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Trained at Edinburgh College of Art and The Royal Drawing School in London, where she won the Machin Foundation Prize, Tyga uses nature as a metaphor for feelings of being overwhelmed. She couples minute observation of the teeming forest floor – where the emerald green of a bramble leaf sits in stark juxtaposition to an array of cold blue silver leaves – with the flux and movement of unceasing growth. She switches from the micro to macro and a particularly favourite subject is a clump of Douglas firs near where she lives which she views from underneath, highlighting their dark and jagged canopy against the azure sky.
‘The untidy areas are the exciting bits,’ says Tyga who lives on the Wiltshire Downs where she seeks out the uncultivated corners of fields or patches of woodland floor to paint. ‘Things really do spring up in one day and everything constantly shifts around,’ she says. ‘Grasses and brambles make way
for animals; a shoot is there one day and gone the next because an animal has eaten it. A mushroom suddenly appears from nowhere. Everything is in a relationship with everything else.’
A rising star in the new British Landscape movement her works embodies an awakening to the importance of the ground beneath our feet.
Although Tyga lives and works in the UK she won an Erasmus scholarship to study at the L’Ecole Nationale Superieue des Arts Decoratifs in Strasbourg and for more than a year taught at the International Institute for Arts, Modinagar in India.
Her work is held in held in a number of important collections including the Royal Collection.
Q&A with Tyga Helme
by Dr Claudia Milburn
Q. What first inspired your practice?
Looking back to when I was a child, I loved playing alone, hiding under trees making dens in bushes. I have managed to keep doing this, having always found inspiration in being alone in nature. I always loved scribbling over any piece of paper I could find and still get a thrill putting marks on paper… but perhaps something really clicked seeing Constable’s small landscape studies at the V&A as a teenager… such tiny works, so beautifully drawn… I remember that rush of excitement of feeling what paint could do.
Q. What has been your background / training and how influential has that subsequently been?
I studied Fine Art at Edinburgh College of Art in a joint course with History of Art at Edinburgh University. I was quite confused by the disparity between the two worlds and felt a little alienated by art school by the end of it. I did, however, do a very memorable drawing course on my Erasmus term in Strasbourg with the painter Roger Dale. It was a life drawing class but not as I had experienced life drawing before, we had to question our looking and ways of seeing and responding. It opened up a world of possibilities in drawing for me and was a huge catalyst for me applying to the Royal Drawing School’s drawing year after university. I am so grateful to the teaching I received at the Royal Drawing School, surrounded by people who took drawing seriously and were open to the huge number of directions it can take. Along with the teaching opportunities after, and their residencies, it ultimately gave me the confidence to just go for it.
Q. Tell me more about your subject matter and the inspiration for your work?
Over the last few years, I have been very drawn to foliage, to undergrowth and hedgerows. They might be next to a road or in the corner of a garden but, in focussing in on them, they become whole worlds, I think of them as little slices of wildness. I like the rhythms and patterns found in growth and decay and the dance of the spaces between the leaves. Drawing the minutiae can feel like an exploration of opposing ideas; of calm then chaos, of awkwardness then ease, of known and unknown. You think you understand what you are looking at one minute and then feel completely lost the next. This is what I always seem to look for when I start, for a feeling of being lost, I want to feel like I have no idea how to begin. I guess some writers have described it as the sublime in nature.
Q. You work both en plain air and in the studio? How does the work develop between these environments?
I work faster and with more urgency outside, I seem to get to a place of happy accidents and surprises which is exciting. All the sense are involved, temperature, noise, touch and light all come into the work. Then in the studio things slow down a little which allows me to think more about memory and colour away from the subject. I think things become a little more distilled, but there is a perfect balance for me between the two as I need to frequently go back to drawing from life to keep a freshness and energy.
Q. You return to particular spots in the natural world and carefully observe the minutia of detail, for example, an area of undergrowth or brambles. Is this appreciation of the micro a means of understanding the macro?
Ooh maybe. I think I see it as a constant reminder that nothing can be fully understood and nothing can surpass nature, all we can really do is being in wonder.
