Being of the Land and Sea with Erlend Tait July 23 2020
Erlend Tait is a Scottish visual artist based in the Highlands of Scotland. He grew up on the Black Isle, spending holidays in Orkney, then studied Drawing & Painting at Grays school of Art. Following this, he focused his attention on stained glass, or 'painting with light' and learned the ancient techniques of the glass painter-stainer for over 10 years. From an early age he's been captivated by the mythology and folklore of the Highlands and Islands and many of these tales relate to anthropomorphic deities within the environment. As a result, much of his work combines portraiture with pattern and symbols such as mountains, clouds and birds, and alludes to themes of ideology and transcendence. In 2005 he returned to the Black Isle with his wife, the artist Pamela Tait (with whom he also collaborates) and now exhibits his drawings, paintings, and stained glass throughout Scotland and abroad.
Interview by Louise McIntosh. Photos supplied by Erlend Tait.
I read that you describe painting as a constant glorious struggle, which I loved. Is this still the case?
Absolutely. I still find painting really difficult. My approach is: get excited about an idea, make an enthusiastic mess, then try to wrestle some sense out of it. I work ideas out through the process of putting paint down. I know I would save a lot of time if, for example, I drew the composition out accurately, then coloured it in. But I really don’t know what I’m doing when I start. It’s just a vague idea and I’m making it up as I go along, reacting with the paint and the surface. I’m absolutely amazed when creating a person in a painting, how their personality can change with the subtlest shifts of position or size or shape of their features. I keep tweaking until I can get along with that person I’m looking at.
You are also an accomplished stained glass artist. When you are working on restoration projects and researching for this, does this lead to uncovering new stories to explore in painting? Do you feel there is a link or a dichotomy between these two fields?
Everything is connected. Technically, my paintings in oil or acrylic share many similarities with the methods used in stained glass. Vitreous paints (kiln-fired glass paints) are mostly black or brown and are used to block the light passing through coloured glass. I often start a painting by drawing in black paint, then build colour on top, and I adapt a lot of the reductive techniques used in glass painting. By reductive techniques I mean frustratedly scrubbing at the surface with turpentine, ruining my brushes and wailing, “I can’t paint…”, until it looks better.
I do a lot of research for just about everything I do and the art of stained glass is rich in symbolism which I find fascinating. I like to incorporate symbols and patterns into my images which have significance for me. Thinking about a symbol or motif can trigger an idea, then the process of making that (or something close) leads to another idea and on and on. Everything feeds into everything else in some way.
When I’m drawing patterns, my approach is much like drawing a stained glass design because they both share the foundation of line and coloured. I’ve spent a lot of time working in churches throughout Scotland and I love the varied styles of ornamentation, and this is definitely something I try to incorporate into my own work.
However, in this body of work I’ve spent a lot of time creating complex patterns which have actually been stripped down to their basic elements in the end. Sometimes the idea of a complex pattern might appeal initially but then doesn’t work as the image progresses. I have stacks of line sketches and tracings which aren’t used, but might appear in something else later on.
What research do you undertake prior to a show?
For this show I saw an opportunity to focus on a theme I’ve had in my mind for a few years now: the Selkie-folk of Orkney. In Orcadian dialect ‘selkie’ means ‘seal’ and I remember meeting one many, many years ago at the Brough of Deerness and the experience has stuck with me ever since. In one of my favourite books, ‘The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland’ by Ernest W. Marwick, he writes: “The seals, who were believed to be human beings condemned to wander through the seas until the Day of Judgement, had a brief respite on Johnsmas Eve, when they cast off their skins on some lonely skerry and appeared as men and women, dancing through the short summer night with a pathetic urgency. Fishermen, crossing from one island to another, claimed to have been dazzled by their lovely white bodies.” It’s so beautiful and tragic!
