Artist Spotlight: Tania Hillion's Paintings Capture the Essence of Memory

Katie Carey | March 7, 2022

Meet Artwork Archive artist, Tania Hillion.

Tania Hillion is a French artist based in Quebec, Canada who uses oil painting as the predominant medium to address the notion of perceptual memory. 

Between growing up in France, frequent trips to Poland to visit her mother's family, and the many immersive trips around the world, Tania faced cultural diversity at a young age in which she did not understand the languages in which she was surrounded. This language barrier would drastically affect the way she perceived the non-verbal. From an early age, she developed a fascination for the face and its multiple expressions.

Her work is greatly influenced by her most personal experiences: transcribing sensory memory with a visceral and intuitive approach to capturing concrete a gaze or a hand, while juxtaposed with a more abstract notion of the ephemeral—represented by unfinished lines or more organic shapes

"The superimpositions of layers of paint are reminiscent of the nuances found in the skin," said Hillion, "But above all, they echo the different stratum of experiences that shape the human being."

In her work, you can see how time shifts and changes a memory, how things become blurry, or more vibrant, with certain portions of her work highlighted or obscured. 

"My models offer me a story, they choose to reveal or conceal some parts of it. From the painter to the spectator, it is up to everyone to make it their own interpretation," Hillion added.

Artwork Archive got the chance to chat with Tania Hillion about her process, career, and path. You can see more of her work on Discovery and learn more about her work below. 

L’heure fugitive by Tania Hillion. Oil on cradled wood panel. 48 x 36 x 1.625 in. 

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

I don’t have many years of practice to notice any major change of expression, as I started painting in summer 2019, but I can share what these first years as a self-taught artist were like.

The beginning of my art journey has been focused on learning the basic skills of drawing the face and the figure and also learning to handle the oil paint without getting muddy colors. One step at a time.

I had the strong idea that to be an artist you needed to be able to draw from life.

Unfortunately, I did not have many options around me to do that, so I practiced from online live model sessions. When it came to painting, I rejected the idea to transfer a picture or a drawing onto the canvas. I had this ridiculous preconceived belief that making a transfer was cheating. Therefore, I have forced myself to draw first with charcoal then quickly to draw with paint directly from scratch on my canvas.

Even though I am now much more flexible about my methodology, eventually these constraints have helped me gain confidence in my abilities to draw and paint.

Of course, I was not ignoring that there is so much more to making art than being able to reach likeness in a portrait, but at that time, I was just not able then to put any energy on style or on the concept. Everything I was doing was dedicated to attaining likeness and a decent sense of volume.

You could think of it as an analogy to writing. Prior to focusing on storytelling, I wanted to learn grammar and vocabulary (of course, this is not an absolute rule, it was the rule I assumed was right for me).

Now that I have acquired enough skills to convey what I want to evoke with the figure, I am taking some distance from all the technical “rules” that I have religiously been following.

Right now, and this is quite recent, I am at the stage where I give myself the freedom to explore injecting more expressionism and abstraction into my work.

I am focused on developing my own language and triggering emotions through concept, composition, and mark-making.

Résurgence by Tania Hillion. Oil on cradled wood panel, 48 x 36 x 1.625 in.

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

Of course, when I am in the flow, that is the most exciting part. I also do love the underpainting stage, as it is quite dynamic and the concept materializes pretty quickly.

Usually, my initial plan is quite structured, and then, the act of painting takes over and I abandon myself to that dialogue.
I have then the feeling that I’m not the only one in charge. I keep a large room for the unpredictable within the structured plan by being open to happy accidents that might lead me to an unexpected road. When these “accidents” occur I’m ecstatic.

Every single step of the process brings its own satisfaction. Even the struggles, because eventually it is never boring and there is always hope for new discoveries and improvements.

I’m living the dream. I could not hope for a better way to spend my days. It is fulfilling; I feel connected to myself and to the work. I never feel lonely when I paint.


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 am self-taught, and my practice is quite new, as I started painting in 2019. I have basically trained myself through books and social media by watching contemporary artists doing online demonstrations. I started by reading Harold Speed and practicing drawing with “Human figure” from John H. Vanderpoel.

Without a formal education in art, the hardest thing was to structure my daily practice and also get used to the art scene rhythm. My taste is quite eclectic, therefore making choices on the path wanted to follow was quite challenging. Days are obviously too short to try them all!

To be honest, the very first two years I was deeply feeling sorry for myself for not having a formal education in art. I believed that I could not make it, as I was lacking technique, structure, connections, feedback … you name it. I think I was not giving myself permission to experiment and fail, thinking that everything needs to be perfect from the very beginning.

