Piera Cirefice is an illustrator from Kilkeel.  An en plein air watercolourist with a keen interest in travel reportage, Piera grew up exploring the Mournes with her parents before moving to Cornwall to study Illustration. Drawing on the natural environment,  Piera seeks to capture the atmosphere of living landscapes, using traditional materials and techniques to address contemporary issues such as conservation. With an emphasis on fluidity of line and mark makings, her work is atmospheric and emotionally evocative. Piera takes us into the mountains she knows so well to talk to us about how her uninhibited upbringing and enduring connection to the outdoors are inherent in her work.  

“Growing up in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains, I was very fortunate to have parents that took me out walking as a child. They instilled in me a great passion for the outdoors. Getting outside and exploring, especially the beautiful area that I’m lucky enough to live in, is what has always inspired me to create! I think that it’s only in recent years that I have come to fully appreciate the effect that spending so much time outdoors as a child has had on shaping who I am and the way that I work. From the respect I’ve developed for the environment, to the conservation concerns involved with protecting it, it has become an important touchpoint of who I am. I love the sense of calm and humility I feel when surrounded by nature, and the self-reflection that comes with reconnecting to the outdoors has always allowed me a certain amount of self-reflection and mental wellbeing.” 

Photo: Rachel McCulla

Although both my parents work freelance in the creative industries, they were never the type of parents to force a paintbrush into my hand and I was allowed to develop my own interests; I was always encouraged to be myself and think autonomously- I was never held back creatively.  I grew up right beside a Camphill Community where creativity and expression are really valued and I think that encouraged me to not be afraid of expressing myself and to think in an open way.  As I grew up and stepped out of that environment, I realised how fortunate I was to have had that kind of upbringing. I definitely have a lot to thank them for.

 Piera left Ireland for Falmouth to study Illustration, initially struggling to deal with the intense daily structure and competitive nature of Art College before a trip to New Zealand in 2017 renewed her creativity. 

I think while it was difficult at times, the experiences I had in Falmouth led to invaluable personal growth. Painting and illustration, which had before been a therapeutic hobby for me, became much more serious in my final year of study. I felt a lot of pressure about what I was going to do after graduating and how I could turn my hobby into a practice. 

I went to New Zealand for 6 months with my partner and travelling freed me from some of that pressure. I took up my en plein air studies again, documenting first-hand accounts of the embodied experience and the thrill of exploring somewhere new. Having the time and space to do that meant that I stopped worrying quite as much about what the next step of the plan was. When I returned to Northern Ireland that meant that I was completely refreshed and was able to let my inspirations and interests in cartography and natural history illustration guide me. It was then that I decided to really start my practice. 

Working in Northern Ireland has been really nice so far; I definitely feel like there is less pressure than when I was in England, and that the atmosphere for makers is more supportive. Maybe that is because the market is smaller and, as a result, I do think I have to push myself that little bit harder here to make sure that I stay focused. I think that success for me is ultimately just happiness, and I want to continue to live simply and keep working on my projects. I live in Kilkeel which keeps me close to my family and the landscape I find so inspiring but have a studio in Belfast. I find having a separate workplace to where I relax is very important when working in a creative way. Although I’ve returned home, I still have the urge to travel and document new landscapes, and in the next year, I’m looking to begin projects on the North Coast, Connemara, and Snowdonia. 

A contour of the Connemara Landscape

Piera’s preferred workplace is on location, working en plein air as she tries to recreate the emotional landscape of the locations. To aid this process Piera enjoys researching the history of the area she paints, its topography and cartography that represent its living history. 

 I think that generally maps are seen only as a tool, an objective item, when really they are subjective, skewed, and full of personal experience. I have really been taken by Travel Reportage in recent years; painting a living landscape and depicting the rich heritage and stories behind the aesthetic image. It seems like such a fresh way to illustrate.

Over time I have managed to develop a process for how I work. I start by getting out to the locations I want to paint and experience them first hand, documenting and sketching what I want to capture. Then I sit on location and paint, having always been inspired by the master painters like Turner, who would have often painted outdoors. These painters would do great tours of the UK and Europe, developing their paint sets based on the landscapes they visited. I really enjoy trying to emulate that process in my work.

When painting outdoors with watercolour, there is a wonderful sense of serendipity, as the weather affects how you work enormously.  If the conditions are wet or windy, that will change how the paint drys and moves when it’s applied, and if it’s arid or humid outside your paints will be much stickier. I think as a painter that makes me feel very present in the moment, which I believe translates a very personal and emotional input into my paintings, a feeling I hope people get a sense of. 

A watercolour painting of the Mourne Mountains by Piera Cirefice

Having grown up trekking the Mournes, it’s clear that Piera is slightly irked by how fashionable it has become to be seen as outdoorsy and eco-friendly. However, she hopes that the renewed connection that people have to their environment will help encourage them to protect and conserve it.

In many ways, we are still very deeply dependent on the land we live on, though we often choose to forget it. I think part of that is down to capitalism, the way we have learnt to act as consumers, and to the pervasive nature of technology. Technology should allow us to better harness how we create, but at the moment it can largely impede us in how we view art and nature.

As an example, I think the Mournes are underappreciated by the mountaineering community in the UK and Ireland as there are no thousand metre-peaks; they aren’t regarded as enough of a challenge to climb despite the clearly stunning natural setting. It really seems to me that having to challenge and defeat a mountain range is missing the point, a mindset adjustment that some people could benefit from making. I’ve been very influenced by the writings of John Muir, who suggests that going into nature and being surrounded by it, focusing on how centring that is, is what matters. 

It is sad how apparent this apathy is in a country as naturally beautiful as Northern Ireland; it is clear that we have a lot of work to do both in terms of our own environmental legislation and our failure to comply with international environmental and planning rules. We produce so much waste in proportion to other parts of the UK, and there seems to be a lack of transparency in the environmental practices here.

The etymology of the word ‘illustration’ derives from the Latin word for illumination, and that’s what I hope to achieve with my work. I’m not saying that I’ll single-handedly cause a large scale reawakening to the outdoors, but I hope that when people look at my paintings and drawings that it helps them rediscover the respect that they have for our natural spaces, and the urge to explore and conserve them. 

Piera painting in watercolour atop Slieve Doan. Photograph by Rachel McCulla

Written by:

Simon Worthington

Photographed by:

Rachel McCulla