I’m also in the middle of an (ongoing but currently on-hold) artists residency with Pamela Tait in collaboration with Inverewe Garden which includes studying plant forms. The selkies and the coastal garden have me thinking about patterns inspired by the sea and the lunar cycle, and the flora of Scotland, and when I was starting work for this show I thought ‘Of Land And Sea’ alluded to these themes, but was open enough to allow the ideas to evolve.
As I like to work on a few pieces at the same time these images have all grown together, and as I’ve learned more about the folklore of the Selkie-folk I’ve become more aware of the sinister aspects of the stories and I think this has come through in at least some of the images. Initially I imagined beautiful people with an ethereal quality, but there is also slavery and oppression and lust and betrayal and cruelty in the stories.
Are we going to see any stained glass elements in this show? You have shown me some metal inlay which is very Viking-esque!
I’m working on a stained glass piece now. It’s the last one for the show and shares some of the same elements of pattern and portraiture as the other paintings. The metal inlay you’ve seen is inspired by an antique Scribe’s Box my dad gave me. It’s really battered and the inlayed brass has aged to this beautiful subtle tone.
Can you describe a work day to us, knowing that during Midsummer and Midwinter you're obviously out celebrating some pagan ritual!
A normal day starts with a human sacrifice, followed by some drinking of blood and an orgy in celebration of the Earth Goddess, but that only lasts until about lunch time. Then I paint for a bit and go out and play on my bike.
Does following a routine help or hinder creativity?
I find that if I just paint and do nothing else I can get stuck in a rut. To keep ideas flowing it’s good to do other stuff which is one of the reasons I also like to restore stained glass windows. Using your hands and moving around can clear the mind and make space for new ideas to come and go. This is the same for cycling, running, playing guitar, carving – finding balance is key and something I’m always striving for, and not always getting right.
For me a routine is important but control of my time is essential. I need to really concentrate on what I’m doing and painting isn’t something I can just dip in and out of. It might take a couple of hours before I’m completely settled in to doing what I’m doing. Knowing that you have some other commitment later in the day is a complete destroyer of creativity.
Can you explain the process for one of your works?
In the beginning there is a vague idea and I have to decide which medium to use, but this is usually part of the vision. Then I make my own support. My current preference being linen panel, so I have to prepare the raw linen, then make a cradled panel to glue the linen to. In recent works I’ve been carving the surface, so I need to do that and seal it before oil priming. Then it’s ready to paint on.
I like to draw loosely in thinned oil paint. I move and erase the paint using turps until I like the drawing. Once this is sketched out and dry I paint with colours, starting very loosely then honing, and allowing the image to change if it wants to. As oil paint is slow-drying I can keep reworking, or leave it alone for days or weeks to come back to, adding more layers, re-drawing, so I have others on-the-go at the same time.
If I’m adding metal I can be cutting this using jewellery tools. I really like the look of old brass, not when it’s shiny and new, so after some research I found a technique to age it using urine, which is coincidentally also a painting medium popular with old stained glass artists. HOWEVER, I must say that after some experimentation I’ve found that distilled vinegar works better so I use that for both.
What does the patterning suggest in this body of work? Are these references imagined or historical?
There is a flower called Primula Scotica, or the Scottish Primrose, which is only found in Orkney and across the Pentland Firth on the very northern mainland of Scotland. I made a geometric pattern based on this and it became quite abstracted and then I reduced it. The remnants of it recur throughout these works although maybe only I would recognise how. In my last exhibition ‘Imaginary Friends’ at FB69 Gallery I had a piece called ‘Her Welsh Wool Cape’. This started as a painting of Pamela in an antique cape she has and the pattern is a straight copy. I failed to paint Pamela satisfactorily, however, so the person evolved into a mysterious approximation of not-Pamela! This led to ‘Rose’ whose cape was inspired by the elaborate woodwork around The Workers’ Hut – an overgrown relic in a nearby Victorian estate. It evolved as I painted it and I added a rose motif to remember my granny.
Do you have any muses?
Pamela, although I haven’t managed to paint her. Not to date anyway.
Thank you for your time, Erlend!