Tanya Ling is a London based artist who creates paintings, sculptures and drawings. Her career has traversed both the fashion industry and the art world. She studied at Central Saint Martin’s and worked in Paris as a designer before starting an art gallery back in London with her husband William Ling. She has made fashion drawings for numerous clients including Louis Vuitton and Vogue and produced her own ready-to-wear collection. In 2011 the V&A acquired over fifty of her drawings. In 2014 a group of paintings and sculptures were acquired for the Murderme collection.
Araks was introduced to Tanya Ling’s artwork at Alex Eagle Studio in London. Instantly she felt a synergistic connection with the artist. She was drawn to Tanya’s paralleled mastery of color and minimalism–signature elements in her own work. The resulting collaboration bridges the gap between contemporary art and fashion with five distinct, original patterns of thoughtful, fluid brushstrokes and one whimsical creature, all set in complementary colors, presented on four of Araks’ signature silhouettes.
Below, a conversation with Tanya about her wide-ranging career, the artwork created for the collaboration and where her lovable creatures come from.
Where did you grow up? Do you think the location has shaped you in anyway?
I was born in Calcutta, India and have lived principally in the UK with short spells in West Africa and the USA. I remember everything in visual detail and have no doubt it influences my point of view.
What was your childhood like, and how were creativity and self-expression cultivated in your adolescence?
I am an only child. Although my parents came from a very privileged family in India, they arrived in the UK with very little money and started at the bottom. My Father was an economist and taught in universities and my mother worked in cinemas and retail before starting her own business. There were times when I was left on my own and I would draw, and draw, and draw. During my teenage years I was sent to boarding schools in Derbyshire, England and Jos, Nigeria. I also spent time in a comprehensive school in Nottingham where I was immersed in post-punk British youth culture. I followed my parents to Portsmouth where I studied art before leaving home to live in London and study at St. Martin’s College of Art & Design.
What excited you as a child?
Everything. I believed in everything. I was in a constant state of high excitement. Life was incredible. Around every corner amazing things happened.
I wanted to be a fashion designer.
Is there a part of your childhood that gives context to who you are today as a person?
As an immigrant in the UK there were times when I was made to feel like an outsider, and I still do sometimes feel like this, but I was also brought up to believe that anything was possible and this I also retain. I’ve had to row my own boat and make my own world, which is what I was doing when I was making all those drawings as a child.
You started out in the fashion industry working as a designer for both Dorothee Bis and Christian Lacroix. Is there anything from those early jobs in fashion that you still reference today, either as a way of working or in your actual work itself?
Both jobs required me to sit in the studio and make drawings, and I was spared the technical responsibility of turning those ideas into clothes. There were others in the Atelier who were paid to do this. Today I still make what I call my Idea Drawings on paper cut-offs that I have in my studio. They represent ideas for hair, makeup and clothes that haven’t been made.
You have received commissions to do work for several fashion brands including Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and Fendi as well as Magazines such as British Vogue and Elle. How does your commissioned work connect to your personal work?
I have been very fortunate that whilst my children were growing up I stumbled upon a career as a fashion illustrator and I had many great commissions. The art directed commissioned work is separate from my practice as a painter and sculptor but they cross over in terms of line and mark, composition, use of colour, mood, and the attitude I bring to production.
Your background traverses both the fashion industry and the art world, and it seems they were always connecting at different points for you. Can you walk us through your journey from fashion designer to fashion illustrator to fine artist?
When I was pregnant with my second child I made a conscious decision to leave Paris and my ambitions to work in fashion, and dedicate my life to looking after my children. At the time (1992) my husband, William Ling, started a contemporary art project space in our home, which for a short time was a focal point for the YBA scene in London. All the young artists and creative entrepreneurs visited our shows but the project soon ran aground as we didn’t have clients to sell things to. My husband supported the family through a job as an art teacher at a London secondary school and a lecturer’s job at Central Saint Martin’s where we both had met. Soon after my third child Evangeline was born, William suggested that I make the kind of drawings I made in my sketchbooks but on loose sheets, with a view to exhibit them. I made them on my kitchen table and William organized a show of them in Gavin Turk’s then studio on Charing Cross Road opposite Foyles bookshop. The drawings were seen by the editors of British Vogue and I was commissioned to make my first fashion illustrations. Following this, and a trip to New York from which I received commissions from Harper’s Bazaar and Elle US, I began a career as a fashion illustrator. Later in 2001, I launched a ready-to-wear collection under my own name. This I presented at the Mayor Gallery on Cork Street. Although I was championed as Designer of the Year 2002 by The Observer magazine and received a good deal of recognition in the press for my endeavours, it was another project that ran aground, and after only three seasons we had to abandon ship. My husband continued to work with artists on a project-by-project basis, managed my business, which he still does today, and set up FIG, Fashion Illustration Gallery, through which he began to sell my fashion drawings. In 2009 I was appointed Creative Director of Veryta a now defunct ready-to-wear brand owned by Stefano Pilati and Filippo Binaghi. I started making paintings in my studio in 2010 and portraits for a project with Storm Model Management who represented my daughters and in 2013 began making sculptures. I showed my first Line Paintings in January 2014 during Paris fashion week with Rambert Rigaud who had set up a florist shop in Rue de L’Université, Saint-Germain. Later in the same year I made the exhibition, Lines, at Alex Eagle’s first space in South Kensington. It was at this show that Damien Hirst first bought my work and at which point and I began to receive attention as a fine artist.
