Following a lifetime of the professional study of landscapes and skies both as a landscape architect and flying instructor, painting is a recent and liberating outlet for Stephen Heward. Aesthetica talk to the artist about the influence of past experiences and the shaping of a practice far from disappearing in the digital age.
A: Could you discuss how your life experiences have influenced your work, for example your professional study of landscapes and skies both as a landscape architect and flying instructor?
SH: I see my life experiences as a series following on one from the other, some liberating, some less so, but always evolving and changing. After early and boundless encouragement from my parents, Art School seemed a step too far, and the strong preference of my parents was for me to follow a “profession.” I was a dutiful son, but still managed to find a profession that involved drawing and creativity – landscape architecture.
It would be some years later before my profession would recognise similarly creative (competition winning) drawings that launched Zaha Hadid’s career. By then I’d been channelled into more conventional forms of expression, and I would spend decades investigating and working with landscapes within the confines of technical methodologies – from geology and soils to rights of way and urban grain, but always in a structured and defined way.
Two years working in the Middle East engendered a lifelong fascination with the history, culture and landscapes of desert kingdoms and arid zones. I tired of landscape architecture in the late 1980s and was drawn to pursue a fascination with flight … thrilling and completely immersive. So my work brought me to a place where I understand the sciences of the earth and the sky – how they work, why they are the way they are. And I care about them. This is important to my painting.
In 2009 I picked up a brush for the first time since school, and the pleasures of colour mixing and mark making, the feel of the paint and the smells of the studio flooded back after nearly 40 years of more controlled technical illustration of the landscape. I realised then that my expressive self had been repressed and I was freed again.
A: How far do you think that artwork inherently is a response to the culture and memories we construct throughout our lives?
SH: Of course, the culture we experience and the memories we accumulate inevitably influence our artwork. Dali said:”The one thing we cannot help being, however hard we try, is a modern artist,” meaning that we are all influenced by our times.
I think that the broadening of my cultural horizons through travel has been the single most significant influence on my work. I paint places with personal associations. Family holidays in the far west of Cornwall were always special – even as a small boy the coastline left an indelible mark on me and I seek out similar experiences to this day. The rugged islands and coastlines of the West of Great Britain and Ireland feature prominently in my work.
A: Could you talk about your interests in nature and how these manifest in your artworks?
SH: My interest is in landscape as opposed to nature. I understand so much of the science of the landscape and the sky and what makes them appear the way they do, and that undoubtedly has an influence on my painting.
The character of landscape is a combination of a variety of elements which vary from one place to another, including the topography, elevation above sea level, underlying geology, the effects of time, the soils, drainage and hydrology, vegetation, land cover and human influences throughout history. My understanding of these elements affects each painting.
But for me the process of producing a painting involves three main elements. Firstly, the experience of being in the landscape, secondly, the subject matter – the essence of the place, and thirdly the physical process of applying paint to support, all equally important.
A: Your works seem to display an interest in light, specifically the depiction of dark edges in changing weather conditions?
SH: For me full sun (and bright colour) is far less interesting than early or late light which illuminates the landscape in a more striking way. When light is limited by cloud cover or mist, or by the onset of dark it is infinitely more significant than strong light, heightening the definition of landform and focusing attention on what is visible. The western coastline of the UK is particularly susceptible to quickly changing weather conditions which can dramatically affect perceptions of the same small part of the landscape. The ephemeral nature of changing weather is difficult to catch but very rewarding if you can.
A: How far do you think that your works adhere to notions of romanticism – of the supremacy of nature?
SH: In my painting as in my life there’s a layering of my romantic sensibility, a pragmatism, and cultural influences. My work follows a great underlying romantic tradition of landscape painting which includes Turner’s later work and Constable’s sketches, but also elements of Impressionist and Expressionist ideas on landscape that have filtered into mainstream British art throughout the second half of the 20th Century.
A: Do you think that the paintings you create are in a sense a dialogue between artist and elements?
SH: Following a lifetime of the technical study of landscapes and skies, painting is a recent, liberating and expressive outlet which has definitely become an evolving dialogue with the elements and celebrates the experience of landscape. But I’m not one for dialogue, not even in painting, for me painting is the ability to express what I have to say without dialogue. “Words fail see sketch,” as my old tutor used to say.
A: As spontaneous and seemingly free forms of expression, how do you think the act of painting replicates the fluidity of the landscape that it’s creating?
SH: The texture and thickness of paint can vary from thin glazes to heavy impasto depending on mood and instinct. The drama of a rugged cliff face a storm or a heavy sea requires a different response to the flowing form of a rolling topography or a moorland plateau. Mark-making is similarly varied, involving the application of paint or its removal by scratching, splashing or dripping, and more or less energy.
The variations are an important aspect of my practice, which needs constant challenges and re-evaluation of my methods and environment. There is spontaneity, fluidity, economy and an impatience. The work needs to evoke a sense of place and a sense of space. Scale is important and I try to balance small and intimate works with larger paintings requiring more energy and physicality. I hope that the paintings not only speak for themselves, but say everything for me.
Find out more about the artist: www.stephenheward.com
1. Stephen Heward, Cloud Lifting, St. Kilda. Courtesy of the artist.
2. Stephen Heward, Glen Etive, After Rain. Courtesy of the artist.
3. Stephen Heward, Sea Harris, St. Kilda. Courtesy of the artist.