Laetitia Yhap studied under Euan Uglow, Frank Auerbach and RB Kitaj at Camberwell and Slade Schools of Art during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

She is clear what influence the tutors had on her art.

“I realised I was a very different being. It is a sort of obvious and simplistic thing to say. They are men and I am a woman. The rigidity of Uglow’s style – I understood it from his point of view but that was never going to be the way for me – and I got Frank Auerbach’s idea of image making. But that’s the point, you listen to your teachers, you take something and then you have to make your own way.”

Her initial path was a self-organised grand tour of Italy, at a time when that was the only way a novice could see great works from the past.

After returning to England, she spent five years in East Anglia where the sea was her subject. Later, she arrived in Hastings, where she still lives.

“I had no friends here or any reason to come here. It was totally random. I just happened to think this might well be a good place to be.

“You have to go on instinct at a certain point in your life and I had a certain instinct about the place. It was a very powerful feeling and I am still here now, 46 years later.”

On arrival in Hastings, she began to focus on making figurative pictures.

“I had a magic moment on the fishing beach and a sudden realisation that there was something going on I needed to find out about. I gauged it wasn’t something that went on in the afternoon, but early in the morning, so I went down and the doors opened.”

She spent the next 20 years painting and drawing the fishing community.

In the early 1970s Hastings Stade was a busy place with hundreds of workers who hauled in boats and hoisted nets: workloads now replaced by machinery.

For the first 18 months she tried to remain inconspicuous, a woman in a man’s world, and made pencil drawings on brown envelope paper from afar.

Soon the incomer infiltrated the gangs and had a son, who features in some of her paintings, with one of the fishermen, Michael, who she met in 1983.

Taking chances

She says the fishermen accepted her and once she had won their trust they took her out to sea on the small boats, which had little room for passengers. The rough working environment was no place to draw though and Yhap got seasick.

“You can be out there for six hours and when you come back your legs are like jelly.”

She says her life’s work has gone in creative cycles and after painting workers on a building site in Clapham, London, she realised she wanted more involvement with the human figures she was painting.

Over a 25-year period, the early sketches were turned into a set of colourful paintings on homemade frames – often from flotsam.

She wanted to be responsible for every millimetre of each of the artworks, many of which feature in a new show, Fishermen Of Hastings Stade, at Pallant House Gallery.

Though many of the works show the friendship and family ties of the fishing industy, Yhap sees parallels between an artist’s trade and the fishermen’s.

“I suppose I understood the fishermen were free men and it was that individualism that I realised was a thread in both our lives.

“The chance element of it was a connection. The fishermen take more risks in the real sense with their lives, but it’s an extraordinary thing to do to go out on the water and find something if you’re lucky.”

When an artist creates, they have to take that risk.

“You are casting out and not sure if you are going to get anything at all, and often you don’t.”

The boats are as important as the fishermen in her pictures. The Propeller, made in 1983 on reclaimed wood-board from a boat, is a prime example.

“For the men and boys that fish, the boat is a piece of furniture which they use not only to make their living but also as something to lean on, to sit in or gather around.

“It provides a focus for life out of doors. It is territory.”

Her work is not romanticised. She never used sketchbooks. She used the brown paper and pencil for sketches to save her eyes from the light and back in her studio she would melt oil pastels with turps to help spread the pigment for monochromes, which paved the way for the paintings.

“There were people hard at work doing something very tough. I wanted to tell it like it was. I was very resourceful; I think you have to be. I didn’t believe in waste and bits of oak barrel or old boat were perfectly good surfaces to work on, so I tore them up into smaller pieces”

The harsh reality is revealed in The Skeleton, where a body caught in a net is washed up to shore.

“I hung around like everyone else and watched while the bones of a torso were picked out of the net. I just didn’t know what to feel about it.

“Then I went home and felt I had to make a drawing to digest what I had seen.”

  • Pallant House Gallery, North Pallant, Chichester, until April 7. Entry to the Laetitia Yhap exhibition is free.
  • Pallant House Gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, Thursday from 10am to 8pm, and Sunday from 11am to 5pm, closed Mondays. For more information, call 01243 774557