The artist’s finely-tuned palette and skillful brushwork capture the mood of a place.
ARTIST DEBORAH TILBY is an oil painter of international stature, represented by galleries in England, Victoria and Salt Spring Island. A senior signature member of the Federation of Canadian Artists and signature member of the Oil Painters of America, her CV overflows with awards and competition prizes, and her artwork has been extolled in several international art publications.
Even so, Tilby finds each new painting a challenge. “At one point, I can expect my feelings of exhilaration to evaporate,” she says, “as I realize I’ve lost the plot and it’s not working out.” Then the challenge begins to put the painting back on track.
Sometimes she thinks painting should get easier with experience. But she also realizes it’s the striving to get better that keeps things interesting. Tilby is interested in anything related to the pursuit of exceptional paintings. She used watercolours for many years and now happily paints with oils. With oil paint, she can mix up all the colours she requires for one painting on her palette board. And at the end of the day, they are still workable. She can scrape off and remix with oils, combining soft, subtle tones as she works. “Blending colours as I paint gives me more flexibility,” she says.
We see Tilby’s painterly skills in “Red Roof Reflected,” a rural scene featuring High Oaks Farm in Saanich. This historic acreage is a busy working farm. Tilby makes the white barn with red roof a focal point, showing the open barn door, farm equipment, outbuildings and fenced paddocks. But these are mere suggestions, not clearly articulated, as the paint is applied with a minimum of expert strokes. It’s these deft touches with a brush that bring the painting alive. The watery field in front of the barn holds the mirror image of the red roof and white barn. Washes of blue-gray sky are reflected in the flooded foreground, blending into the wavering red roof. The reflections show the soft green of the fields, and the black squares of barn doors and windows. Light from the clouded sky gleams on the surface showing a mix of blue/grays, pale greens and purple mulberry. The softly-toned water contrasts with the greenish gold on the sunlit fields and barnyard.
“Red Roof Reflected” 21 x 25 inches, oil on panel
“My palette is limited,” says the artist: “I use the three primary colours (red, yellow and blue) to make all my neutral gray tones. I also use earth colours like ochre and sienna.” A tone or value is the amount of light and dark in a colour (or hue). Tilby’s carefully modulated tones gives a harmonious coherence to each painting.
Her success comes from years of teaching, practice and self-directed study. Tilby began to paint at age 17, after a few water-colour tips from her father. One year later, she had her first solo show in her hometown of Edmonton. Tilby later spent 14 years in England, returning to Victoria in 1992. In 2011, the artist did a three-month painting trip through Ireland, Yorkshire, Norfolk and Sussex. She was creatively inspired by the textures and ambience of the ancient buildings and walkways.
“Now I am learning to love the sea,” she says. Visitors to the Peninsula Gallery in Sidney can view “Portrait Of A Wave,” in which Tilby captures the energetic movement of crashing surf in a blue-green ocean. “Clouds Over The Sea,” also at the Peninsula Gallery, shows a familiar scene along Dallas Road. The low horizon line is topped by a moody, windblown sky. The expressive sky dominates the canvas. Storm clouds and patches of blue lift our gaze from the rocky shoreline and choppy waves. She also admits to a fondness for rowboats lying on a beach.
“Clouds Over The Sea” 20 x 20 inches, oil on canvas
Tilby’s enthusiasm for painting is evident in her animated explanations about process. She paints on medium-density fibreboard, gessoed and under-painted with a light sienna ground. She likes to press firmly with a palette knife, so prefers the support of fibreboard instead of canvas. Before beginning, she sketches out her composition with diluted paint, making sure shapes are balanced and the horizon line correctly placed.
Then she uses a stiff bristle brush to loosely apply sections of colour on the board. With a palette knife, she applies the paint, then tidies up with a brush. Or vice versa. Tilby uses high-quality brushes from a company called “Rosemary & Co Artists Brushes.” This company sells brushes that sport the names of outstanding artists in various mediums.
Strong paintings, says Tilby, are readable from three distances. From across the room we view graphic design. When standing in front, content emerges, and with closer inspection, the artist’s signature mark-making appears.
Tilby often paints plein air with a group of colleagues. Most times someone will look up from their work and announce: “We are so fortunate!” Plein air sketches record the atmosphere and details of the time and place. But Tilby’s paintings are completed in the studio. “Both places and practices inform the other,” she says.
“Morning On The Lane” 20 x 40 inches, oil on panel
“Out For A Stroll” 10 x 12 inches, oil on panel
In the private lessons she offers to artists, her favourite student is an absolute beginner. “It brings me joy to watch them discover how paint mixes and colour works,” she says. One plein air colleague, who is also a student, is David Good, a retired professor from the University of Victoria. He admires Tilby’s flexibility in the field, her ability to handle all kinds of weather and difficult terrain. “Deborah is a fantastic painter,” says Good, “who encourages students to experiment and find their own voice.” She gives candid critiques and understands the struggles that are part of painting, he adds.
Praise for Deborah Tilby also comes from one her colleagues, Catherine Moffat. A well-respected still-life painter, represented by The Avenue Gallery and Peninsula Gallery, Moffat first met Tilby in 1992. The mutually supportive artists are friends who trade paintings. “Deborah is a self-taught painter,” says Moffat, “with a fine sense of design and sensitivity to value contrasts.” She appreciates Tilby’s knowledge of colour theory, and how she uses complementary colours to build light and shadow. Tilby works easily with challenging colours like green and red. Moffat describes Tilby as a “painter’s painter,” meaning other artists can appreciate her finely-tuned palette and skillful brushwork.
But you don’t need to be a painter to admire Tilby’s special talents. Just drop by the Peninsula Gallery on Beacon Avenue in Sidney by the Sea.
For more artworks by Deborah Tilby, see www.pengal.com or www.deborahtilby.com.
Kate Cino holds a History in Art degree from University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.