Tansy Lee Moir is an artist inspired by the forms and stories of old trees.

Lee Moir's work encourages the viewer to look at trees in new ways— to think about our ancient, layered relationships with these living organisms.

Working in charcoal, pastel and oil for more than 25 years, this artist aims to capture the essence and energy of trees, "transmitting their life force through the artwork."

"An ancient oak may have lived five centuries before the moment I draw it," said Lee Moir. "and it will continue for another five centuries after I leave." Lee Moir explains that tree time is different than our sense of human time and her drawing explores the expressive qualities of the trees she observes.

Almost resembling the human form at times, her charcoals morph into more than just a realistic depiction of a landscape. Each tree contains something more—a figure, a body of water, a ghost, a network of nerves—an almost Rorschach test for the viewer to make their own meaning from the abstraction. 

Lee Moir says that her paintings also "celebrate the resilience of trees and their sculptural responses to adversity." You can see this in the trees she chooses to paint—knotted with big burls that cause the trees to twist and take on different, less direct paths—yet learning to adapt to their surroundings. 

Artwork Archive had the chance to ask Tansy Lee Moir a few questions about the importance of this subject matter and how it has developed over time. 

You can read more below and see more of Tansy Lee Moir's work on Discovery to see how the dramatic charcoals might change your relationship with trees. 

Has your work changed over time—do you find yourself understanding your art career through different periods of expression?

Drawing has always been central to my practice, though I’ve had a varied creative career including being a puppeteer, sculptor, and community artist.

Around 15 years ago I shifted my focus to a more expressive approach to drawing and felt a strong pull toward trees as my subject. In those early days, my style was quite illustrative, but once I rediscovered my love of charcoal things got darker, bolder, and more emotional.

I know I’ll never tire of trees as a starting point for my art, but my responses and mediums have varied over the years, often linked to changes in my situation and in society. For instance, while my mother was being treated for breast cancer my charcoal works became more about the human-like forms we see in trees and the scarring created by human intervention.

At the start of the pandemic, I created a whole series of colorful pastel works inspired by ‘Phoenix trees’ – trees that regenerate after a catastrophe — a symbol of hope from nature. My current oil paintings capture the feeling of solidity and endurance over great spans of time which I find with old trees, providing comfort and groundedness in difficult times.

However, it’s only when I look back at the work and its context that I can join the dots between them – the subconscious has its own strange ways!

A view into Tansy Lee Moir's studio. Image courtesy of Tansy Lee Moir.

Do you have a favorite or most satisfying part of your process?

Tough question – so much of my studio work feels satisfying!

For me, the most thrilling stage of an artwork is the beginning—the stage where everything is possible. I use a subtractive technique in my charcoals and oil paintings, applying pigment and then wiping it away to create the light glowing from the surface.

It always feels like magic when the image I’ve imagined starts to appear from the gloom, becoming clearer and more in focus with every mark. I love the challenge of responding to these patches of light, sculpting the pigment into dramatic chiaroscuro, pushing and pulling between darkness and light. It’s a totally absorbing process – it can be hard to know when to stop!

 

What has your artistic education consisted of (formal or not)? If you did receive a formal education like an MFA, did you find it necessary for your artistic growth, or did you find that elsewhere?

I have a degree in Three Dimensional Design from Manchester Metropolitan University, where I specialized in wood, metal, ceramics, and glass. Drawing was an important element of the course and I learned how to represent both real and imagined forms from some great teachers.

I’m passionate about passing on this drawing knowledge, which is why I set up my ‘Permission to Draw’ course in 2020 – I firmly believe that anyone can enjoy and improve their drawing.

My degree taught me how to apply a design mindset which has been very useful throughout my career. I’d sum it up as: analyze the situation, imagine possible solutions, choose and test some, refine and then produce.

I don’t design my artwork, that comes from a deeper emotional response to my subject, but when I’m starting a new body of work I do give myself a loose brief to guide me.

I’ve found this stops me from getting too distracted and prompts creativity. It creates a continuous cycle of reflection and development which keeps my work fresh and challenging.

  (Left) Dalkeith burred oak 4, Tansy Lee Moir. Charcoal on Canson C à grain paper, 85 x 60 x 3 cm. (Right) Dalkeith burred oak 5, Tansy Lee Moir. Charcoal on Canson C à grain paper, 85 x 60 x 3 cm)
 

What routines—art-making and administrative—are essential to success in your art career?

Being easily bored I’m not great at routines, but have worked to establish these productive habits to support my art career:

I have three analog notebooks, so I always know where to find my thoughts after I’ve written them down (I used to be that person who writes notes on bits of paper then loses them!) I also love Trello as a digital place to keep the information I want to reference later and for keeping on top of projects, but writing by hand works well for me – they are my place to think.

I have a current sketchbook to keep all my creative thoughts in – anything to do with the development of my art goes in there. It’s a scruffy mix of drawings, scribbles, swatches, photos stuck in, notes, and wise words and I fill 2 or 3 a year. It’s the primary document supporting my artmaking.

I have a separate journal for anything business-related, including annual and weekly planning, managing projects, and notes from meetings and courses. Also, anything to do with my online and in-person teaching goes in this book.

Finally, I have a paper diary for appointments, schedules, deadlines, and day-to-day planning and tracking. At the end of each day I use Twyla Tharp’s ‘Build a bridge to tomorrow’ idea – I review the day’s work and then write in my diary what I want to achieve the next day. This really keeps my momentum going and helps me focus on what’s important.

I find this system gives me the structure and continuity I need for both the creative and business aspects of my work.
  (Left) Dalkeith reaching oak, Tansy Lee Moir.
Charcoal on Canson C à grain paper, 71 x 60 x 3 cm. (Right) Beecraigs ghost beech 3, Tansy Lee Moir. Charcoal on Canson C à grain paper, 110 x 72 x 3 cm.

Why did you decide to inventory and archive your artworks?

I’ve always been fairly good at maintaining a catalog of my work, but with no proper inventory system, this became more difficult as I got busier.

The turning point came when I was preparing to send work to a show and spent two hours looking for a piece I’d forgotten I’d sold! I realized how much time I was wasting on admin tasks, so I tried Artwork Archive’s free trial and immediately saw it was what I needed to run my business professionally.
 

What advice would you give an emerging artist during this time?

Make as much work as you can and try to separate the making aspect from your critical assessment of it—even though this can be hard it will help you avoid getting slowed down by perfectionism.

One way to do this is to work in a series – don’t try to perfect one piece, but try to get ten pieces with something good in each. It’s a faster way to learn.

Create limits for yourself, restricted materials, subject matter, size of work, time working on a piece – parameters will make you more creative not less and progress will be quicker if you focus.

Document what you’re doing as you’re going along, including your process as well as its end product, but don’t feel compelled to share everything in the moment – take time to curate your own story as an artist.

Keep good records of your catalog and be in control of your information. I use Artwork Archive for my inventory, plus folders and backups on my Mac.

Make an effort to build your network, in-person and online, both local and global. Life as an artist can often be quite isolated so being around other creative people is great for mutual support and the development of ideas.

 

Interested in using the system that Tansy Lee Moir uses to stay organized?

You can get started with Artwork Archive free for 30 days. See how a free trial can help you get organized and run the admin side of your art career with ease. Plus, showcase you artwork, and keep track of your galleries and clients—all from one place. 

Get started for free here.