Work­shop: Clas­si­cal paint­ing with pur­pose

Howard Lyon de­scribes his process of cre­at­ing a por­trait in oils with sym­bolic mean­ing, us­ing an aca­demic ap­proach

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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.

Gath­er­ing ref­er­ence

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.

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