Steve Cleff: A Story of Synaesthesia

I love an unmistakable aesthetic, the kind of style which boldly screams the name of the creator before you even see a hint of a signature or nameplate. It’s a trait which helps to get an artist’s name remembered throughout the ages. Perhaps, more than ever, it’s a success which seems harder to reach in an age of unequivocable interconnectedness and thus, substantial overlapping influences. With this in mind, when I came across Steve Cleff’s vibrant watercolour paintings, I knew that here was something special.

The US-based artist has clearly found his artistic vision. Ultimately, this is linked to his forms of synaesthesia, where painting allows an insight into his perception of the world. It’s fascinating to peek into a cerebral space which spirals colour with multi-sensory experiences, and even direct links to specific emotions.

However, Steve Cleff’s paintings are more than simple representations of his everyday experiences. Blended with multiple themes including symbolism, spirituality, mythology and surrealism, he shares a playfulness and understanding of unspoken stories ready to be told through paint alone. Furthermore, his female models are portrayed as leading ladies rather than simple subjects to be admired. Challenging the stereotypical male gaze, they stare confidently at the viewer, owning the space and leading the viewer’s reaction to what they are seeing.

It feels like colour will always feed the soul, yet Steve Cleff also tells stories and sparks questions while allowing us a rich banquet of vivid visual delights. Enjoy my exclusive interview with Steve to learn more about this fascinating painter.


Exclusive interview with Steve Cleff

Hi Steve, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I think the most obvious question for me to start with is regarding your eye-catching use of colour. You experience several forms of a condition called synaesthesia, correct? Can you tell me more about what this is like for you?

Thank you too! One form I have is that I involuntarily associate colors with letters and numbers. The one that most people want to hear about is how I see shapes of color, similar to the Aurora Borealis, in my mind when I hear sounds, or smell, taste, touch, or sense emotion.

Different voices and musical instruments trigger different colors. Some sounds appear like sharp shapes, some are blurry. Lower pitches are more cool colors, and higher ones are more warm colors. It’s the same effect when I’m with someone and they’re projecting emotions, it’s just the way my brain interprets the information. Once, I met someone who was very anxious and my mind’s eye saw hot pink blades coming towards me. When I first met my wife, I saw an explosion of bright colors like nothing I had ever experienced before.

Did your synaesthesia develop early on in life?

It did. I assume I was born with it, but I don’t know for sure. I do remember having it when I was very young. I, like most people with different conditions, assumed everyone experienced the same thing so I never brought it up to any friends or family.

It wasn’t until my twenties that I asked some people about it and found out no one else I knew had it. After some googling, I found the name and description of the condition. Since then, I’ve met a lot of visual artists and musicians with various forms of it, including my friend Chet Zar who experiences tastes when he hears words!

One day I’d like to curate an exhibition with art only made by syntesthetes.

Steve cleff

From mind to canvas

That would be an incredible exhibition, Steve! Definitely something I can see our readers enjoying. It would be interesting to see how each artist interprets their world into art. On that note – I’m fascinated by how you translate your experiences into paintings, can you take us through your process?

I started out as a traditional artist doing life drawing and portraiture because I was fascinated by the idea of trying to capture what a person is feeling using their expressions and body language. It wasn’t until I started exploring synesthesia and how my mind interpreted emotions as color that I began marrying the two.

Now when I work, I think of a concept I want to paint, such as an emotion I’m struggling with or an idea I’m trying to understand, and I imagine a guide or deity of the concept. I imagine them living in a synesthetic world of color. So when I meditate on a concept in my mind’s eye I see images of people who are made of, or surrounded by, the colors my mind associates with the feeling.

Sometimes I see a detailed image with gestures and expressions, and other times it’s murky and I have to keep returning to the thought to see the image more clearly.

Steve Cleff

I’ve also developed a method where I collaborate with a model that I’ve developed a good creative relationship with, and we feel through how to express the concept during a photoshoot. I use photos I take for all my reference, and while I try to have a very defined idea before the shoot, sometimes I only have a word. After the shoot, if I don’t have a color palette in mind, I’ll go through music choices until something clicks. Then I’ll do a color study.

Finally, when I’m painting the background and shadows that are more abstract, I connect with the emotion I’m trying to capture and improvise the difference splatters and brushstrokes to bring what I see in my mind into the physical world.

Areia (from the ongoing Aphrodite Project)

Art: A way to heal

In your bio, you share that you use art to transform fear, anxiety, and depression into works that seek to inspire personal growth and hope. Was turning to art an obvious path of healing for you, or was it something that uncovered itself with time?

