A conversation with muse Chloë Tinsley
We spent a balmy summer morning with artist Chloë Tinsley, a painter of wildscapes who wholeheartedly immerses herself in the environment and the landscape to produce spectacular pieces of work. In the sparkly shallows of the Helford estuary we discussed her approach to skin and self care and how her work is intrinsically tied into her sense of self.
Do you know your skin type? Has it changed in your adult life and if so, how?
My relationship with my skin has been on a full journey of understanding. Ultimately what I have learnt is that your skin, my skin, is delicately balanced and sensitive, yet constantly pushing for renewal. It needs a helping hand with those things in order to stay clear and vibrant (and the less topical intervention the better).
My skin is totally intertwined with my life and perhaps for me that is and has been the secret and a contributing part of the many decisions I have made to get me to this place in time. Like a butterfly as an early indicator of habitat change, my skin a pointing symbol, a way of reading what I may not even know yet, a fluctuation, a beat of wings, in the lightest detail of things.
Early on, when I was younger, my skin almost didn’t have the chance to establish its own course. Eschewing the stack of beautiful, soft flannels my mother stacked up in the bathroom. I reached for the harsh products for ‘problem teenage skin’ as a right of passage, washing with a foaming soap and an alcohol based toner, stripping it of all it was trying to be. Ravaged with the best of intentions. Fighting fire with fire. The battle continued like war, I’d go softer, then harsher, I’d cover my face in foundation and it wouldn’t breathe, so then I’d leave it naked. I took antibiotics for years. Not knowing. Not really knowing how that might effect my whole makeup. My face was sore. Raw. Tickly with the build up of pink hills. That sensation of another one forging itself, not knowing what it’ll change into over the course of the day. Knowing then also that other people might see what has arrived, before I’ve had a chance to cover it up again.
The foundation would never go on smoothly, it would always catch in the arid cracks. My face was a prehistoric world, an atlas with time moving through the seasons in a day, all I saw were volcanic mountains. It was tough. Really tough. A harsh environment for a young mind. It did teach me some resilience, it did teach me to foster some self-love early on, to always look beyond. To find out more about what each face carries. To accept who I was and how I was in my whole body and to celebrate that and to not compare. That was a great early lesson. It has held me well. We are all on different journeys and paths, with different influences at different times. We move together, we breathe together, we can change the world together, but our individual dynamic beings, are just that, totally, brilliantly, other worldly, individual and in total, and gentle tidal flux all the time.
Ultimately then, I needed a softer and loving approach and something that would nourish my whole body, mind too. I’ve returned to simplicity: hydration, exfoliation and nourishment. A touch of of shea buttery, beeswaxy wizardry with the stack of cotton flannels, and my beautiful basho oils that meet my skin like silk, like they were meant to be.
Exfoliation is a terrible word, however necessary the action; it brings to mind big pumice stones with mouldy residue and daily sand-blasting, or a stripping of the skin. Cleansing is also a terrible word. It somehow implies that my skin was terribly dirty in the first place. Like I should be cleansed for doing something bad. It sits as a sea-saw word and an implication that I have sinned. I am who I am. First thing in the morning, perhaps I’m renewing rather than cleansing. Perhaps I’m just giving myself some time and a right to take time looking after myself. I don’t want these labels anymore, I just want to do what feels intuitive and right and carve new words to fit my rituals. I used to frown when I was told I had ‘problem skin’, the beauticians and makeup artists touting the latest cover-up would tell me that’s what it was. The magazines would tell me.
I held my own, I’d put up a fight. I’d still get given the ‘problem skin’ potion. I went to a skin specialist finally who had had some dermatological training. I have sensitive skin that likes to regenerate. I’m making lots of lovely new bouncy skin all the time. The old cells need to make way for the new protective barrier. I think I cried. We did that straight away. It was dramatic, it was expensive, it took a handful of sessions with salicylic peels, with carefully mixed percentages. We did some microdermabrasion, which was essentially some strange marker pen with spikes attached to a machine. It was winter in Edinburgh, the sun was not strong. It was a good time to do it. I ran out of money. I’d used an inheritance gift from my late Grandma. My face was no longer all the seasons in one. Previously I’d be battling all the different cycles that could effect my skin, my hormonal cycles, wheat, dairy, sugar, alcohol (sugar), some parts were clear, others were coming to the fore, some were receding. Some left holes. There was always the pinky residue, a cluster of pink sores sitting somewhere. Even if they were no longer sore. A bit like if you have been feeling super fit, then fall off the wagon one weekend, it’s always that Monday when you are feeling a bit ropey that people finally notice how well you are looking. It’s the same with skin. You end up feeling sorry for the people commenting. I’m fine with this, this is a part of my life, daily, all the time. This is my face. It’s ok.
