Wildlife artist Steve Nayar
Totnes painter Steve Nayar is using his artistic talents to raise awareness of endangered species
“When I began this series in earnest, the first question I asked myself was an unbelievably hard one. It was this: is it already too late? Is there any point in doing these paintings? After a lot of research, I found that it isn’t too late... But it is almost too late. We’re at the knife-edge.” Steve Nayar speaks quietly, but strongly. “I love working for myself, but I love my work having a purpose even more.”
We are standing in his studio in Totnes, and many pairs of eyes from Steve’s paintings are keeping watch over us.
Over the past few years, Steve has developed a passionate desire to contribute to the endangered species cause. When purchasing a Steve Nayar painting, you will be directly supporting the threatened wildlife cause, as Steve donates much of his paintings’ earnings to conservation charities. His work is a rich combination of humility and exceptional intricacy, accurate down to the last eyelash or tiny wrinkle around the eyes, giving a fleeting impression
that these huge, wild creatures are close enough to reach out and touch. The exact, almost photographic quality of Steve’s work speaks of his many years as a corporate graphics designer, but this is where the tenuous connection to his old corporate life ends.
This year, Steve has taken part in the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) gala evening at The Dorchester Hotel in London, having been asked by WWF to exhibit his elephant painting for grand auction on the red carpet, which was attended by a host of celebrities, including the great Sir David Attenborough himself. The painting focuses on a single elephant eye, dovetailing perfectly with WWF’S current advertising campaign that shows poachers reflected in an elephant’s eye.
When he’s not painting, Steve lives a stone’s throw from his studio, with his wife Sarah, and, very fittingly, their three rescue dogs and three rescue cats. Emphasis is not on the animals as pets that need to learn to obey every command, but a little more about them as sentient beings, which says a lot about Steve’s engaged attitude to work and life.
Steve’s work literally surrounds him, from the paint extravagantly dotted across the keys to his Mac, where he expertly photoshops pictures of the animals in the wild before painting (it’s rare to find many photographs of animals looking straight into the camera’s lens), to the first picture of this style he painted. In this first painting, a pair of emerald green eyes unblinkingly looks out from a much more graphic, sharp image than the other paintings hung on the walls. “I started with my cat, and then I did a whole series of ‘ windows of the soul’ with animals looking straight at you. I began to get fascinated. Whilst the idea developed, I began to seek out information about animals. The cruelty within various industries shocked me profoundly.
“Then I found the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. It’s the authoritative index of endangered species on the planet. It blew my mind. These days, this is my gospel. I go there online to research, I check out species that are critically endangered, and I begin to design, finding the right images, photoshopping and then painting. The research is a big part of the process; when I’m not painting, I’m kept busy talking and networking with wildlife conservation groups and charities. I want these animals to have a voice.
“Painting my pieces takes a long time, weeks usually. I use a process called wet in wet. Fine details such as hairs require the whole canvas to dry before I can paint in – for oil paints it can sometimes take up to a couple of days. I know that I have made a formula that’s powerful, and has a sense of drama that draws people in.”
Steve meticulously curates his own works, and what’s more, designs them to elicit a reaction; the purpose of Steve’s work is not to be forgotten, amongst his painterly mastery of fur and glittering eyes. “On the second day of the exhibition, we had to buy a few big boxes of tissues. People were coming in to look at the art and having very emotional reactions. I didn’t sell much work because people saw it as an experience, but for the sake of spreading awareness, it was fantastic. As humans we have a real thing for dissociating ourselves with issues that aren’t ‘on our doorstep’. Wars and atrocities we see around the world we know are terrible; we usually have a brief reaction, but we don’t engage with them. There’s a difference between empathy and compassion. If you feel empathetic towards someone, you completely engage with them, you show you your understanding – but with compassion, you do something about it.”
We are used to seeing animals segregated into neat boxes; for the farming industry, for zoos, and even for art to some extent. “Our pattern of daily life has been about taking for a very long time. We perhaps need to consider that animals on this earth are just as important and valid as we are. Without animals, we lose the planet, we lose biodiversity, and we ultimately lose the ecosystem that we rely on to survive.
“I want to be fiercely optimistic about it. I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. The great thing about today’s society is our level of communication. I’m trying to do whatever I can to save the planet, as an individual. As an individual, I can paint and I can use that to make a difference. If everybody makes little changes in their lives, then all of those little changes could bring a big change.”
My eyes are now drawn back inexorably to the paintings that still surround us. Steve’s paintings’ living qualities express the full potential of painting; the look in eyes of the lion is fragile, yet the lights, colours and detail within his mane and features are so lifelike that you feel you could reach out to touch the living soul of him.
And of course, that is exactly what a painting should do.
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