When you can hear colors, it changes your perspective. Ethereal artist Steve Cleff paints in dreamy watercolors and crafts beautiful images of women. He has the gift of synthesia—a condition that allows him to see colors as one hears sounds. This helps Steve to create unique portraits and paintings. Below Steve reveals where he gets inspiration from, his painting process and the effect his synthesia has on his work.
Cliché: What’s the process like when creating a new painting? Do you sketch first? Do you use a live model?
Steve Cleff: I sketch a little, but the idea starts out vague. I know how I want people to feel, but I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do it until I get to a shoot with a model. Then we try a few different takes on the concept. I’ll try it with multiple models, because different people will bring different interpretations. Then I’ll choose an image or images that have the potential to be paintings that get done what I’m trying to do.
After that I do a detailed sketch to get the spirit found in the form of the photo. Then I come up with a song that fits the image to help me choose the color scheme, [and I] do a color study with markers or paint. Finally I’ll paint using the photos and sketches as reference alongside the painting, with the song playing.
How did you discover your talent for art?
When I was three years old we all started drawing in my preschool. When I drew, the other kids would stand around and watch and make requests. That’s when I thought I had a talent. Pretty early on I decided I wanted to be an artist.
Where did the idea to paint women come from?
When I first learned of the “male gaze” (the idea that historically, images of women have been made for men’s pleasure), I immediately wanted to offer at least one male voice that countered that. My goal was for women to see my work and recognize their own beauty and possibility. Over the past few years, the women who’ve purchased and commented on my paintings have told me that’s how they see my work, too. So that’s been awesome.
I’ve read that you have synesthesia, how has that affected your painting?
I have the kind of synesthesia where I see shapes of color when I hear sounds. It completely dominates my painting. I try to paint what I hear. For each painting I pick a song to match the concept or message, and the color and style are just me trying to capture what’s happening in my head. I’m starting a series of paintings with no figures– just what I see when I hear different sounds, [such as] my wife and son laughing or my favorite songs.
What inspires your painting?
I’m inspired by feelings I struggle with. I try to paint hope, possibility, beauty, strength, knowledge, peace—good stuff that we’d all like to have.