And yes, I could have taken that beautiful sounding dosage of rocatin as a teenager. You that did. You are brave. I knew it was not sensible to play with mind-altering fierceness and I didn’t like the look of those sore, sore lips and eyes. Perhaps it’s here where I have to mention the pill. Why was it normal to take this as a skin solution. I tried. It did nothing other than inflate my already blooming body, it gave me flakey eyes. My skin dried up even more. (Must kill all of that sebum don’t you know.) Oh poor, beautiful lovely natural oils, I am so sorry I doubted you so! But the pill? That’s it, pour antibiotics into your body and (try rolling it over your face too) as a growing hormonal human, then swap for a break off the antibiotics and let a pill control your hormonal cycle just when it is setting its rhythm. We are women with natural cycles, not cyclic machines to be dosed. More on this another time.
Now, I’ve removed many of the lifestyle stressors that show up on my skin and added, creating a world that works for my work, soul and my body. I generally care for myself more. I take time for myself and have found a way to live without life rushing at me. I live with the pure sea air, and my core work is outside chasing sunsets and tides. I take time over things and leave creative space to do that. I might seem awkward to others, not everyone has that agenda to leave time to create, to flow, to make new. To do what I do it is totally necessary. Ultimately I look after myself, I get plenty of sleep, I drink plenty of water, I yoga, I’ve been meditating. Often the balance tips, but I’m looking for harmony instead, a way for them all to flow and move together dynamically. Sometimes more, sometimes less. The big change for me in the last few years has been the sea swimming. I swim in cold water, and it is great for my skin. Swimming throughout the year; It makes me feel alive in all senses. And then after my swim I oil. Much of the time, I’ve oiled just before the water also as part of my morning routine. My skin with a further barrier as I enter the water.
Do you have any skin-care rituals that ground, nourish or energise you?
My rituals are important to me, but only a few are rigid. The first thing I do, in the morning after my tea, I cleanse my face gently and carefully with a flannel and oil. Splash with cold water and replenish with one of the beautiful basho oils. I’ll also pop some oil on after a swim to revitalise and I’ll repeat the morning routine before bed. I like to have two oils on the go, one I keep in the kit bag and other in the bathroom next to the waxy house plants.
What is beauty to you?
Beauty is this held thing where hope blossoms and love is effervescent. Often we feel it or understand it, but when we connect with light, with nature, with inspiration. The most beautiful places are those where Nature has been respected, where our human touch has been gentle and our convivial lifestyle soft. Often there is harmony in beauty where you can see elements working together that balance and astound us. The most beautiful people are those that truly love themselves and allow that to shine through in their presence. Beauty can be found in moments, those time warping, expansive moments, where understanding is pure and body, mind and surrounds meet. The beauty I find and seek in the landscape can only be dynamically responded to, translated connected with, my own expectations to be surrendered. Controlling the time, the outcome; and my own presence dominates. Connecting. Being. Understanding that we all, all are one. That this wonderful Gaia includes us. This is the secret. Life’s secret maybe. There is strength in beauty.
Do you have a creative discipline or passion which you dedicate your time to? How does it impact your health and wellbeing?
My whole focus revolves around spending valuable time outside. As a plein air artist my paintings are created and produced out in the elements with Mother Nature often playing a lead role in the pieces and outcomes.
Modern life can still dictate a certain amount of time spent digitally connected and sometimes the weather through the winter can be relentlessly fierce and time spent at the drawing board becomes also important. I have however learnt to lean into those shadows and meet that need to retreat. I have never felt so alive as when painting in the driving rain and head wind or swimming in a storm. Shelter perhaps is a comparable thing. Our bodies really are the most amazing creations and recreations. I am humbled by our capabilities daily. Perhaps the trick is beginning with some sunshine and optimism.
