“I have a strong connection with places instead of events, most of my memories are kept in pictures or sounds.”

Ralf Heynen (1978) is a fine arts painter from The Netherlands. He has an innate form of cataract and therefore, his sight is blurred and he can't see sharp lines and fine details. What remains is a hazy image of light and color and upon closer inspection, this can be observed in his oil paintings. Despite the first impression of a sophisticated and detailed picture, his technique is based upon light and tonality and his typical brush strokes. In particular, the use of strong light effects and the subtle use of color are the driving forces behind his work. 

Ralf has always been interested in foreign cultures, and especially those from the Orient. In 1998, he started to study Cultural Anthropology at Radboud University in Nijmegen. During his study, he was confronted with his visual impairment and instead decided to start painting in 2003. Ralf Heynen is an autodidact painter and learned the trade by studying 17th-century masters like Vermeer. The works of Russian realists and Singer Sargent were a huge inspiration. Many copies and experiments followed, and little by little he developed his own style. While traveling in the Middle East and Asia, Ralf was inspired by different styles and patterns. He was especially touched by the dilapidated and abandoned church ruins and secluded monasteries. Since 2006 he has focused on painting Armenian architecture and has learned a lot about light and texture. This series of paintings was exhibited at home and abroad. Following an exhibition in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, Ralf said: "I received a lot of media attention. On arrival, there was a press conference. I was even asked to appear in two breakfast shows on national television. One could not understand that I, as a foreigner, used their monasteries and churches as subjects for my paintings. " 

In 2011, Ralf Heynen returned to his former passion, portraits and figure paintings. He is mainly inspired by the interaction of the model and the environment at various locations in the area. Recently, he started a series entitled “The silent beauty of contemplation”. The reflection of the water enhances the image of the inward-looking woman, a beauty ideal that is at odds with the hurried society in which we find ourselves. Ralf puts his figures in a position of rest and contemplation. It does not seem to matter what is happening around them as they are in their thoughts and don't communicate with the spectator. The light and texture play an important role in the composition. "I love working with fine fabrics and intricate patterns in a dilapidated environment. This creates a contrast between the model and the background.” His love for old and weathered buildings forms a counterpart to the smartly dressed young women central to his paintings. Because of this tension, an almost mystical atmosphere is created. The contrast creates a sense of loss and alienation. Heynen often chooses models who have something mysterious or odd in their appearance.

Ralf Heynen dramatically depicts human emotions on his canvases, with his particular use of light and tones, as well as his incredible eye for detail, he creates realist masterpieces. His concepts, which have a recurring use of natural elements, at times, also combine peaceful and romantic scenarios with misplaced and discomforting items. Through this unique union he somehow manages to trigger complex feelings within us. His striking paintings are a reminder that not all things are taught and that beauty and wonder can be as innate as breathing. 

Q. What role does the artist have in society? 

A. I don't think that there is an overall role artists have to fulfill in society. In my opinion, art is no longer an entity that can be defined somehow. Art can be thought provocative at times, or stimulate certain emotions, or even just be there to match the couch curtains. Some artists do feel the urge to contribute to discussions that live in society. They must do so as Banksy does, but that doesn't mean other forms of art are irrelevant. In the end, there is no paradigm for art if you ask me.

Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up? 

A. At one point I wanted to become a chef, so I could eat what I wanted. My sister was allergic to nuts and eggs amongst other things, and she had a bad rash, so my mother prepared macrobiotic food for all of us. For a child, this was just terrible, especially when all the other kids got Nutella or chocolate sprinkles on their sandwich every morning and I was stuck with a plate of overcooked rice with sunflower seeds and seaweed with pumpkin for dinner.

Q. What’s your best childhood memory? 

A. I have a strong connection with places instead of events. Most of my memories are kept in pictures or sounds, even if my sight is blurred and all. The hallway of our school, with those mustard-colored tiles and the scent of wet coats, back then I thought it was huge, but later I went there and everything appeared so tiny. I can reproduce that image as if it was yesterday.

Q. Do you remember the first art you made? What was it and how old were you?

A. I did my first drawing in kindergarten. My mother kept it. It was a house with people looking through the window. Of course it was archaic, but nevertheless, it was all recognizable. A couple of years later I saw a drawing an older pupil showed me in the school playground and it looked so amazing, with shading and everything. It was then that I first became inspired by drawing. 

Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it? 

A. At first glance, many people see my paintings as photo-realistic, but when they come closer, a distinct brushstroke appears. My paintings are not that detailed at all. It is more generally realistic with a painterly approach. I try to aim for some sort of focal depth in my paintings; areas that need to draw attention are more detailed than peripheral areas. In this way, I can draw the attention of the spectator to the more important parts of a painting.

