Steve Nayar has amazed our customers with his lifelike and soulful depictions of endangered animals. In this interview, we get to know Steve a little better....
1. Can you tell me a little bit about your creative process? How do you get from blank canvas to finished piece?
I've been experimenting over time. I used to try and under-paint by using the colour opposites of the final painting, so that elements of the contrasting colour zinged through in the final painting. However, for these paintings, I simply focus on a ground that is usually mid-tone but a prominent part of the final painting. I have a problem with traditional oil paint solvents; they give me really intense headaches, so now I use water-based oils that are healthy for the environment and me. The under colour of each painting is done either in gesso or in acrylics. I often mix up a specific colour rather than going straight from the tube, it enables me to get exactly the under-colour I want but does make it tricky if I ever need to retouch. Because of the nature of acrylic polymer emulsion, it's important not to dilute the ground paint; otherwise there could be later complications with adhesion to the canvas.
As for references, I tend to work from photos, either my own or sometimes references provided by organisations such as WWF. Even then, it's not easy getting useful images of animals staring straight ahead, so I do a lot of work digitally, distorting/enhancing/colour balancing before I even start to work on the canvas.
Once I have a reference I can use, I then transfer it, scaled up to the prepared canvas. I don't use charcoal or pencil, only a brush, and then sketch key positional elements, eyes, nose, mouth etc. I gradually build up in layers, using the traditional method of 'fat over lean'. Also, I usually start dark with the lightest tones and highlights last.
2. Where did your fascination with endangered species come from? Why are you so passionate about them?
I’ve always loved animals. My wife and I live with three cats and three dogs; all rescues. Before my ‘endangered’ series of paintings, I used the same format on a series entitled ‘windows of the soul’. The emphasis was on the eyes. Initially, I had a gallery space to fill that included a long white wall. It occurred to me that if the paintings were all the same size and evenly spaced, staring out at the viewer, it might create an unnerving effect of the observer becoming the observed! After that, I started to think maybe the paintings could work a little harder. I was aware of the IUCN Red List and began to contact various conservation organisations. For example, if I sold an orangutan painting, then a proportion of the sale would go to Save the Orangutan. That way each painting would be working to save its depicted animal.
3. How has your art evolved? How do you see it evolving in the future?
To be honest, the evolution of my art is a natural process and as such is difficult to predict. It relies primarily on how my own life is unfolding, the situations I find myself in, the chance encounters that inform and shape my thinking and the way the world is changing. I think the way my art has evolved reflects this, some elements are discarded whilst other elements are carried through. There was a time I focused on large abstract colour field works. As a teenager I’d been particularly inspired by the raw emotional impact of Rothko’s work. My current work still relies on a relatively large format and a similar desire to create a powerful emotional exchange.
4. What is it about a certain animal that will compel you to paint it?
Have you noticed that predators tend to have forward facing eyes, but non-predators have eyes of the side of the head? ‘Eyes in the front, the animal hunts, eyes on the side, the animal hides.’ All of my forward facing animals are therefore, predatory in the wild. If I want to paint a non-predator, then I have to adopt a different format, usually focusing on just one eye. I do regularly refer to the IUCN Red List to check on the status of various animals, with the most pressing potential subjects falling in the ‘critically endangered’ category. At the moment, I am working on a tiger painting because WWF are preparing a new initiative focusing on the plight of tigers so they need it to be ready for that. I try and steer away from paintings that are too ‘cutesy’ and therefore off message. Obviously, some animals are more endearing to the general public than others, so I have to think carefully about how they are presented.
5. What are your tips for aspiring artists?
Without wishing to sound too clichéd ‘be true to yourself’. I think it’s OK, and inevitable to admire other artists’ work but we all have our own individual ways of seeing, formed by our unique life experiences, that should form the basis of our creative expression. It’s about having confidence in your own validity. I think we respond well to genuineness and sometimes that can be sacrificed if we are simply producing work that is fashionable. My advice for any aspiring artists who hope to make money from their work is to choose a different career! Most of the artists that have made any significant impact are those that have posed questions that buck the trend rather than just follow. Artists to my mind are communicators and therefore need to be clear about what they are trying to communicate and whether it is worth communicating. For me, exploration is a huge part of the journey and sometimes the biggest opportunities occur when things don’t go according to plan. Another tip is to become aware of how the brain ‘translates’ what you see and learn to depict what you actually see. In my work, observation is really important. Sometimes I even paint with the canvas upside down to help overcome this.
6. What is your favourite piece of artwork you have done and why?
I tend not to have favourites. Or at least, I usually like the last piece was working on. If I didn’t then I’d start to question if I was learning anything new. A painting I was once pleased with, I might be fairly indifferent about now. I also, tend to like paintings that have had a difficult birth. It makes me feel they are here against all the odds.
7. Are you trying to convey a particular message to the viewer?
With the ‘endangered’ series, I think that’s pretty obvious! It’s a call to action. ‘Hey, we need to conserve the biodiversity of our planet, or ultimately it will be curtains for all of us.’ Simply put, every eco-system is co-dependant and we are part of the mix, hence the fragility of our situation. It’s a very real and important message. What I’m painting is basically an animal death row. I’m aware of that and through my art I’m trying to raise awareness of what’s happening to our planet before it’s too late.
8. What do you hope viewers will take away from your artwork?
I hope they remember it for all the right reasons. I hope it inspires positive action however small. If they get enjoyment from my work, then obviously that’s important too. Recently, I read Donna Tartt’s novel ‘The Goldfinch’ and there was a snippet that resonated with me … "And isn't the whole point of things -beautiful things -that they connect you to some larger beauty?" Clearly, in the widest context, there is a spiritual dimension to my work. It’s something to do with our sense of belonging in the world.
9. What is next for you?
That will become clear at the right time. I know that sounds trite, it’s not meant to. I do feel my art is a bit of an unfolding and that I’m not sure where it’s headed. For now, there’s a lot more work to be done in my current field. In December, I’ve been invited to Mauritius to teach and my subject matter, rather predictably, will be the dodo. It will pose a new challenge in that nobody really knows what they looked like. All that exist are somewhat contradictory eye-witness descriptions, illustrations and a few bones. All the ‘stuffed dodos’ are just later models. We don’t even know accurately what colour their feathers were. It’s going to take a fair amount of research to come up with a painting that feels realistic. Hopefully, the final piece will act as a red light not to have history repeat itself.
10. The eyes of your animals are extremely striking - what are you trying to tell us through these eyes?
I guess the clue is in the title of my previous series of paintings ‘windows of the soul’. In a way, I want us to consider that animals are sentient beings too and should be respected as such. It’s amazing how much can be communicated through the eyes … pain, despair, happiness, fear, anger, hope … but always life. In my paintings, the depiction of the eyes is primarily a vehicle to help create a sense of ‘personality’ and ‘energy’ in the final result.