Steven Heffer

I have been lucky to be able to go for long walks on the South Downs

Steven Heffer: on his working practice and coping with isolation

The Degas painting “Combing the hair" had a dramatic impact on me. I found the composition, colour and brushstrokes expressive and very powerful. I pinpoint this experience at the National Gallery as the start of my desire to paint seriously. I wanted to produce work with that sort of emotional impact. I painted without formal study for many years and developed an interest in a number of British artists, noting that many were trained at the Slade School of Fine art. My formal training started with life classes first at Central Saint Martins and then at the Slade.
I worked mostly in the life room in the early 1990’s when Euan Uglow was teaching at the Slade. He was a huge influence, as was William Coldstream. Teachers at at the Slade included Tom Norris, Jane Patterson and Claudia Carr, who were all influenced by and had been students of Uglow. The emphasis was on rigorous observational painting from the model. I later moved away from life studies and portraits toward landscape, initially scenes from South London and the Thames. I like the structure of industrial buildings and their connection with the life of the river. I also developed a more abstract style, but still based on observation.

From 2010 I started spending a lot of time in East Sussex and my studio in Eastbourne, close to the sea, the South Downs and the Seven Sisters cliffs. Inevitably these places became the subject of paintings, as well as the port of Newhaven and the Cuckmere Valley. I continued to develop a looser abstract and expressive style of painting. I spend a lot of time thinking about a painting before I start, but when I paint tend to work very quickly and put down the structure in a short time. The painting can however be worked on for months or even years. I aim to try and keep the original feel of the quick workings, although sometimes that is not possible. Sometimes I will paint out the original painting entirely and keep working over and over. When I do an abstract painting it is almost always based on something observed, but is rendered in a much looser spontaneous way. One of my earliest memories is my mother making cotton masks to protect us from the London smog. We now live in another strange and disturbing time and I do not find painting comes easily although once I start I quickly become immersed.

It is an odd mix, on the one hand the thought of such suffering around us and yet on the other such peace and calm. A feeling that life is on hold. It can at times seem like a relief from the pressures and demands of normal life but it is also a time of uncertainty, trepidation and powerlessness.
I have been lucky to be able to go for long walks on the South Downs which are not far from my studio. That helps my physical and mental wellbeing and inspires me to work. I am not yet sure how productive this period will be. It is a time of heightened awareness which I hope will translate into powerful work.