Into the Aether with Erlend Tait October 02 2022

Erlend Tait is a visual artist from the Highlands of Scotland. In 1996 he received his BA Hons. in Fine Art from Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen where he specialised in drawing and painting, and then spent seven years working at a leading stained glass studio learning the ancient techniques of the glass painter-stainer. Now both traditions of oil painting and stained glass inform his portraits of imagined people. Erlend exhibits his drawings, paintings and stained glass internationally. He lives on the Black Isle with his wife, the artist, Pamela Tait, with whom he also collaborates and exhibits. In 2020 he was made a Professional Member of the Society of Scottish Artists.

Erlend's solo exhibition Aetherness opens on 7 October.

Interview by Mel Parker. Photos supplied by Erlend Tait.

We are thrilled to welcome back the multitalented Erlend Tait to our gallery walls! Erlend, this will be your second solo show with us here at Outré and we can’t wait to share it with everyone! What can viewers expect from you this time around?

Thank you so much for having me back!

My last show, Of Land And Sea, was about the Selkie-folk of Orkney and the title also made reference to the classical elements. This time I chose Aristotle’s fifth element, aether, which makes up the stars, and I’ve been thinking a lot about otherness – maybe from spending too much time separated from people. So I suppose these are… my imaginary friends from outer space!

It’s difficult for me to tell what it’s all about right now, but maybe I’ll have a better idea when I look back in a few months. As always, the work is open to individual interpretation.

Oil painting is still my number one medium and it just gets better and worse, and easier and more difficult as time goes on. For this show I wanted to focus on paint alone (almost – there’s a little metal in there too) and I chose to work on various surface textures which all have their own characteristics.

In our last interview, we discussed the 'constant glorious struggle' of painting. How has the struggle been treating you over the last two years?

Well, 2021 was tough going. I felt so unfocused and I really, really struggled to finish anything. I don’t mean laziness, because I worked hard and I like what I made, but it all took sooooo looooong. Looking back, maybe those paintings benefited from their slow progress.

Dealing with the fact that most plans had been cancelled or postponed indefinitely was a challenge. However, 2022 has felt so much better. A lot of the creativity problems I had are resolved (to a degree), and some of the ideas I couldn’t figure out are now finished and in this show. So the struggle continues and I still love it. I’ve been saying for years that I want to work out how to paint faster, but I’m gradually accepting that the laborious, time-consuming chipping away and re-working is an essential part of my process.

Your works draw heavily on symbolism and mythology. What patterns and images influenced your thinking for this body of work? What was the preparation process like for this show?

A lot of my symbols are shapes simplified from my natural surroundings, especially the sky, which have personal significance. Sometimes the research is partly to check that I’m not accidentally symbolising something unintentionally.

I’m really trying to make my own invented people, so I’ve been looking back over my older works for reference, my thinking being that, even though the anatomy and form might not be completely “right”, they will at least be mine – I’m amazed at how a personality can emerge from the specific placement of features on a painting of a face, and how much this personality changes with minor adjustments.

My main preparation was constructing all my painting supports. This is laborious and time-consuming but I like my own supports best. There’s a lot of woodwork, sizing and priming, and spending this much time fussily making them helps me focus and makes me desperate to start painting.

Can you tell us more about how you explore the themes and symbols behind your works? Do you tend to research or ponder an image or theme for a while, or do you just want to dive right in when inspiration strikes?

I did some research of astronomy and astrology, but really, all the main work is done on the painted surface. Apart from one which has a complex pattern I needed to work out, every image was painted directly and tweaked… and tweaked… and tweaked. What I think of as my 'finishing touches' stage of a painting is possibly the most time consuming.

I usually start with a vague idea and jump straight in which results in lots of re-working on a few paintings at a time. I sometimes see the composition in my head and start by drawing it straight onto the surface using dark oil paints and solvents. This becomes the underpainting and has to dry before starting on subsequent layers. I love drawing but I haven’t done much in dry media such as pencil or charcoal recently as I just want to dive straight into the painting. Then, as the idea is forming on the surface, I often read up on the subject that is appearing in front of me.

For example, I started painting a red person with white, empty eyes, and I wondered why some stars appear to be different colours. This led me to read about red stars (again, checking to avoid accidental associations with other people’s ideologies) and found loads of information about red giants and dying stars.

This upcoming show is called Aetherness — could you describe the meaning behind this title?

We’re all made of the ashes of long-dead stars. We’re all made of the same stuff, and although we might feel a sense of detachment from the world and a need to escape the negativity, injustice and greed of the few, it’s really important to remember that most of the people on this planet are utterly amazing and kind and beautiful.

I know music is a passion of yours; can you tell us about how music fits into your artistic process? Do you like to paint to a soundtrack, and if so are there artists or genres you find yourself coming back to?

Just Metal. All the time. (That’s incase my friend, Tweezer, is reading this). Actually, I do listen to other music sometimes (but don’t tell Tweezer).

One of my favourite paintings is Francis Picabia’s Music Is Like Painting because it’s true. For me sound and vision are parts of the same whole and I’ve always either worked on both simultaneously or gone between the two. I’m now recording a piece of music called Aetherness which connects with the paintings in the show.

While I’m working I sometimes need silence – if I’m working something out – and sometimes I need noise – to drown out too many thoughts. It really depends on how I feel and what I’m doing, but some of the bands I keep listening to lately are Elder, Eye and other Lisa Bella Donna stuff, Huntsmen, Howling Sycamore, Tera Melos and other Nick Reinhart stuff, Wilder Maker, and of course The Gizz! My first gig after lockdown was Yob in Glasgow earlier this year and it was pure magic – such a relief to hear live music again.

In addition to being an accomplished musician and painter, you’re also a talented stained glass artist. Are there other mediums or creative endeavours you’d like to try your hand at?

I suppose the answer to that would be, "Always." But when an image springs to mind I’m just looking for a way to bring it to a conclusion. If I’ve chosen to inlay brass into a surface it’s because the initial idea felt right and I try not to overthink as I’m working. I think it’s essential to investigate those ideas and see how they develop. On the other hand, I’m always wary of trying too many things and not making a decent job of any of them, so it’s about finding balance. So, I think the choice of materials and methods are just a way to make the idea concrete.

Also, play is important, and learning new skills and gaining knowledge of new tools and materials is fun. Even if I don’t use these constantly, it all trickles down into the work in some way as time goes on.

Last year I had an idea to photograph a drawing in different stages, and this developed into a short stop-motion animation called ‘Hairy Boy’. I loved the process and learning how to use new software (mine’s pretty simple) and although I haven’t had the time to make another yet, it all relates to everything else in my art practice. If I have an idea, I think it’s important to follow it through, but like everyone else I do have plenty of unfinished projects and some of them filter through to a conclusion.

Have you always been creative? What are some of your earliest creative influences?

I was thinking about this the other day and among my earliest influences were Ladybird’s Well-Loved Tales with their incredible illustrations by Robert Lumley. What a world he created! Later I would spend countless hours poring over Derek Riggs’ illustrations while listening to Iron Maiden. And when a friend showed me 2000AD for the first time I was absolutely blown away – the late 80s, early 90s British comics were a hundred times more appealing to me than Marvel or DC and I was even able to go and visit Jim Baikie (Judge Dredd) because he lived in Orkney! It was a key moment that made me realise you could be an artist even if you were from the remote north of Scotland – Inverness Museum & Art Gallery was very small with mostly stuffed wildcats so all my exposure to art was either illustration or Pictish standing stones.

From as far back as I can remember I’ve always loved drawing. At primary school it was pretty much all I wanted to do, and I hated painting. I thought all paint was school-quality poster paint and so I assumed that all the best artists were magicians. It wasn’t until I discovered oil paints in my teens that I realised “ahhhh, that’s how they do it”, and started on the endless journey of painting.

You often collaborate with your wife, fellow artist Pamela Tait. How does working as a creative duo change the artistic process for you, compared to working alone? Has this changed over time?

The best thing about working with Pamela is that she fixes all my mistakes and makes my work look better, so it’s just a big cheat for me, really.

We start by discussing the initial ideas and then we usually work individually. When it gets to a stage that feels right, we hand it over to the other to continue. Then it goes back and forth until it’s finished. It’s really exciting because sometimes it comes back with all my best bits erased! (I’m only joking)

In recent years Pamela’s been printmaking (etching) at Highland Print Studio but when everything closed this was impossible so she focused on drawing. I haven’t been drawing much, preferring oil paint which she’s not so keen on, so sometimes we go through a period where we don’t collaborate so much. However, we got back to it recently for a couple of joint exhibitions this year and the process was different for each. As a way back into it we started with a drawing of one of our friends leaning into a tree. The drawing is called Yew and in this case the piece of paper went back and forth many times until we were both happy. The second collaboration started as a working drawing for a portrait commission from the National Trust for Scotland: we were trying to work out what it would be and who would do what. Pamela drew a border and I drew a few different portraits which we chose from and trimmed and assembled together.

Finally, for the finished commission we made an oil painting on linen panel onto which the clothes of etched, inked copper were attached.

Describe your perfect painting set up.

I like working in my own space, knowing that I’ll have no interruptions. It can take a while to settle into that really deep concentration place where I can paint thousands of tiny dots in one sitting and still have time to almost destroy it and then pull it somewhere new from the brink of crapness.

Standing is important. Sometimes I’m lazy and sit hunched over for hours, nice and comfy with good music on, and after hours I sit back and realise it’s crap. Standing gives more urgency and dynamism and keeps the surface at arm’s length which is so important for me.

I’ve undertaken some residencies and I love these for drawing and ideas, but for oil painting I like to have all my special materials and tools around me. Having a guitar nearby is good for breaks too.

What can we expect to see next from Erlend Tait?

More paintings! Always more paintings.

And stained glass! Right now I have a commission and a mystery piece on the go.

And music! I have about 250 audio sketches I’ve recorded on a dictaphone which I need to make into fuller audio paintings.

That’s enough to keep me busy :)

We look forward to seeing your new body of work, Erlend! Thanks for chatting with us.