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Interview: 10 Minutes with Stephen Heward

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Stephen Heward has been a regular exhibitor at The Biscuit Factory over the last 6 years and this summer season he returns with his first headline collection of original landscape paintings. Stephen has exhibited work across the UK and his fluid and instinctive landscapes have become increasingly popular with visitors to the gallery and collectors, both nationally and internationally. He is entirely self-taught and works from his studio in North Yorkshire.

We recently caught up with Stephen to find out more about the inspiration for his current work, how his artistic style has evolved over the years and what excites him most about art.

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Tell us about how you learnt to paint?

I’ve been a Landscape Architect since 1977 and have spent decades analysing landscapes within the confines of technical methodologies - from geology and hydrology to rights of way and urban grain, but always in a controlled, structured and tightly defined framework. For the last 20 years, my role has principally been to assess the effects on the landscape of human activity and development– how people use land and how it is changed by what we build, how different people perceive those changes and how to make them better or more acceptable to us by design and creating new places, spaces and landscapes.

I tired of landscape architecture in the late 1980’s and pursued a fascination with flight, which I found thrilling and completely immersive. There was freedom and liberation in flight and I became a flying instructor running a microlight flying school for 10 years in the 1990’s.

Further technical study included meteorology  - winds, temperature, precipitation, cloud formation, dew point, atmospheric pressure etc, and so my work brought me to a place where I have an understanding of 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 the days before aerial imagery became ubiquitous, the thrill of leaving the ground, viewing the earth from above and of moving between the clouds in a small and fragile craft was intoxicating.

Painting is a relatively recent, liberating and expressive outlet which has become an evolving dialogue with the elements and celebrates the experience of landscape.  I never have been much of a one for words, and for me painting is an opportunity to express myself without words. ‘Words fail see sketch...’ my old tutor used to say.

In 2009 I started painting (for relaxation) 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. I realised then that my expressive self, which had been repressed by the confines of my career to that date, was freed again. My love of and experience of the landscape and the sky poured into my painting. My work is loosely styled although I still struggle to overcome the constraints of a lifetime of control. 

Stephen Heward headline collection 2017, The Biscuit Factory

Tell us about your painting technique?

I return to familiar subjects again and again painting them in varying weather conditions. It’s somehow cathartic and it’s not necessarily the finished painting but the act of painting that is important to me. The finished painting is a by-product of the act of painting. This can sometimes be very stressful and I often find myself struggling to begin. 

I prefer to spend time absorbing a particular place – maybe an hour, sometimes days, recording impressions as notes, sketches and photographs, and returning to these some time later in the sanctuary of the studio. After further, days sometimes, of contemplation in the studio and with the benefit of time and distance from the actual experience, eventually a response to memories of colour and form results in mark making and once physically started (with a certain impatience now), the work develops quickly and directly onto the support without much conscious thought and only a few preparatory studies.

I find it difficult to describe what I do. The pace is often frenetic, using brushes, knives and hands, scratching, splashing and dribbling paint onto the surface, using more, or less, energy, working and reworking passages that do not immediately come off. The thickness and texture of paint can vary from heavy impasto to thin glazes depending on my 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. 

The variations are an important aspect of my practice, which throws up constant challenges and requires a regular re-evaluation of my methods and environment. At best, there is spontaneity, fluidity and economy. For me, 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. 

'Burning Off' (left) and 'Archipelago' (right), Stephen Heward headline collection 2017, The Biscuit Factory

What inspires your work?

I find inspiration in the early or late light of dawn or dusk 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 (the light) has an increased significance, heightening the definition of landform and focusing attention on what is visible. A break in the cloud, the first light of dawn, a fire at dusk, and the atmospheric combination of moisture content, temperature and colour intensity all draw my attention. 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.

For me, there’s a tension between the need to record some documentary aspect of the subject matter, and on a deeper level to express my feelings and catch a sense of time and place. As an only child I cultivated a preference for my own company which seemed to develop into a general aversion to crowds – so, a fascination with wilderness and the vastness of the sky draws me repeatedly to deserts, moors and islands, with their innate sense of isolation, remoteness and silence. The rugged islands and coastlines of the West of Great Britain and Ireland feature prominently in my work. 

My interest is in landscape as opposed to nature. 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.

'Wave', Stephen Heward headline collection 2017, The Biscuit Factory

Describe your painting process. Do you work with a particular routine? How experimental is your work?

I continue with consultancy work and there are gaps between each new cycle of painting. Each new cycle (possibly weeks or months since the previous one), tends to begin in a more representational style and becomes progressively more abstracted and expressive. I have to make a conscious effort to prevent a tendency to revert to a more representational form. As I change from day to day as an individual, so each new body of work is different to the previous one and I couldn’t conceive a settled style of working. I need to experiment – a changed palette, a different focus, new techniques and dealing with the elusive but ever-present and never-ending challenge to be truly expressive. 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.

'Grazing' (top left), 'Uist II' (bottom left) and 'Wave' (right), Stephen Heward headline collection 2017, The Biscuit Factory

Whose work inspires you?

I think my work has a layering of romantic sensibility, pragmatism and cultural influences. It follows the great underlying romantic tradition of British landscape painting which includes Turner’s later work and Constable’s sketches, but also includes elements of painting and ideas on landscape that have filtered into mainstream British art throughout the second half of the 20th Century.

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Stephen Heward's headline collection is showing at The Biscuit Factory now in our Summer Exhibition until 27 August. Stephen's collection is also available to view and buy from online via Artsy.

For a price list and enquiries please contact a member of our team on art@thebiscuitfactory.com