Q. Tell us about some of the highlights of your artistic career?

A. To be honest I am not that much into success stories. There are way too many artists around who do nothing other than celebrate themselves. They should do so, but I don't want to bother people with something I find rather unimportant. Since I never studied art at an academy, my art career has some gaps. Only until a couple of years ago, I was afraid to contact art dealers and galleries because I was extremely uncertain about the quality of my work. I rarely had exhibitions in those days and got by from the money I made from teaching art to students with mental problems. I learned a lot from them. Maybe that is my biggest achievement thus far; I could show them their potential. 

Q. What does your art aim to express?

A. It moves in two opposite directions. There is the romantic branch of my paintings that aims to depict beauty and harmony, such as the water sceneries. They are all about the aesthetic. On the other hand, there is this branch that also depicts beauty but with a conflicting element: an assault rifle. Those paintings aim to make the viewer uncomfortable. All of a sudden, something is entirely wrong with the image. The scenes of everyday life are disrupted and crushed under the weight of the gun and its meanings. It looks unnatural, especially to those who are not used to firearms being a part of everyday life. But it is not my role to judge over good and evil. I leave any conclusions and opinions to the viewer. I am not a political artist.

Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?

A. I am quite honest and not willing to compromise much. It is not really troubling as it has brought me so far, but it does not help with building a career either. For me, it is crucial, to be honest. When I fail, I fail. No need to hide it between hollow phrases. Of course, it makes me an awful salesperson. On the other hand, by now, I know that I can paint and there is no reason to be ashamed of failure.

Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?

A. Sacrifice is being made constantly and I think I need it to evolve and to be sure not to take things for granted. In the last few years, I keep my paintings in my studio for longer before I sell them. I look at them a lot. When a work starts to lose its magic, it goes out of the collection. Sometimes I paint them over, when possible. 

Q. Who are your biggest influences. Are you inspired by the work of your peers or anyone else in particular?

A. Technically, I am very much into Velázquez. His technique is an exemplary blueprint for developing a beautiful brushstroke, something I am still working on. Otherwise, I am very much influenced by painters who have a twist in their work, something with an edge and not necessarily the perfect composition as such. 

Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?

A. Artistic life should be lonely to some extent. I don't want to be in the spotlights like a musician or an actor. I see myself as irrelevant to the outside world. They should not care how I look or what my political views are. If at all, my paintings should be in that spotlight, they are what it is about, not me. I like to interact with people who live outside of the whole art scene. I can relate to them, talk about traveling, technology and science in general. Of course, I have friends within the art world, but not so many. I try to keep away from the arrogant elbowing kind who only talk about their achievements. 

Q. Apart from art, what do you love doing?

A. I do my round of fitness every day. I like to brew my beer in small amounts, especially the Belgian beers and Indian Pale Ales. Just follow the recipe and see what you end up with. Sometimes my friends and I have to deal with exploding bottles but most of the time the brewing and bottling works out fine and we can enjoy something fairly drinkable. 

Q. What is your philosophy in matters of art?

A. I am very holistic and not fond of paradigms in art, it doesn't make sense. Trends are a ridiculous phenomenon that makes the consistency of artists' success vulnerable. I mean, if you have to surprise the audience all of the time, that is a hard bargain. I can relate to Michelin star restaurant chefs who just quit out of frustration over this constant pressure.

Personally, I can enjoy a good piece of designed furniture or architecture as much as a 17th-century master painting. 

Q. What does 'success' mean to you?

A. Success is doing what you want rather than making tons of money.

Q. What are the biggest things you've learned in life thus far?

A. Nothing is permanent and people struggle with the whole idea of being mortal. Death is increasingly marginalized in everyday life. It is not instagrammable and therefore should not exist in our daily routine. It is almost as if ignoring your mortality and not talking about age and aging has become a religion in itself. 

Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by who?

A. It is a bit of a cliche but I want to thank everyone who recommended me to perceive existence as an artist. I did not study art and most folks told me to find a decent job and do my art stuff in my own time. I never listened to them. But in the end, it is not about the advice but more about the support.

Q. What advice would you give to the next generation? 

A. Everyone who wants to make a career in art and wants to work for it, should go for it. Please don't be ashamed to have a job or a part-time job because you can't live from art alone. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as you have the opportunity to evolve. That takes quite a lot of time. A signature style does not flow out of your brush the moment you touch it. The whole process takes years and part of this is to ask artists you admire for opinions, listen to them and think about their feedback.