There is nothing more exciting than setting out with a backpack full of paints and a huge roll of canvas, knowing, not knowing where the painting will begin. This physical immersion, this weighing down perhaps, keeps the painting present in my mind from the very first steps and keeps the focus. Here, then I am consciously moving through the space, localising myself, connecting myself, tuning in to the comings and goings of the wildlife, the flora, the fauna and the lay of the land. It’s here as I’m moving through that I let the lead colour settle quietly and begin to take hold.
Finding the right spot is always a process and many factors here will come into play, including perhaps my own emotional vulnerability at the time. Sometimes the view is so powerful at the top that it has to be painted, but I always have to be wise to my own physical capabilities, the resilience I am holding. Sometimes resonance is more powerful and it is better to connect softly in more shelter. Knowing though, that the more extreme conditions I have painted and swum in, reminds me that I am capable and removes the doubt in my own strength.
The painting itself, when I am in full flow can feel like the most beautiful dance, and at other times can feel harder, pushing me, nudging me out of my comfortable boundaries. The loose canvas on the ground, I am working within the bounds of my own physical body, the perfect simplicity found in the Vitruvian Man. Me, woman, whatever proportions I have, I hold them with my own human condition. The arch of my arm to all four corners of the canvas. These things balance with the very landscape I am painting.
There is something very calming about the rhythmic sound of the palette knife as I am working. The energy is allowed to build, pause, begin again, each stroke has a different tone and scrape against the ground underneath.
I feel so very privileged to have built my life around working the way I do. Often I can be drawn into the false illusion that if I’m not inside working at my desk that I am not ‘working’, yet the real work is there outside for me. Where it is myself, the canvas and the colours translating the Wildscapes I see, perhaps with a swimming reward between painting layers.
There is a certain amount of abundance of life and joy to be found in the natural landscape and it is always changing, it is never the same repeated in any given moment. The light, the tides, the movement; it all changes. Working across time is a totally mesmerising phenomenon, watching the canopies of the trees reach out to touch, the bluebells ripple over the primroses in the spring, the landscape to green then burn off as we see its thirst. Seeing the sea change in clarity and tone, rise and fall; knowing the winds and their transformation of the landscape and of course the light, where it moves and how each plant is tickled by it, reaching out for it.
Ultimately though, the viewpoint is from my eye-line, from my own physical position on the canvas, a stand or a crouch, a movement from side to side can totally shift perspective and understanding. I love this knowing that everything is in flux, in movement, in change and importantly renewal. That just like the trees on the horizon our own bodies go through cycles.
The year round skin swimming is a really amazing thing, and I never feel so lucky as to when I’m painting on the shoreline working to the speed of the tide, moving to finish the piece as it is licked slowly yet determinedly by the volume of water now looking to take hold. The paintings are readied to move, the last strokes go on and the canvas is pulled up beyond the high tide line and I can pause, photograph it and take time for myself to let that water pour over me and cocoon me in a very rewarding swim.
My Mum’s home grown and dried lemon verbena makes the perfect warming herbal in a thermos and warms me up from the inside out. It’s a little nourishing joy much like my oils that helps keep me flowing. The return walk with the backpack, the painting draped around my body, my arms in some way to allow it to dry, to keep the paint from melding into each other. Those distances a little longer, with my arms out to the side like a bird, with this canvas and the backpack, should warm me up. Seeing others respond to my canvases, returning home, with the paintings so brightly and excitedly is so rewarding.
Hydration is really important, hydration with love is even better. Loving yourself is perhaps the highest form of care and it is hard to sustain. I’ll normally have two basho oils on the go, one that sits in the bathroom and another in the inside pocket of my backpack or swimming bag. Cleansing and exfoliating my face, with a soft flannel and warm water, there is not a single morning when I haven’t nourished my face with oils within the first 10 minutes of waking. I’m sharing this as in the harder times of painting and swimming, or both, to have my skin nurtured, the most exposed part of my body: I find to be both a physical comfort and perhaps an emotional one. I have taken the time to look after myself. It sets me up. The backpack oil, if I’m feeling a little soft may go on before and after a swim. Before and it creates a little barrier against the cold: and after with a salty face, it just replenishes it again and I can move on with my day without the need to return home to start again. A ritualistic saviour.
