If there is a free-roam chicken in your living room, chances are that Tanja Gardner knows something about it. Over her successful career as an artist, Gardner has gone deep on a number of subjects. One of her most celebrated forays? Chickens.
“I have painted a lot of chicken paintings,” nods Gardner. “The first was 30 years ago in Spain and the last one I painted this year was a Saltspring Island chicken! The French say chickens are good luck. For me it is not the meaning, but the brushstrokes. The feathers have great movement.”
“I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said: ‘I dream of a world where the intentions of a chicken crossing the road won’t be questioned.’ I thought that was funny! I really don’t choose themes or subjects. I paint what catches my eye.”
Recently, Gardner – who exhibits in the Ian Tan Gallery – has been doing a lovely series on cakes. “They bring me pleasure, because of the playful brushwork of the icing and flowers. Instead of the cake toppers standing erect at the top of the cake, they are now figures jumping, climbing or skiing off layers of the cake. It is meant to be fun!”
Gardner can’t remember a time when she wasn’t painting. “I don’t remember making a decision to be a professional artist. It just happened. I never saw it as a decision. It was me being selfish and stealing time to do art for myself. I am still planning on getting a job one day when I have time for it!”
With a busy family life, Gardner integrates her painting into the day-to-day. “I am a mom first, a wife second and an artist third. But on some days, this order changes. On those days, take-out pizza is the answer. I have a supportive family, so that allows for some crazy hours of painting.”
“I have covered every inch of our house in paint. Windowsills to floors are splattered in paint. I try not to get it in the food. I quite often jump in the car and get oil paint on the seats, which then transfers itself to the next driver’s jacket.”
Gardner was schooled in traditional European methods. She earned her BA in Art History and Fine Arts from Franklin College in Lugano, Switzerland. She was able to study artists and techniques from Italy to Spain, France to England. “I am a painterly painter. The goal is to not hide the brushstrokes, but to keep it loose, layer colour and to remember paint is paint.”
She has always taken reams of photos. “Storage full’ is an everyday occurrence. The photos give you the information; they are not for copying. Shape, colour, line or movement is motivation.”
Gardner also enjoys the advantages that technology can bring. “The iPad is a great tool for taking a quick photo and then, with your finger, you can do a quick gestural sketch with the drawing app. You can sketch everything from burlesque dancers to the kids jumping through the waves. There is even a charcoal tool on the sketching app.”
In order to continue evolving as an artist, Gardner pushes herself to take chances and try new things. “Sometimes if an artist is doing well, it is tempting to stick to a formula. There are so many new mediums and products. It is important to try things out and to explore.”
“Acrylics now have gels and mediums. Oils have changed a lot with water soluble options and faster drying colours. The digital world allows Photoshop and lots of options for mixed media. YouTube offers fabulous art demos for artists who don’t have time for extra classes. It is important to keep learning.”
What other insights would Gardner offer to those looking to work professionally as artists?
1. Understand the materials
“Do as many classes as you can afford to do. Have different teachers with different styles and experiment like crazy.
2. Be reflective
Watch and see what brings you the most joy. It shouldn’t be a struggle. When it is flowing, that is your art language. What comes naturally is the best.
The greatest challenge in pursuing life as an artist is not procrastinating. I trick myself into starting by saying: ‘I am going to draw for 10 minutes to do a warm-up and then, voila, I have painted for hours. If you try to schedule time, there are always lists of other things to do. You need to just sit and start.”
This hands-on creativity is not just for artists, says Gardner. Everyone can find an outlet for creative expression.
Encourage Child Creativity
“I hope all parents let their kids have the materials and time to paint. Even if one doesn’t do art as a career, it is important to be exposed to art at an early age. It is important for art to be a positive experience with encouragement.”
Find Your Adult Outlet
“I truly believe we are all artists. Cooking, building cars, gardening, woodworking, painting, photography and sculpting are just a few artistic ways of expressing ourselves. At some point in our lives, everyone needs the downtime to create. It doesn’t matter what the final product is. What is important is doing it and enjoying it.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
*Photos courtesy of Tanja Gardner, represented by the Ian Tan Gallery