Workshop: Classical painting with purpose
Howard Lyon describes his process of creating a portrait in oils with symbolic meaning, using an academic approach
See how Howard Lyon creates a portrait in oils with symbolic meaning.
My workshop is about creating a portrait with meaning. It’s also about my idea for a series that dealt with the decline of academic principles and beauty in art. It started with a painting titled After the Dance, done in 2017. The ‘ dance’ referred to the amazing period of artistic creation at the end of the 19th century, when Sargent, Bouguereau, Waterhouse and Leighton were all at the top of their game. The 20th century saw some incredible innovations and diversity in art, but for me didn’t offer as much beauty or skill as the 19th century. I wanted to express my passion for the principles espoused by the artists I love and apply it to a series.
I created another work titled Observing the Past, which depicts a woman looking to the left with small embers floating past her. The embers are the principles and ideas of the past being consumed by progress. I knew that I wanted to create a companion piece of the same figure looking to the right and trying to discern the future. She would be hopeful and some small shifts in the palette and pose would hopefully generate a sense of contrast with the first painting.
We don’t know what kind of art will be created in our future, but I do see a trend towards beauty, craft and skill that wasn’t sustainable through the middle of the last century. I started the series by looking at the artists I admire and picking out qualities I wanted to capture. I’ve been collecting books over my career that I turn to regularly. It is important to surround yourself with inspiration.
I like to start the day going through photos I’ve taken of inspiring paintings or browsing my books. I have always been drawn to WilliamAdolphe Bouguereau and in this case the face of the woman in his painting Seated Nude stood out as something I wanted to study further. I love the subtlety in the way Bouguereau painted flesh. The palette of this painting is designed to complement the way the skin is painted. As you look to develop your own paintings, identify the images that inspire you and try to break them down into the elements that are most important.
Howard paints for various galleries, clients and collectors. Recently he’s enjoyed working on Magic: the Gathering cards and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and The Way of Kings book series. See his art at www.howardlyon.com.
Preparing the linen
I purchase a large roll of raw linen. It’s a costeffective way to work on linen, but it does take some time and effort to prepare. Golden’s GAC 100 is a great adhesive and comes in a decent-sized container, and will glue linen to wood, metal and plastic.
Applying a ground
Once the linen is glued down to the panel, I coat it with GAC 100 as well to protect the linen from the acidity of the oil primer. I like the slight tinting of Holbein’s Foundation Umber. It’s lead based, so use with care. I apply it with a palette knife to achieve the texture I want.
Thumbnailing the idea
I think the thumbnails might be the most important step in the process. Don’t skimp on this step. Do dozens of thumbnails as you explore your idea. Don’t worry if they’re ugly. Just get your ideas down. You can produce simple line drawings or work with big shapes. I tend to do a combination of both.
I’m always looking for models and references, which means bringing my camera with me as much as possible. You never know when you’ll see the perfect cloud, tree or texture. I used two flashes in this shoot to provide a subtle rim light in addition to the main light.
Creating a digital comp
Photoshop is ideal for exploring your composition. It’s based on my thumbnail, but brings together the images from my photoshoot and reference. I don’t think you can overdo this stage. The better the reference, the stronger your foundation will be for your final work
Choosing your tools
With a few exceptions, almost all my brushes are from Rosemary & Co, and my artist’s palette is from New Wave. It enables me to hold a nice range of colours including the Radiant colours produced by Gamblin. I try to have warm and cold versions of each colour and the Radiants are convenient for the higher values.
Blocking in the sky
Once I’ve drawn the composition directly on the canvas, I start by doing a quick colour block-in. I try to be very accurate with my colour, but I hold back just a bit with the darkest and lightest values, saving those for the finishing stage. This enables me to make ongoing decisions about where I want the most contrast.
Putting the parts together on the canvas
I call this the Frankenstein stage, because all the parts come together, but it isn’t pretty. Don’t panic! Don’t overwork this stage. Layering oils will add depth and richness, but you don’t want to try and finish the painting in the first pass. Learn to be efficient by doing this pass quickly and then build on it.
Howard’s After the Dance acknowledges the work and achievements of 19th century artists. Detail from Bouguereau’s Seated Nude, which inspired Howard to refine his approach for painting skin.