I was underappreciating my work and finding myself not good enough. I had been comparing myself with talented contemporary artists, but I totally forgot that they have more experience, and that experience is not necessarily related to art school—not that I despise art school, I still would have loved to attend one.

But, now I am truly embracing my path. I have learned (and I still learn) to be more indulgent with myself—to experiment and fail.

Above all, I now understand that there is not a single path to becoming an artist. It is a personal journey. Knowing now that no matter which stage I am in, I will always find room for improvement as my criteria constantly shift, and that is perfectly fine.

Jumping into an art career at 41, living in a remote village in Quebec quite far away from all the art galleries I could rely on,  without an academic background, was quite an act of faith—but I still believe it is the best decision I took in my life.

Even though I am eager to have a very strong visual language that is entirely mine, I know it will come in time.
I am at the very early stage of my art journey, and it involves introspection, patience, and perseverance—always coming from a place of sincerity.

I find sanity in my practice. It’s a place where I learn to be myself, where I don’t have to act, to fit. Mostly it is a place where I am growing. It just feels natural, not necessarily easy, but it feels right.

Tyran Mélancolique by Tania Hillion. Oil on cradled wood panel, 48 x 36 x 1.625 in. 

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

It's quite basic, but batch preparation and sizing my supports every couple of months (canvas or wood panels), so that whenever I need to paint I am ready to go.

Figure drawing practice is also important to me. It really helps me to loosen up and jump into the creation mood in a more relaxed way.

Documenting my work is essential, as it is much needed for any kind of interaction outside the studio (social media, grants, open calls etc). Time flies and it is easy to lose track of what we have done, spent, or earned. Now, I regularly update my work on Artwork Archive.

The more I can minimize the time spent on the administrative side, the more I can focus on my conception and creation process.


Why did you decide to inventory and archive your artworks?

Very recently, in December 2021, I started considering an online solution to archive and thoroughly document my work as I had over 100 pieces and I was losing track of info such as the date of creation, the format, etc...

I had pictures in several folders and partial data many files—it was quite tedious to get a clear overview of all the work.

Coming from an IT background where I used to work closely with developers in order to customize our CMS, my very first intention was to build my own database. But, prior to doing so, I wanted to take a look at turnkey solutions to ensure I didn't spend time reinventing the wheel.

So, I bookmarked a few tools and I was actually very surprised by the features offered by Artwork Archive.

To begin with, the full month trial of Artwork Archive was very generous and gave me plenty of time to explore the platform. I produced an Excel document containing all data of the artwork I had created so far, and then I had the Artwork Archive team upload it for me as a free service on the plan I am on.

Now, all my content is registered in the database. I still need to update some pieces with photos of the works, but basically, I can now find it all in one place. I love both the flexibility and the compatibility of the tool with external solutions.

Given the possibility to make a selection of my artworks from Artwork Archive and integrate it effortlessly into my website was a game-changer.

This feature is particularly powerful because I do not have to spend time on both platforms to create and publish my content. Now, everything is created only once into Artwork Archive and from there, I can simply decide if I want the piece to be made public or remain private.

When it comes to applying to an open call, I can generate a Portfolio Page that contains all the info that I need.

I also love the Private Rooms feature. I just finished working on a family portrait commission and it was a straightforward way to share updated pictures of the painting to my client and the members of the family during the painting process, ensuring everyone has access to the latest version of the work.

Another thing that I appreciate is the dynamism of the Artwork Archive team—both on the support side and on the teams that develop new features. I was very comforted in the fact that they pay close attention to their customer's feedback and have the tool constantly improving accordingly. Listening to one of their webinars about the year in review, where they explained to their customers the future upgrades convinced me to sign on.

Grace by Tania Hillion. Oil on cradled wood panel, 8 x 6 x 0.9 in.

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

Being an emerging artist, I don’t know if I am in a position to advise anyone, but I can share three pieces of advice I give myself regularly :

1. Beware of analysis paralysis. None of the possibilities you can imagine in your mind will compete with the act of making a piece, even a bad one.

2. Don’t compare yourself to other artists. Of course, it’s perfectly ok to get inspired, but at some point, it’s about finding our own voice.

3. I have this quote of Goethe pinned on my wall: “Our wishes are presentiments of the abilities that lie in us”.
So when I feel down I relate to that phrase and know that if I’m not there yet, I just need to dig deeper into myself and get to work.

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