Coffee Break Chat: Artist Naydene Gonnella
by Karen Rollins Mar 11, 2019
Artist Naydene Gonnella is from Canada but has spent a lot of her life in the Caribbean and is currently based in Antigua.
Some of Naydene’s achievements include exhibiting her work in Paris and London and her art has also been on the cover of magazines including Maco.
She draws inspiration for some of her work from nature and people and likes to incorporate the vibrant and exotic colours of the islands such as blues, yellows and reds.
Find Yello Antigua asked Naydene to give us some insight into her life and career.
Describe yourself using three words.
Motivated, determined, introspective.
Tell us about your background.
I’m originally from Canada. I grew up in a small town which didn’t have much in the way of a recognised art community, so my training was pretty much self-taught.
My mother loved to paint, my aunt was a ceramic artist and my father had a love for decorating, so it was in the family. I was very keen on drawing my friends and family from an early age.
When my sister and I were about nine and 10, we were given a paint by numbers set. My sister’s painting was of a beautiful beach scene with seagulls and the ocean. Mine was one of two cats.
When she finished, my sister’s drawing was perfect, and looked exactly like the box illustration, but mine looked like an expressionistic explosion had gone on! None of the colours followed the instructions, and the idea of staying in the lines seemed extremely boring to me, so I made up my own design.
Of course, my father put my sister’s drawing in the living room and mine got put in the dark hallway on the way to the bathroom. My father told me that the idea was to stay in the lines and use the colours suggested.
I didn’t realise it then but that was the beginning of my journey not to stay in the lines and use my own idea of colour. Something that has made me the artist I am today.
How did you develop your artistic talent?
I went from secondary school to an attempt at commercial illustration for two years but decided that wasn’t for me. I worked various odd jobs until it hit me that I’d have to go back to art school to find out if I really had what it takes to be an artist.
I applied to the Ontario College of Art and Design University, also known as OCAD University.
During my time at OCAD, I entered every possible competition and juried art show that I could. I spent my final year in Florence, Italy which absolutely helped define my style.
I would literally work through lunch breaks and paint long into the night. I pushed myself extremely hard because I’d gone back to school after realising that being an artist will never just come to me if I don’t actively go after it. There was so much talent all around, and unless I was ready to really work hard, I knew I’d never make it.
I started to get some recognition and win awards and scholarships which helped enormously because art school isn’t cheap!
What challenges have you faced being a full-time artist?
Self-motivation and isolation are the hardest challenges. I don’t have anyone but myself telling me what must be done and the timeline for completing the paintings.
In this world it’s extremely easy to become distracted by many things and end up procrastinating. I’ve always detested laziness, and my mind is so active, I find it hard to relax.
I often envy people that can just chill on the beach or go out to lunch for the afternoon. They seem to have no problem doing nothing at all, but I can’t, and have never been able to. That’s probably why I’m an artist but it can be extremely lonely and terrifying.
So, I’ve had to work very hard at balancing this dark part of myself. I make sure I find time for other activities which will get me around people and friends. It’s not a healthy place to live in my mind for too long (laughter).
What’s your process for putting a painting together?
The process I use to begin a painting is very spontaneous. I can get inspired to do a series of pelicans flying over the ocean and then I create a small sketch of the composition to remind myself of the idea once I get to the studio.
Planning the painting is a bit more involved as I prepare the canvas and start with a few washes of acrylic for the first layers.
My paintings evolve with many layers of paint and become quite textured before I’m finished. This is a technique I learned and have adapted as my signature medium, blending wax with oil paint. It’s a form of using encaustic but a cold wax method. I’ve been painting with this medium since I first experimented with it.
So, after the planning stages which include the sketch, the preparation of the canvas and the first layers, I do a very loose sketch just for placement of design and then begin to paint.
One of my goals is to capture energy and movement. I want the viewer to feel this and see that I’ve painted it, so brushwork and palette knife strokes are all very important to me. I never want the overall feeling of the painting to look overworked or dull.
Which artists do you admire?