Q. The quality of gestural mark-making is evident in your practice. Tell me more about the significance of mark-making processes for you?
I think mark making is my way into describing the rhythms and connections between things. There is a tempo which I can speed up or slow down and keep the eye moving around.
Q. Who or what has been your greatest influence as an artist? Which artists most inspire you?
I have drawn a lot from Vuillard, I am particularly in love with his sense of pattern, and Bonnard for his use of colour and memory. I always go back to Degas’ landscape monoprints, with chance and accident coupling with his incredible draftsmanship… and Morandi for the endless poetry found in the same subject. I seem to get more from today’s romantics rather than the more political environmental works, like Thomas Hammick and a painter I have just discovered, Maja Ruznic, whose use of colour to explore emotions and memory I have been finding totally mesmerising. I am also inspired by reading, Nan Shepherd’s ‘The Living Mountain’ a favourite about how we encounter nature and our relationship with it.
Q. What is the most challenging element of your practice?
Weather and sore back! But, also trying to keep the work evolving, constantly questioning why I’m doing things, to ensure I don’t fall into comfortable familiar ways of working. I also want the work to be relevant to today’s issues, but I also think I have to accept my way is quiet and hopefully there is power in that.
Q. You work in a variety of media. How do these different processes relate in your practice?
The pastels and inks allow me to work really fast. There is also a drama in trying to get things down ‘right’ the first time, which gives me an intensity while I work with them. My more recent use of oil paint has allowed me to go back and constantly shift things around. It feels very different mixing me own colours, the process has to become slower, and it has made me think harder about colour.
Q. You often work in panel format? What, for you, is the appeal of this particular format?
The panels are really for my own process, they allow me to work on small portable pieces at a time, which gives me a lot of focus without worrying about the whole and allows the piece to grow indefinitely.
Q. Acute observational focus is central to your work. With this mind, can you reflect and expand on the role of drawing in your practice?
Maggi Hambling says she draws to shed away herself and allow the subject to come to the fore. I love this idea, it sounds a lot like when I’m in flow. Drawing has this ability to connect me to nature, to the sensations it offers, more than anything else. It’s like a meditation, trying to surrender as much as possible to what I’m looking at, with little agenda, allowing myself to be surprised, to see more. Someone (I can’t remember this moment who) talks about drawing’s ability to connect the head, the hand, and the heart. I stop worrying about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, I’m just doing it.
Q. What for you are the desired essential qualities of image-making?
Feeling. The subject needs to be felt… and then anything goes.
Q. How do you see your work relating to traditional and/or contemporary art practice?
I feel more akin to a more British romantic tradition in painting, from Constable and Turner to Tacita Dean. Today I look to the painters Maja Ruznic, Cecily Brown and Julie Mehretu. All painters and all women.
Q. How do different environments, seasons, weathers etc inspire you?
The constant changes give me an urgency when I’m working but also reminds me how I can’t hold onto anything, nothing is fixed and no one place will ever be the same. I can come back to the same spot again and again and feel like I’m getting to know it all over again.
Q. What are the latest developments in your work?
I am trying to do bursts of work entirely from memory, thinking about colour and sensation. Right now I am doing small oil monoprints of birds and mountains using a very limited palette, I’ll attach a pic.
“I should paint my own places best – Painting is but another word for feeling.” John Constable.
This exhibition celebrates a new body of work by British landscape painter Tyga Helme and her second solo show at Messums London. The work presented has all been produced between 2022 and 2023 in different locations across three countries – the UK, France, and India. A young painter who trained at Edinburgh College of Art and The Royal Drawing School in London before participating in Messums Emerging Talent programme, Helme is invested in explorations of the natural world viewed through close observation.
Helme infiltrates the hedgerows and undergrowth of her environment, discovering and depicting the narrative of these complex microcosms. She is captivated by the minutiae of detail, the juxtaposition of colour, a shift in weather, the subtlety of changing seasons in these miniature worlds which confront the senses. Her work signifies a quest for understanding and a desire to be surprised, to learn by engagement and by embracing chance encounters in the natural world. These are very contemporary concerns.