It took a long time. I created art for many years for other reasons. But when I really started learning about art’s purpose, and what’s referred to today as “Dark Art”, I saw making art as a way to heal and learn. I use it to either recreate the source of pain to help control and process it so I can move past it, or to capture what it would be like to find a path through the source of anxiety or depression to the other side.

Are there any works in particular which hold special significance, either as a piece which helped you process or heal as you painted, or which signify an especially powerful memory?

There’s a painting I did in December of 2016 called “Lift” that I look at when I need hope or positivity.

Steve Cleff

In November 2016, I knew immediately what the consequences of the election would be for the world and I was just devastated by feeling of helplessness, anger, grief… I saw bad things coming with no hope: persecution, removal of rights, forced religion, violence. It was overwhelming. So I tried at first to paint how I felt, but it was making me feel worse.

Then I had an idea to imagine the opposite of how I felt. Suddenly I saw the synesthetic colors of support, life, and perseverance surrounding and weaving through an image of one figure lifting another up. I shot the photo with a model couple I knew and when it was finished I felt the light that had been absent. Whenever I need to feel that again I look at the painting or an image of it.


Sourcing commercial work

You have also worked commercially to create as for comic books, film, theatre and album covers – how did you get your foot in the door to this avenue?

I got each project differently, but the common thing was that I put myself out there. Not just posting on social media, but submitting for projects or asking people to consider me for work. The comic book work I got from submitting to a group anthology. Other work came from sharing work I did online and sometimes reaching out to people who seem to be looking for what I do, like the time I did an album cover for Rose McGowan after reaching out to her on Twitter. She had mentioned she was working on a movie called Synesthesia, so I told her my story and it led to the collaboration.

Are there any commercial commissions that you would love to work on all over again?

I did a painting for the DVD cover of a documentary on Neil Gaiman [above] and I’d love to do it again for a few reasons. One – I auctioned the painting itself to raise money for charity and in retrospect, I think I’d rather write a check for the same amount and have the painting. Two – it was really fun working through all of Neil’s writings for ideas to include in the image.

Rereading the work was a pleasure, but also after doing a few portraits that didn’t look like Neil, I tried listening to his audiobooks and his music playlists at the same time while I painted, and it really transported me to a creative place. I wish I could do something similar with every painting.

Urania (from the ongoing Aphrodite Project)

Overcoming ‘artist’s block’

Focusing more openly on creativity: how do you reignite the creative flair when you’re struggling for inspiration?

I’ve come up with a few different tricks to get back to that place. One is to try doing work that’s just for the fun of it, that I don’t think I’ll ever exhibit. I try to remember why I fell in love with painting in the first place and just create. Sometimes I’ll try a new medium or brush, where there’s low expectations for the outcome and the focus can just be on the joy of creating. Sometimes it’s about putting down the paintbrush and doing something else creative, like writing, sculpture, or music.

Something what always works is going to galleries to see work in person. It never fails to get me motivated.

Steve Cleff in the studio

A bright future

What would you like to experience next as an artist?

I’m continuing my exploration of my technique to get closer to the raw visuals I see when I experience emotions. I’m pushing myself to get more abstract and intuitive and just had a major breakthrough in that area. For professional opportunities, I’m putting together a solo show to combine with a book launch. No gallery yet, I’m going to speak with a few I’ve shown at to find the right fit. I’d also like more people to discover my work. I’ve started using social media more and hope to get the work seen by people who’d appreciate it.

Want to see more of Steve’s works? Steve Cleff will have a couple of pieces in group shows later in the year, including one at Arch Enemy Arts in his hometown of Philadelphia, PA. “I’m also going to get more creative with my Patreon with monthly online events.” He shares. “I’ve got a small, very supportive community there now that I’d like to keep growing.” Follow him on Instagram or check out his Patreon below for more information.

Steve Cleff Social Media Accounts

Website | Instagram | Patreon | Beautiful Bizarre Artist Directory

About Author

Based in the UK, Natalia Joruk enjoys a life surrounded by art, nature, and curious trinkets. As Deputy Editor, she's worked closely with the Editor-in-Chief for over a decade, supporting with the design and growth of Beautiful Bizarre and the maintenance of the annual Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize. Natalia also oversees sponsor partnerships for the Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize, and distribution of the magazine, so drop her an email if you know someone who would like to sponsor or stock! She also writes for both the Beautiful Bizarre Magazine website and print publication. One of her favourite perks is getting to know artists, gallery owners and their teams personally, so feel free to email her if there is anything she can help you with – or just to connect.


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