Artist to Collect: Deborah Tilby
The World through Different Eyes
written by Brett Anningson
"I recall very clearly," says Deborah, "the moment I first suspected that, just maybe, I didn’t see the world quite the way others did. It was in my late teens; I had been sitting outside on a step chatting with a friend and, almost without realizing it, was studying a low wall a few yards away. It had nails sticking out at odd angles and the very oblique light was casting wonderful long shadows. I commented on the beautiful colours in the shadows and the look my friend gave me said it all." Deborah Tilby grew up in Alberta, the daughter
of a very creative family. Her father designed schools and houses, invented and designed machinery, sculpted and made murals, while her mother created with her sewing machine and was inventive in the activities she dreamed up for her kids. There was never a moment when a supply of raw craft materials was not nearby. Many painters say they know from a very early age that they were ‘artists’ but for Deborah it was a little later in coming. By her mid-teens, the need to create really took hold. "It was my all-consuming love for horses that was the beginning of my passion for drawing and, later, for painting. I spent many hours sitting in a haystack drawing the horses in our neighbour’s field, drawing the horses in magazines, continually drawing horses. I remember that I had difficulty with muzzles and hooves, so my horses were always eating hay and standing in tall grass." Deborah always felt encouraged in artistic endeavours; her creativity acknowledged when she was given a set of oil paints, sketch paper and pencils. She says, "My parents never criticized and I started drawing everything in sight – the vacuum cleaner, my hands and feet, furniture, toaster, my sister’s ragdoll, bits of old saddlery and farming tools that I collected. I loved pencil drawing and still have the pencil my father gave me at that time. It is held together with masking tape but is still in daily use. He also gave me a wooden drawing pen and a tin full of nibs. I still have both, and treasure them." The oils resulted in two paintings, a vase of flowers and a portrait from a photo in a magazine. Then Deborah was asked to do a watercolour for
her school art class … she did a small painting of the horse shelter in the back field and was instantly hooked. Watercolour became one of her favourite mediums. There were times when she asked her father for tips, but she also learned a great deal by reading about and studying artists she admired. She would pore over works by Andrew Wyeth, Russell Flint, Rowland Hilder and Trevor Chamberlain, to name but a few. And she painted constantly, learning by trial and error. At the age of 18 Deborah had her first show, jointly with her father, at the Johnson Galleries in Edmonton. Her family moved to Victoria, BC the next year, where she was represented by Leafhill Gallery in Bastion Square. Then, at 21, she crossed the strait to live in Vancouver and started showing with Harrison Galleries.
The Mad Idea of Moving
In trying to figure out the art world and how to survive, Deborah got what she calls "the mad idea" that she wanted to get into illustration. Acting upon the advice of a creative director, who happened to be British, she took off for London, England planning to find a job in an illustration studio, work for a year and return to Vancouver, hopefully more qualified. This creative director seemed to think that the large number of such studios in London would make it easier to get that all-important first job. It was a good idea. Deborah managed to last four years in advertising before admitting it was not for her – but it would be another 14 before she returned to Canada with a family in tow. "The minute I arrived in London I felt that I had found what I truly wanted to paint!" Deborah
exclaims. "I was totally captivated by the old buildings, the streets, the cottages, the gardens, doorways and windows, the chimneys (I had quite a thing about chimneys) and everywhere we travelled in England and Europe there was something interesting and inspiring to paint. We always travelled by motorbike. Every September we loaded up the bike and headed across the channel with only a rough idea of where we were headed, but never really planning anything. Travelling in this way gave us the freedom and fun of being in the moment, but it did mean we had quite the stories to tell about some very ‘interesting’ accommodations." Deborah is not a painter who remains satisfied for long. She credits this to a keen awareness of where she wants to be, mixed with the constant desire to see more, do more, understand more, perhaps say more with less – so there is always a struggle, but it is within this tension that growth occurs. This was evident while in Europe, with the seeming inability to confine herself to one space. Many of her watercolours during this period were from France, Italy and Spain. She had found gallery representation in London and Kent, but also continued to send works back to Leafhill Gallery in Victoria, where they were very well received.
Deborah now lives in Victoria again, and mostly works in oils. She considers herself a representational painter who works both in the studio and in the field. "Most often I am attracted first by the light and shadows, which I want to capture in a simple and painterly manner, and
then by textures and detail; my struggle is to find a balance between the two. It is something I am always working towards, always seeking to 'loosen up' yet still capture some of the detail that interests me. Although each painting, each subject, asks for its own approach and treatment." Deborah has had a variety of studios over the years, attics, garages, and bedrooms but one thing they all have in common is the presence of at least one cat. They sleep under a desk lamp or drinking the paint water if she isn’t paying attention. When it comes to the artistic process, there are certain steps she follows. Whether out in the field or in the studio, she generally begins a piece by sketching in with diluted colour, just enough to place the composition within the space. Then she mixes up most of the colours that she thinks she will use. This is actually the seeing and thinking time, the space for internal work. "None of the colours are set in stone, they will be added to, subtracted from and smooshed together through the course of the painting, but I find it really helps with the flow of the work if I have the main colours ready to go." Next, she usually puts in a touch of the lightest light and the darkest dark and then lays in the shadow and light areas. Then it is time to stand back, assess and make adjustments before moving on. "My oil paintings are a combination of thin, at times washy, application and thicker brush or knife strokes," Deborah explains. "I am very fond of my Connoisseur palette knives, which is one reason I favour panels over canvas, as the knives seem to work better for me on the smoother surface." "I am not a formulaic painter," she continues, "I tend to feel my way through a painting, sometimes not really knowing at the outset exactly how I will get where I want to go. Maybe this illustrates an expression I enjoy – the definition of painting is making a mess, then fixing it. During the course of a painting I find that I experience the full range of
emotion from elation to despair and everything in between. The block in is the most exciting stage, the time when everything is still possible and it is going to be the best thing I’ve ever done, and at least once in almost every painting there will come a point where I feel I have completely lost the plot and have to struggle to find my way back." Deborah is largely a tonal painter, drawn to soft neutrals and subtle colour. The effect of light and shadow fascinate her, as she uses primary colours to mix her way through greens, greys and browns. Her style is not photorealism, but what she calls a looser, painterly style – perhaps a controlled looseness. "I believe it is differences in mark making that most distinguish one painter from another," Deborah concludes. "The way we apply the paint is our signature. Even after all these years as a professional artist, the greatest buzz of all comes from knowing that someone likes something I made enough to hang it in his or her home and look at it every day. That truly makes it all worthwhile!" To see more of the work of Deborah Tilby, navigate over to www.deborahtilby.com, or contact her at email@example.com Deborah is represented by: Gallery 8 Salt Spring Island, BC www.artgallery8.com 250.537.8822
left, When the Tide Comes In, oil on panel, 36" x 24" above, Shore time, oil on panel, 24" x 18"
above, Calm Before the Storm, oil on panel, 16" x 16" right, Finished For the Day, oil on panel, 24" x 18"
previous spread, A Chilly Morning, oil on panel, 18" x 24" above, Five Small Boats, oil on panel, 18" x 18"
Blue Rowboat, oil on panel, 24" x 24"
previous spread, The Windmill and the Cows, oil on panel, 18" x 24" above, Hidden in the Woods, oil on panel, 16" x 20"
previous spread, Spring Flooding, oil on panel, 26" x 36" left, Over the Rocks, oil on panel, 16" x 20" above, Blue Boat in the Bay, oil on panel, 12" x 12"