Seeking out busy and overwhelming subject matter in nature with all its mystery and wildness, she delves into these enigmatic environments, responding to sound, touch, texture, light, temperature, and smell – all of which combine to fundamentally capture the essential character and spirit of a place. For her, this can come from her ground-level viewpoint, peering through brambles and foliage as exemplified in this new series of works, or by vertiginously gazing up into the trees, disorientated by the shift in perspective as in the group of works exhibited at Messums in 2021 including Upwards into Mystery and Drinking from the Skies. Working outside, she returns to the same spots, to explore her subject again and again, to detect the subtlety of changes, to be informed by her memory, by past observations, and her personal attachment, but always to experience the unique character of that moment and thus for her vision to be perpetually refreshed. Through this, she is reminded that nature is forever active and in motion. With her mind awakened through the senses, she responds to these stimuli with an urgency in the work prompted by this constant state of flux.
Helme’s approach to painting is rooted in drawing. Focusing on the essential qualities of acute observation, she aims for the work to retain the same energy and immediacy of response as in drawing. The painterly marks are direct, almost calligraphic in their form. She comments, “Drawing has this ability to connect me to nature, to the sensations it offers, more than anything else. It’s like a meditation, trying to surrender as much as possible to what I’m looking at, with little agenda, allowing myself to be surprised, to see more.”
Like so many artists before her, Helme observes the natural world with awe, perceiving something vastly greater and more complex than can be fully comprehended. She comments, “I think I see it as a constant reminder that nothing can be fully understood and nothing can surpass nature, all we can really do is be in wonder.” In this way the work is about connecting and about being present. She describes:
“Drawing the minutiae can feel like an exploration of opposing ideas; of calm then chaos, of awkwardness then ease, of known and unknown. You think you understand what you are looking at one minute and then feel completely lost the next. This is what I always seem to look for when I start, for a feeling of being lost, I want to feel like I have no idea how to begin. I guess some writers have described it as the sublime in nature.”
Working in India, Helme found the lack of familiarity with her subject encouraged a deeper response in her senses, to virtually surrender to the sensations of colour, shape, and rhythm. Painting in this climate required an even faster pace as she found organic growth was taking place more swiftly, “in the south things are dying and growing so fast, there are no seasons and it felt like leaves and flowers could come and go in a matter of days, which gave me a sense of urgency that I would miss things or lose them.” Works in this series from India include, What’s felt in the wings, Flare up like flame and Underwings.
The most subtle moments in the natural world can rouse Helme’s imagination and fuel the work. It may be one colour adjacent to another, a shape, a shadow, a glimpse of an imminent seasonal shift. For her, these fine details offer an endless sense of wonder – a process whereby looking at less enables seeing more. Holding multiple elements together, Helme considers the reaction of one to another and their interdependence on each other. In India, for example, colour itself became a catalyst for new ideas:
India offered up colour surprises – there was this one shrub on the side of the road with a tiny flower, an extraordinary blue, almost turquoise. (You can see in What’s felt in the wings) It’s so rare to see a blue like that in nature, and it was so exciting the effect it had on everything around it. It is a constant fascination for me how colours change next to other colours. It was speaking to what’s around it, pulling some colours towards it and some further away, dulling some things, and brightening others. Matisse called colours forces and it really feels like that when I’m drawing or painting.
The series of ‘nettle’ paintings in the exhibition – They whisper still, Days won’t keep still and Tenderness surrounds you, together with the painting Violet blue in clover – were created in France while Helme was on a residency there in 2022. Despite the pastoral beauty of the area (Pays de Belves) Helme was drawn to finding the wilder, more secret patches of woodland, a further indication of her desire to connect to nature in its truest form.
There are echoes of the paintings of Pierre Bonnard in Helme’s interlacing of colour and form in her panel paintings of brambles and undergrowth with the careful structure and balance across the picture plane. In particular, they call to mind Bonnard’s paintings of his garden at Le Bosquet with their juxtaposed tones of warm and cool colours, and rich rhythmic patterning. In Helme’s work, as in Bonnard, the eye is encouraged to explore the space and gradually discover the details embedded in the image.