Was there a particular point in time that you decided to focus more on your fine art career? Can you talk to us about making that decision?
It was mainly due to circumstance and opportunity. I hadn’t planned a career as a fashion illustrator but was happy to do the work, and happy to get paid for doing so. When my youngest daughter, Evangeline, left school and could pretty much fend for herself, my circumstances changed, and the opportunity in 2013 to move into a huge studio in South West London presented itself. Whilst there, I was able to do precisely what I wanted to do without any interference from clients or my children.
Is there a philosophy behind your artwork?
I need to work. I have something in me that I need to get out and share. I never know whom the work will connect with but happily it does and this feeds me. Is this a philosophy?
How would you describe your art?
What motivates you to paint? Is there part of the process that is grounding to you?
When I was a kid, I wasn’t alone in wanting to show off and letting everyone know what I can do and I confess that there is a little of this that remains. Being able to make artwork is an extraordinary privilege and a responsibility. I have something to give and when I’m lost in the act of creating I feel like I’m doing what I’ve been made to do.
Your line paintings have such ease and grace to them - Are you thinking about anything when you paint them? Can you talk about the process of creating them?
I guess they represent a stream of unconsciousness, if such a thing exists. I don’t plan them and have no real idea as to where I am going next but I make them in one session. I don’t rework them. There isn’t correction, I know instinctively when I’ve finished.
In your initial line paintings you used ultramarine blue–also the color used in the pieces for our collaboration. In your latest show at The Mayor Gallery they are done in cadmium red. Can you share with us how you think about color as it pertains to your work?
I didn’t want to keep making the same work. The first group in 2014 was made in a Matisse blue. The next group, in 2015, navy blue. By changing the colour I keep them fresh.
How long have you been painting your Creatures?
When I made my ready-to-wear collection in 2002 I made a cashmere sweater that had woven into it a little creature that was a little bit sad, a little bit strange and a little bit sweet. I called the jumper my Sad Sweet Strange Thing cashmere knit. I make the creatures from time to time as I do the Idea Drawings.
What prompted you to start painting the Creatures? What inspires them?
They are a counter point to my Idea Drawings in that the creatures come in all shapes and sizes as opposed to the long limbed idealized models. They are kind of like self-portraits all wrapped up in crazy designs.
Can you tell us about the creature featured on the Elmar one-piece swimsuit?
I think it’s a ‘He’ and is typical of the breed–big eyes, a little bit crazy and unpredictable, but lovable.
Do you have any pets?
A yellow Labrador. He is very smelly and covers my clothes in hair.
You express yourself in various visual forms and media. Are there any that you haven't tried but want to?
There are a great many things I would like to do. Hopefully in time I will have the opportunity. Working in stone, wood, casting in bronze, designing buildings, and making films.
What do you find most comfortable and conducive to work in—what you are wearing when you are painting? Did you have a similar uniform when you were a designer?
Painting is much more demanding on ones clothes than designing at a table. I’m terribly messy and it all depends where I’m working. When it was cold last year I took out a lease on a massive studio that at times was so cold that I wore a ski suit.
We love your Instagram account - can you share with us your thoughts on using the platform to show your work?
I have three accounts: @tanya_ling is an ongoing project. I’m designing a never-ending mosaic in the grid view. I hope it’s surprising. @backyardofadream is more personal and @idea_drawings is more about fashion drawings. I think everyone agrees that Instagram has been brilliant for artists, especially those on the outside trying to get an audience.
It seems like your work affected Instagram, as you were one of the first people to show your work on the platform in a grid / puzzle form. Has Instagram affected your work in anyway?
Through Instagram I’ve become a little bit of a photographer. As there was no precedent, I didn’t feel the pressure of expectation so it afforded me a freedom that I hope is also evident in the other work that I do.
Can you share any favorite Instagram accounts?
What is something you've loved for a long time?
My husband and children.
What’s something you wish you knew how to do or that you’re currently trying to learn more about?
I’m learning to speak French and need to get better.
What time of the day do you feel most energetic and what do you do in those moments?
2pm is my moment for creativity.
Are there any principles that help guide your day, actions, or lifestyle?
I try to stay in bed as long as possible and communicate with the world through my phone. I don’t get up before I absolutely have to.
What is the best gift you have ever given someone?
I love to cook for friends.
What is the favorite gift you have received?
Can you share a favorite quotation, lyric, or line from a book or song that has stuck with you?
Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip
What is something that you feel is overrated? Underrated?
Overrated: Social Media
Underrated: Cigar smoking. My husband recommends it and says more people should do it.
Is there anything you could recommend to us?
Mark Wadhwa’s 180 The Strand
Can you fill in the blank? - Beauty is fleeting.
What are you currently…
Audiobooks and Evangeline’s band.
Not really reading - more looking at pictures in auction catalogues.
To view Tanya Ling's work, visit her website.
Shop the collaboration.