Tanvi Pathare on painting in Antarctica
Tanvi Pathare is an artist originally from Mumbai, now living and working in Florence. She has been teaching classical painting and selling her paintings from her studio in Italy for several years, and now looks for new ways to challenge and inspire her creative process...such as crossing the infamously dangerous Drake Passage in order to paint in Antarctica! Thankfully, Tanvi returned home safely from her recent trip to the end of the world, and will be running 2 workshops for us at Art Escape Italy in October and November. I interviewed Tanvi to find out what it's like to paint in Antarctica.
Tsiana: Tell us about your trip to Antarctica and what your biggest discoveries where from this experience.
Tanvi: It all started from being inspired to visit and paint in a location that has not been painted in a very long time. The first painter to paint in Antarctica was Edward Seago, a British artist who visited the Antarctic in 1956. So that is where the inspiration came from - to go and paint in a landscape which is so surreal it almost doesn't look like it belongs to planet Earth.
The whole experience was beautiful, absolutely stunning. When you arrive, it's just icebergs, you, and the 88 other people who are on the boat with you. And of course a few penguins and Antarctic fur seals! It's eerie to a certain extent, to see miles and miles of uninhabited land and no green. You start to realise that everything around you in your day to day life is precious. You take everything that's normal, like a green colour, for granted.
The most difficult part about painting was definitely not the cold... the cold you can get used to. It's the fact that everything is so bright, which means that there are hardly any darks in your composition that you can hold on to. It's really hard to make an interesting composition without any extreme darks...it was basically just different shades of white, which was a challenge for me. There were people on the boat who would joke saying 'that must be easy painting an iceberg in the middle of nothing, it's all just white right?' Yes, but it's so many different shades of white! The Argentinian crew working on the boat were really nice to me; they would sometimes move the boat for me when it was anchored to give me a better view of the landscape. And they would often give me useful snippets of information about the icebergs that would help me get a better understanding of what I'm painting.
Tsiana: You must have become quite close to the people on the boat seeing as there is nobody else around?
Tanvi: Yes definitely, and these cruises start in October, so the crew have been on the boat for 6 months straight! Ours was the second-last boat of the season. The last one would take a fresh crew to the Science station and bring back the ones who have been working there for a year. We visited one of the science stations actually; all of the countries have one down there and we managed to land on the Ukranian one- it was so fun. These scientists have been there almost an entire year and I think you need to have a sense of humour to get through it, especially during the winters when there is no sunrise. And it's just 12 men. It's a kind of loneliness that I don't think people can generally comprehend - like I don't think I could imagine it if I hadn't been on that boat. I was surrounded by 80 people and even then I felt a bit lonely sometimes. So imagine those 12 men... of course they've taken psychology tests and everything so that they are prepared and aren't damaged by the experience. Visiting the science station was really wonderful; we were introduced to them all and were shown around their living quarters. They even had a big bar there, in the middle of nowhere and a barman, just for the 12 of them!
Tsiana: Did you find out what they are all researching?
Tanvi: Yes, the guys there are studying the ozone layer, because the ozone hole sometimes appears over Antarctica, so they are studying the effects of it. Along with climate change, which was a touchy subject with them because it seems they have been told not to discuss it, as clearly what they are finding out is so important. Someone in the group would ask a question like 'Is it true that the effects caused by Climate Change have nearly doubled in the last decade?' And you could see all of their faces just shutting down. They are not allowed to say anything. But obviously the effects of climate change are far more obvious somewhere like Antarctica. The problem is that we are leaving a mark there even if we try really hard not to. The only human activities there are tourists and krill ships - krill are a prawn-like sea animal that the penguins, seals, and most of the wildlife there eat because it's such a small food chain. But fishing for krill has become a huge industry - krill are a delicacy in the Southern part of America. There are a huge amount of krill out there, but the more we take, the less food there is available for the animals there. And whenever we interfere with the cycle, we cause a change that may not show up now but it will in the future.
Funnily enough, whilst I was out there I adopted a Southern Right Whale! There are only around 4000 of them left and they are being closely protected now. They all have individual marks on their heads, like a fingerprint so you can tell them apart, and they have all been named. Basically, with the adoption you pay a certain amount every year to help them. The whales are declining in number and some scientists believe it is because they are getting bitten by the Kelp Gull. We produce a lot of waste in this area every year and this has steadily attracted more Kelp Gull. The Gull like to pick on the backs of the whales, feeding off their blubber and creating lesions on their backs, which can really distress them and is especially harmful for the calves. Indirectly this is our fault and people are now trying to improve the waste distribution system down there.
Tsiana: What was one of the most interesting scientific facts you learnt whilst you were there?
