My Painted Tile Story
From reading Claudia Roden’s new book “The Food of Spain”, published by Michael Joseph, we discovered the beautiful art of talented tile painter Tina Hannay. We wanted to find out all about her career and work, so we decided to interview her. Here is what we found out.
The Foodie Bugle: Tina when you studied at Central St. Martin’s did you have any idea idea then that you might have liked to become a tile painter or was that art form not on the syllabus at all?
Tina Hannay: I had no idea back then. Emerging from an average childhood, in an average greater London suburb, where no-one else in my family drew or liked to visit art galleries, I had always loved to draw but was somewhat shy and solitary in my exploration of the artisitic world. It was the friendship of my fierce, henna red, Germanic accented high school art teacher, who refused to let me give up on any of my pieces and encouraged me to make the application to Central St Martin’s which opened up my eyes to the many alternative mediums that were available to me.
It was amazing to get to St Martin’s, not only to be able to experience art genres such as silversmithing, weaving, sculpture and fashion using the best equipment and materials, but also to attend lectures and seminars with guest speakers such as Vivienne Westwood. I was like a small child let loose in a sweet shop! My heart belonged to fine art though, so I pursued painting and discovered a passion for life drawing whilst there. I didn’t experience the ceramic side of things though until I took up an evening class in pottery a year or two after leaving St Martin’s.
My appetite still keen for experimenting with new ways of expressing my creativity, I found work with a local tile manufacturer via a recommendation from my pottery instructor, initially hand colouring moulded ceramic tile plaques. I was given my first opportunity to design and hand paint a bespoke tile panel there, for their installation in ‘The House of the Future’ at the Earl’s Court Ideal Home Exhibition.
TFB: When you first started your business was it quite difficult to find a route to market or were you discovered quite quickly?
Tina: It was a slow process and steep learning curve when first starting up the business with my partner, John Harper. We advertised locally as a tile fitter and a tile painter and gained work via adverts in local publications, from recommendations by a local interior design company and through word of mouth from previous clients. Although we established a great reputation for the quality of our craftsmanship the breakthrough came for me after attending a two day course at a local village hall to design and set up a website for our business, intending it to be a reference point for potential customers to check out photos of our work and read customer testimonials.
The omniscient power of ‘the search engine’ worked its magic and very quickly new clients from all over the UK, rather than just the immediate and surrounding counties, were finding me and asking if I could ship my tiles out to them. Enquiries quickly widened to Europe, then the USA, Australia & New Zealand.
TFB: You live in rural Suffolk, so at this stage of the business do you rely mainly on the internet SEO, or also on editorial features in magazines, fairs, personal marketing or all of the above?
Tina: Yes, we do live kind of ‘in the middle of nowhere’, but thanks to the internet, being rural doesn’t restrict my work one bit! I’d say at least 90% of my customers are brought to me via the internet and I haven’t had to seek out additional marketing since the website was established. It’s just so simple. I’m able to have a very ‘visual conversation’ with my clients via email to establish the designs for their tiles-tile panel.
They send me photos and measurements of the area they want to tile and pictures of anything they’d like included in their design, and I can reply with tile layout suggestions mocked up on the computer, scanned sketches of design proposals and photo examples of previous commissions which relate to their ideas and might inspire them further. I can send samples of base tiles via Royal Mail or international courier so that clients can see these first- hand to match shades with their interiors and feel confident in their quality before placing an order. Then once the tiles have been fired in the kiln I email a photo of the finished panel to the client, pack the tiles fastidiously, and ship them anywhere in the world!
TFB: Describe your studio – what does it look like, is it quiet and peaceful, does it overlook a garden?
Tina: My studio is my sanctuary. It’s built into the top half of a converted barn with a 6ft tall window one end which looks onto some other converted farm buildings and a beyond to patchwork of fields and distant woodlands. The scent of pure turpentine and clove oil is usually the first thing that greets you as you ascend the stairs up to the studio; that and the narrations of my audiobooks.
I love to listen to novels whilst I work, anything from classics like ‘Anna Karenina’ to the more recent ‘Hunger Games Trilogy.’ I often just keep on painting at the end of a day if I’m immersed in a good story, it makes me very productive, and occassionally have to wipe away the odd tear splash from a tile if the book’s a powerful one! (Although I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I am such a soppy date!) The studio is light and airy and it has a run of exposed pale oak beams throughout the ceiling so it has a wonderful feeling of space.
The kiln is tucked into a corner and keeps the studio toasty warm in winter if I time the firings right! Racks of shelving filled with cartons of tiles of all types, sizes and shades line the walls in readiness for the next commission, and hand painted samples tend to pile up in every available corner, when I’m immersed in experimenting with new glaze shades, but the best of the bunch are displayed on the small shelves of my ‘show wall’. I have two painting desks: one for small work and a larger, purpose built ‘easel-desk’ which measures about 2.5 metres long by 1 metre high so that I may lay out larger Aga splashback commissions in one go, in a semi upright position, and paint them fluidly as if they were one large canvas, without leaning all over them. A beloved old blue and white 1950s kitchen larder cupboard amongst other odd mismatched items of furniture houses a rainbow array of little pots of onglaze powders, glass jars of mixed paints, tools and hand painted stoneware pots filled with brushes.
TFB: Describe the process of your work from start to finish – do you make the tiles individually or buy them ready made? What colours and glazes do you use? How are the tiles fired?
Tina: I first buy in good quality tiles from different established English handcrafted tile manufacturers and use a process called ‘on-glaze’ to decorate them with my artwork. The decision not to make my own tiles frees me to focus solely on the fine quality decoration of the tiles and enables me to offer the client a much wider choice of base tile size, style and glaze finish.
The tiles are already glazed when they reach me, I then mix up my on-glaze powders with oil based and resin mediums to form a liquid glaze paint which I then apply to the tiles in thin layers, built up in a manner similar to that of watercolour painting, where pale washes underlie darker layers and then fine detail is added lastly. I try to keep my palette a fairly earthy and natural range of colours. I’m hugely inspired by the natural world, particularly the coastal and farmland landscapes & skyscapes of Suffolk and the flora & fauna that inhabit them, and amongst the cartons of tiles in the studio there are many boxes which hold my ‘treasures’: collections of pebbles, seed pods, driftwood and bird feathers.
My strengths have always been fine art and drawing from life so I’m glad to be able to combine my painterly skills with the ceramic process. Once the hand painting of the tiles is complete, they are placed in the kiln and re-fired to between 775-820 degrees Celsius so that the artwork slightly fuses into the surface glaze of the tile and becomes permanent. The firing of each kiln load takes about a day from load to unload, until the kiln is cool enough to open again and I never tire of lifting the kiln lid to behold the final results!
TFB: Do you work mainly by private commission for bespoke work now?
Tina: Bespoke work comes to me a variety of ways, via small and large private commissions mostly but also via interior designers, architects and specialist builders, Aga and range cooker suppliers and bespoke kitchen designers seeking unique and high quality tile artwork to complete their clients’ projects.
TFB: Who contacted you from Penguin Books for “The Food of Spain” by Claudia Roden? Did they tell you what they wanted you to paint or did you come up with the ideas?
Tina: I was thrilled to be approached by Sarah Fraser, Illustrated Book Designer at Penguin, who had found my work online. Sarah had quite clear ideas about the style and feel she wanted to achieve for Claudia for the artwork for the book: something traditional and classic in its simplicity. She was initially inspired by my rural British Delft range of tiles, but she wanted this essence translated to more Moorish/Spanish roots to relate to the book.
She was very open to all my suggestions and we seemed to be on the same wavelength with our aims for the tile illustrations so it was very easy and a pleasure to work with her. I always embrace the challenge of working in this way with my bespoke work, with as much input and feedback as possible from the client/s, and feel great satisfaction when I’m able to translate their hopes and ideas into a piece of artwork ‘just as they pictured it.’
For Sarah it was a slightly different way of commissioning an artist on her part. Rather than receiving the artwork in paper or digital form, the designs were obviously hand painted onto tiles which were then photographed for the book, and she said it ‘felt like Christmas’ when the box of finished tiles arrived at her desk.
TFB: What are your plans for the future?
Tina: In the immediate future I’m currently developing and adding to my set ranges of tiles, such as my Delft and Perching Hens ranges, and introducing new bathroom tile collections. I’ve mulled over the idea of expanding my studio in time and training other painters to hand-paint these ‘set ranges,’ so that I can then focus solely on larger bespoke panel commissions, but I equally enjoy painting the smaller commissions and individual tiles myself so I would only be happy to make the transition if it was in a way that upheld the high quality and bespoke foundations of the service I offer.
Even within ‘set range’ orders clients are able to ‘pick and mix’ from base tile to design to artwork colouring, and I can even add in the odd tile with a Delft style painting of a beloved pet, or their own choice of creature/subject, to match in with the rest of their Delft order and make their collection special to them. I wouldn’t want to lose that in a move to more mass production but I’m often wishing I could ‘split myself in two’ to get everything done, and am blessed to have clients so willing to wait the several weeks lead time in busy periods to ensure they’re getting their tiles from me.
TFB: If you had to give career advice to anyone thinking they want to become a professional tile painter what would you say to them and why?
Tina: If I were to offer any advice to future tile painters I would definitely recommend looking to take a course in ceramics to first gain a basic understanding of the clay and glaze components of tiles and how the application of different glazes and firing techniques affect them. I’ve mostly taught myself through trial and error and experimentation and although this is still a valid and enjoyable method I’d only recommend it if time and cost aren’t of an issue, and you’re strong enough to deal with the heartbreak of having to entirely repaint something you may have spent hours or days on, only to find it emerging from the kiln in pieces!
This can still be a hazard even when you know what you’re doing, and such is the nature of working with handcrafted materials. A hidden flaw within the body of a tile may cause that tile to crack or break in the kiln when put under the pressure of the intense heat during firing, so a resilient, optimistic outlook is advisable. If you also get the chance to gain experience and pick up tips working for any local ceramic studios of any type, that’s also good.
I’ve been lucky enough to design and work for Lowestoft Porcelain in very fine, underglaze decorative techniques, for Suffolk Larder Craft painting chunky, stoneware honey jars with a more simplistic, quick, onglaze brushwork and also for two handcrafted tile manufacturers. I draw from all of those different experiences and the techniques I learned from each of them in what I now do.
Tina Hannay Tiles: www.tinahannaytiles.com