When do you feel your most radiant self?
There is a moment when you are cold water swimming, just after diving down when you see the underwater colours softly separated, when the sound falls out of your ears with the water. When I am there, just present with nothing else. It is entirely magical, a nugget of essence, a quiet moment of splendour. Whilst here and after swimming time slows down. It seems to extend beyond, senses are keener, breathe sits in the body and your mind is vulnerable and open. For me then the perfect combination is painting and swimming. In the winter months it can be hard to achieve both. After a swim I’ll need to get my core temperature back up and get warmth through my fingers before I can paint. In the Spring sunshine and the summer heat, both of course are possible. Radiance then comes when I am feeling wild and free and raw. Most of the time this is when I allow myself to connect fully with mind and body and the elements. Swimming free in the lochs of Scotland and at home on the Cornish Coast, I am alive, I feel alive, my skin looks alive!
How do you embrace your own sense of womanhood?
I am best when I am wild and free, so I try and embrace that. To be happy in my own body but also I like to think that those younger girls who didn’t know if they could do it; stay that physical, be that creative, be that brave, make paintings that people love and connect with: that they can do it. There is so much we women are, we hold it all. I hope that they may feel a little braver, to live a life that suits them and all of their needs. Finding my voice and sharing it, in all its emotional nuanced ways, keeping that in, not stripping it back, retaining the feeling within that voice, seeing the emotions, opening them out. Keeping that voice hopeful, yet to challenge people to actioning their dream.
More and more, I’m asked how it is that I see the world like this, how it is that I paint like this with my palette and vibrancy, and my response is to remind them that we are all the colours, there is no line between them and nature. We are all and everything if we let it be. We are sensitive and powerful and so is the world around us. We are in it and through it and of it and of course, there then, we must respect it.
Pursuing the idyll, the place of refuge within the landscape, the projected physical space where outside noise is resisted and nature takes the primary stage. Maybe rather than trying to recreate isolated idylls, we should be considering how to make our whole world the idyll. Where the harmony is; how to live amongst nature, not to dominate it and consume it and treat it as other.
Our dreamy idylls are based upon truth and past realities, but I am seeing more and more with my pursuit of the Wildscape in my paintings that we can be relentless, that our hard hand is everywhere and our need to conquer and explore, linked with our often feelings of invisibility and craving for Nature’s nurture. How we go about that exploration, how we tread very literally I can see is becoming increasingly important. Sitting in the landscape and watching others enjoy these places whilst I have the privilege to record them, translating the scenes; they are getting busier, the unexplored and seldom frequented, devoured on a beautiful sunny day.
This is totally amazing, and wonderful to see the lightness and play and the care that most people now take to keep these spaces accessible. I just wonder if there’s more that can be done on a very dreamy level. Can our buckets be antique pales and our spades borrowed from the garden? Can we not just leave no rubbish on the beaches but consider not taking modern packaging at all? Who doesn’t consider removing a plastic container from a family photograph? When we go on holiday to these beautiful coastal communities can we do more to seek out local suppliers in advance to cut out supermarket packaging and food supplies? Can we use gentle eco products in the bathrooms?
Did we know that when it rains and the villages and towns are busy our sanitary services are overwhelmed and our drains meet the sea? As a woman are we prepared to explore the mooncup? As a man are they any other compostable means of protection? When we swim in the sea, does our shampoo, lotions and suncream slick the water, damaging delicate, localised seaweed beds? Do our anchors scrape the beds? Are our beach fires put out properly? What is being burnt? Is that ok to wash then into the water? What are we wearing to satisfy our beach body fashions? Is it sustainably sourced? Is it recycled? Are we looking after them, so that they last longer? Along the tracks and paths are we being careful how we walk? Might we take our shoes entirely off? Will any of this help?
Yes. The answer has to be yes. In our quest for more and more nature, we seek to devour it and search for it at the very speed with which it is retreating. We must be caring, kind and compassionate, Nature seems strong and resilient but is also very tender and sensitive. It is both. Like us. Gently does it. We are all the colours. We are joyful, hopeful humans and we do have faith in Nature, we just need to open our eyes.