Helme references Nan Shepherd’s book ‘The Living Mountain’ among her sources of inspiration, a philosophical meditation on the Cairngorms where the depth of connection to the landscape between writer and subject matter could not be stronger. Helme’s desire to immerse herself in nature with all her senses attuned, and allow it to be her guide, echoes Shepherd’s lyrical testament to the mountains. Shepherd’s description of water in the mountain feels particularly pertinent to Helme’s sense of what it means to truly look and listen. Shepherd describes,
The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower. One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking. But to a listening ear the sound disintegrates into many different notes – the slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate. On one short stretch of burn the ear may distinguish a dozen notes at once.
It is this ‘listening ear’ that one feels in Helme’s approach to work, the intensity found through heightened perception illustrated by her remark, “Feeling. The subject needs to be felt… and then anything goes.”
Helme’s working process reflects the ideas inherent in the work. She paints on small panel format which, on a practical level, allows for the work to be easily portable for painting en plein air but, more significantly, the approach permits the work to grow and unfold organically, offering a metaphor for nature itself. There are no ultimate edges to restrict the framework which enables the painting to have an immersive quality – the panels gradually building to create the whole. There is a depth and density to the work in her depiction of layers of foliage which recall Édouard Vuillard’s tapestry-like interiors with their integration of complex close-ranged colourations.
Representations of landscape in art, poetry and music can symbolise ideas of hope, refuge, beauty, intrigue, and healing. Helme’s meditative response to micro worlds quietly draws attention to the underlying structures in nature and the ecosystems on which we all depend. Her innate sensitivity for the environment reminds us of the value of looking, listening and respecting our natural world at a moment when it is being tested more than ever before.
 Nan Shepherd, ‘The Living Mountain’, The Grampian Quartet ed. Roderick Watson, (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 1996) 20. Originally published by Aberdeen University Press, 1977.
‘Bucolia’ Blue Shop Cottage
‘Forces of Nature’ Glyndebourne
‘Unkempt’ Messums Wiltshire
‘Inside|Outside’ Janet Rady
‘50 x 50’ The Auction Collective
‘Avoiding the Hodgepodge’ Crean and Company
‘On the Strangest Sea’The Violet Hour
‘All These Gestures’ Bowes-Parris
‘On Paper’ On Paper Gallery
‘Sky So Close’ Blue Shop Cottage, London
‘A Dream is not a Dream’ Purslane
‘Reaction in Seclusion’ Reaction
‘The Birds are Singing in the Distant Woods’ The Violet Hour
RI Painters in Watercolours, Mall Galleries
Derwent Art Prize, Oxo Tower Wharf
Forton Fine Art, Hampshire
Royal Institute of Watercolours, Mall Galleries, London
Auction Collective, Menier Gallery, London
Pastel Society Exhibition, Mall Galleries, London
Salon 63, London
Draw, Mandells Gallery, Norwich
Fresh Paint, London
OM New Contemporaries,Marlborough
Forton Fine Art, Stockbridge
The Pastel Society Annual Exhibition, Mall Galleries, London
Drawings from Le Mepris, Piccadilly Arcade, London
Extraordinary Sketchbooks, Mount House Gallery, Marlborough
Artreach, Bikaner House, Delhi
Turmeric: Four British Artists in India, Daniel Raphael Gallery, London
Residency, Sanskriti Kendra, Delhi
Breathe In Residency Show, Sevenoaks School, Kent
Lynne Painter-Stainers Prize, Mall Galleries, London
Sevenoaks IB, The Bargehouse, OXO Tower Wharf, London
Drawings from the Royal Drawing School, Christie’s, New York
Drawing In, Mount House Gallery, Marlborough
Marking Spaces, St Peter’s Mission Hall, London
Drawn from the Fleming Collection, The Fleming Collection, London
The Moving Space Between, London Morgan, London