowe. I feel proud to be associated with Scottish painters despite having had a childhood in Hampshire. I feel very at home in Scotland as a landscape painter (both my parents were Scottish).


Is there anything else about your work that you would like to tell us?


My work is not meant to portray or reveal anything complicated. It does flow out of me like a tide though, it’s a natural response and I’ve been told I paint with great energy. Hitherto, there has been a lot of torment in my work, but I feel at a calm point in life and a transition coming to my painting, a peace and tranquility, but much like the sea, I’m sure I’ll be in the teeth of a storm again shortly. My next exhibition is going to be called ‘Road to the Isles’, so hopefully even more excuse to get travelling west again.