Tanvi: Well I discovered a bit about the Russian science station (Vostok Station) - this place has recorded the coldest temperatures on earth at minus 89 degrees Celsius. Their project for a few years has been to obtain water from a huge lake that is around 3500 metres below sea level. They are doing this in order to understand something about life down there. The ice in between the lake and the surface contains hundreds of thousands of years worth of climate change information. This lake, miles underneath the surface, remains as water because obviously it's closer to the Earth's core which is warm and the lake water has been isolated for millions and millions of years so possibly holds a huge amount of new information. The problem, though, is that they haven't been able to find a way to retrieve a sample of water from the lake without contaminating it. Apparently there is no technology we have yet that can do this, so now the Russian's have stopped the drill and they are waiting for technology to be developed that can probe through the ice, go in to the water and help us understand what is there, without any risks.
Tsiana: So this was a massive learning experience for you, not only about the painting, but about the science too.
Tanvi: Yes, I'm a very science-orientated person, I find it really fascinating. I especially find the depths of the Universe very exciting. I would definitely recommend reading the book 'The New Cosmos' and also look up the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson - he talks about the depths of the universe and the stars and how the earth was born. It's really interesting!
Tsiana: And the next place you would like to paint, if I remember correctly, is the Moon?
Tanvi: Yes! I really think it's possible in our lifetime. That thought kept coming to me as I was preparing for the Antarctic trip because, even before starting the trip, you're already thinking about what you will do next! What I think will be incredible is to have that perspective of the Earth... they say that when NASA astronauts first see the Earth from the moon, most have cried
because it's such a surreal experience and looks so beautiful and perfect. Also, I was thinking I could just paint from inside the space shuttle...but I do want technology to be advanced enough so that take-offs and landings are pretty much confirmed! This is my aim and I always have the attitude that everything is possible; I'm pretty optimistic. When you dream or think outside of the box or try to go further than most people around you and turn dreams into reality, in a sense you do not think logically. But if everyone was so logical then we as a species would not be so advanced and new things would not be created or discovered. Anyway, painting on the Moon is possible in my mind! But when I think of the amount of anxiety I had before leaving for Antarctica... can you imagine how it would be for the Moon? The fear of isolation there would be immense, for example, with Antarctica I was worried about there being no internet on the boat...11 days with no contact...whilst in the middle of the most violent waters. So the idea of going as far away as the Moon is mind-blowing.
Tsiana: Do you think you have captured that sense of isolation in your paintings from Antarctica?
Tanvi: I think so, yes. I guess you never really know until you get there what to expect. For example, for me, icebergs are almost mystical - the fact that they surround the continent and they are so huge, so much bigger than you can properly imagine structures to be. You realise how small you are in comparison and I'd like to do some paintings based on that thought. The idea of isolation carries through in all of the paintings naturally. I don't think you even need to try because the whole beauty of this particular landscape is how barren it is.
Tsana: So are you working on the Antarctica paintings at the moment?
Tanvi: Yes, it's weird because I never usually paint from sketches, I usually paint what I see in the moment, but if I want to create bigger paintings from the trip to Antarctica then sketches, small paintings and a few photographs need to be my reference. I've never done studio enlarging of paintings before, I'm a purist in that way. If I'm painting on a big canvas I will take the canvas out with me because the imperfections from that moment are better than a stale rendition of nature. But now I have to recall those memories of Antarctica in order to understand the feeling of the place. When you're outside in the cold, your brush marks and decisions are all commanded by everything that's around you. That is something that I have to replicate in my paintings.
Tsiana: Do you have other projects that you are currently working on in addition to Antarctica?
Tanvi: After this I want to start a painting focusing on the subject of Spring because that is what's happening all around us in Florence right now. I want to create a triptych as I've never done one before. The fact that a lot of the beauty of spring, such as the wisteria, will only be around for a couple of weeks before it's gone makes me want to capture it. So I've been going around and capturing wisteria in paintings. I want to paint a figure on the central panel and have 2 panels on either side, with the wisteria on one and perhaps a rose bush on the other. I really love the work of Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha, so I want to be inspired by their design when I am creating these. I'm subconsciously on the hunt for a model that will do the painting justice. Once I have the model and the painting going then I stop being so influenced by external ideas, but right now I like to keep the idea breathing and free, also open to suggestions which can take it in different directions. So for me this painting is at it's most delicate stage. If someone gives their opinion now it could hugely affect what I am trying to create. Although I sometimes view the fact that I can be easily swayed by someone's opinion as a weakness, I also think of it as my strength; it means that I am sensitive to things which can actually become the source of my inspiration, it works for me. I'm looking forward to really getting going with this project and I will let you know how I progress!
Tanvi is teaching 2 workshops at Art Escape Italy in 2016:
Painting the Autumn Landscape, October 21-October 28
Advanced Portrait Painting: Capturing Character, October 30-November 11