The artists I admire are mainly from the Expressionistic period, Wassily Kandinsky and Edvard Munch. I also greatly admire Eugène Delacroix and J.M.W. Turner from the Romantic period. In terms of contemporaries, I look at the work of Françoise Nielly and Callie Gray.
Where do you get inspiration from?
My inspiration comes from nature, people and the work of artists that I admire.
What motivates you to keep developing as an artist?
I learned very early on in my career that nothing will come to me unless I actively pursue it. Entering competitions, juried shows and submitting my portfolio to various galleries was critical to get my paintings seen and viewed.
I spend a lot of time painting and sending my portfolio out. This is a very tough practice because, a lot of the time, you get a rejection letter and then it becomes easy to give up. Believe me when I say there are a lot of talented artists out there and all of them are also trying to get noticed and receive some attention for their work.
So, I’ve developed an attitude of never giving up and pushing even harder whenever I’ve been told ‘no’.
I strongly believe that, unless we’re pushed, we won’t bring our best to the easel. This attitude has got me into competitions and helped me win some awards along with recognition for what I’m doing.
How did you balance work and motherhood during your career?
When the children were younger, I spent a lot less time in the studio, but still managed to paint while they were at school. Both my daughters have developed a love for art, music and writing, which I’m inspired to see.
I hope they develop a similar work ethic to achieve whatever they set out to, because their world is full of more distractions than I ever had to deal with, social media being the biggest!
What has been your proudest achievement in your career so far?
It’s hard to say what my proudest moment has been. I’ve been so honored to feature on the cover of some of the Caribbean’s best magazines, Maco and Liat’s Zing, as well as being invited to exhibit in Paris and London over the past few years.
But I think the proudest moment for me is when I’m alone in the studio working on a piece, and I move back away from the easel to see if I like where the piece is going and get goosebumps from what I see.
This happens occasionally when I see the image becoming exactly what I had in my mind.
How did you come to be living in Antigua?
When I left Italy after I graduated, I went to live in Aruba. I got married there and had my first daughter. My husband I are both from Canada, but we love warmer climates. So, the influence of the Caribbean started early in my career.
The turquoise waters and red and yellow earth were my biggest inspiration although I did study the figurative discipline, so painting people and portraits became my main form of commissions. I painted many children’s portraits in Aruba.
After six years we moved back to Canada for my husband’s work and I had my second daughter. We stayed for four years before agreeing that we’d love to be back in the Caribbean. A position opened up for my husband in Antigua and here we are.
It takes some time to find where you fit in here, but through the schools and meeting other artists, I’ve slowly found my place.
Today I’ve got a lovely balance of yoga, my gym workouts and a fabulous collection of friends and family who help keep me in balance. Both my daughters are living abroad so with the extra time I have it’s even more critical to keep this practice.
What do you love about Antigua?
One of the things I love about Antigua is the welcome and a genuine interest in my paintings from across the island from locals and expats.
I’ve had numerous secondary and post-secondary school students inspired by my work who contact me for an interview or to get feedback on their own work. These kids inspire me with their passions and dreams and seeing what they produce.
I try to guide them and really instill the idea that pursing the dream they desire requires equal parts talent and hard work. Actually, more like 20% talent and 80% hard work. Nothing will come to them if they don’t push themselves out of their comfort zone.
What are your career plans over the next 12 months?
I’m planning to have another exhibition later this year or early 2020 in Antigua as well as another show in the UK and Canada, which I’m still working on.
I’ve been inspired by animals and nature lately so that will be the theme. I may even go on safari to get up close and personal with it.
Currently, I have quite a few commissions in process so I’m in the place I love the most, my studio.
What is your philosophy in life?
My philosophy in life these days, and for the past few years, has been about striving for contentment in my life. I love to paint, and I love to laugh.
A friend once told me to find out what makes you happy and just do it, or as it was said: “Stop doing the things that make you unhappy”.
It seems a simple thing, but much harder to practice daily with all the demands we put upon ourselves and duties we need to fulfill. However, I am certainly making progress.
To see more of Naydene Gonnella’s work, visit her website or social media pages: