FEATURED ARTIST: Interview with Nelly Tsyrlin
“My fundamental motivation to paint is derived from the surprise element of the open-ended process. I like the idea of slowing down the viewer, so they can't simply glance and believe they've ascertained the essence of the piece. I want my pieces to reveal gradually, inviting the viewer to return, consider, scrutinize and optically dissect. When I'm painting, I consider shapeshifting to create a sense of something that is deliberately unfinished.”
- Nelly Tsyrlin
We spoke with Nelly about how her arts practice has developed and what advice she’d pass on to other artists with the knowledge she’s gained.
Q: How did you realize you wanted to make art?
I began drawing in my early childhood, copying art images from books my father purchased in Europe. I used to spend hours replicating and eventually I felt I wanted to learn more—it was something I had to do. By the age of 17, I had no doubt this is what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t brave enough to go for it because there was a lot of discouragement. It was only after university and a few failed career attempts I finally faced the fact that I can’t change who I am and decided to try to give it my best. Art is a very jealous pursuit, it requires complete dedication.
Q: How has your art evolved?
Years ago, I was mainly focused on academic painting. I was determined to improve my observational skills and art gave me a puzzle I had to solve. After art school, I was somewhat lost, so I changed direction and tried printmaking. I loved it and for years I was doing just that. Eventually my printmaking practice informed my painting and I began to combine the two—resulting in what I do now.
Q: How do you know if a work is still in progress?
If I keep thinking about it obsessively—as if something is not quite there yet, but what it is that’ missing I can’t pinpoint right away—then it must be. In that case, I turn it towards the wall and I leave it to rest for some time. Usually when I come back to it a few weeks later I can see what it is that I need to work on. Sometimes I rework canvases; I’m never scared to take creative risks, even if it means compromising what’s already there.
Q: Describe your process when making a piece.
When making a piece, I decide first if I will work on paper or canvas. If it’s paper, I often create a monotype print to which I later add layers of direct paint application followed by pastel and spray paint. If I work on canvas, I begin by activating the surface with random mark making and wide brush strokes, focusing on interesting color, value relations, and the overall energy of the piece. As the layers build up I begin to respond to certain marks and discover the piece as I move on.
I often flip the canvas to gain new perspectives and check my balance. Sometimes, I imprint images onto the canvas and use that to construct my composition. When I find my point of interest, I try to finalize the composition and go into more detail, such as colour—each colour gets its line of story in my paintings. For example: when using yellow ochre, I work the surface to see where it can go; then I move to lemon yellow, which is cooler yet in the same family; then to a complementary pallet and develop that as well. I avoid painting with light and shadow and I don’t really model any detail unless I’m dealing with something more figurative.
Q: What sort of artwork can you find in your own home?
I love to acquire art and hope to add more to my collection. I tend to pick pieces that are more painterly in nature and are done in high key values. I love light, airy works that were created quickly and energetically and have a sense of freshness about them. At the same time, I love graphic design pieces that have simple flat shapes and interesting arrangements. Art books are also incredibly important to me: my latest purchase, Matisse: Cut-Outs edited by Xavier-Gilles Néret and Gilles Néret, is a book dedicated to Henri Matisse’s brilliant collages and gigantic paper cut outs done when the artist could no longer hold a brush.
Q: What sort of research do you do for your art?
I often work in series and do a lot of visual research where I build up my mood boards that consist of things such as pieces of other paintings, photographs, color swatches, cut outs from magazines. The wall ends up looking like a visual mind map. Even if my series ends up looking nothing like the original mood board, I find this incredibly important and helpful because it’s my mental anchor that keeps my thoughts organized.
Often my work explores a theme—when I am able to identify what it is I want to investigate, I look for existing material and read about the subject matter to find out and understand why am I drawn to that. For example: when I painted some of the pieces that you see on artfully, I was looking a lot at Matisse and themes like bathers, nudes in landscape, even Adam and Eve. I guess I craved something primal and raw and intuitively my mind led me to that ethos.
Q: Where do you make your work?
This is a fun question! I’ve converted my garage into an art studio. It was a spontaneous decision inspired by the light and the way it was hitting the wall. I love the atmosphere: there is something very cozy and unpretentious about it. The best part is that it’s home meaning there’s no need to travel and change locations, yet, once I step inside, I’m in my element. I set up my Instagram account the same time I began using it as a studio—that’s why my handle is @artgaragetoronto.
Q: What advice would you give other artists?
As for advice to other artists: first off, never destroy or throw a piece away, you can always recycle it somehow. In fact, my best work was created on canvases re-painted multiple times. It’s the energy that builds on that surface that helps to make magic.
Secondly, show your work to good critics—by good, I mean someone who is able to understand what it is you’re doing, keeps flattery to a minimum, and isn’t afraid to be brutally honest.
Thirdly, make it a habit to introduce new tools and colors into your routine; you will be surprised at the difference it can make almost instantly for your work.
Finally, share your work on social media and the web—don’t be shy! It’s a humbling experience.