Saturday, November 23, 2013

Taking the Time to Improve

-By Howard Lyon


First, I want to say how lucky I feel to have a regular spot to post here on Muddy Colors.  It is humbling, inspiring and a great opportunity.  Thank you.

Sometimes when life gets really busy, either with work or family, it is tough to make enough time in our busy schedules to practice. I will often find myself in the middle of many deadlines and other obligations and the first thing that I will let go is taking the time each day to do a little personal sketching or painting.


This is a mistake though, because I find that I take the most risks and receive the most gains when working on personal projects. I think about growth often. What am going to do today to improve? If want to paint as well as Waterhouse or Rockwell, what I am doing about it? There is certainly much to learn in reading or from teachers, but at the end of the day it will be in front of the easel that most of the improvement will happen.


I may never even approach the skill and quality of the great artists that I admire, but I am certain that if I don't actively work towards a goal of improvement, I will fall much shorter otherwise. I was talking to a very talented and commercially successful artist and asked what they were doing to improve. He looked at me and said "Nothing, I am able to paint to the level I sought." Please take me out into a field and hit me over the head with a shovel if I ever utter such words.


Each morning I try to take an hour or two before I start working and draw, read or paint. This week, I did a little sketch over two days to share here and recorded it. This is about 3.5 hours of painting time done over two mornings. I shot the reference for this about a month ago. I had some floral wreaths made for a painting series I am going to be working on and asked my daughter to model them for me.

I did this little 5"x5" sketch on masonite with a lot more texture on the board than I usually use (if you read my Norman Rockwell post you will remember how struck I was with the texture of the ground).  I still painted pretty thin, but I liked the way the texture underneath worked with my brushstrokes on top.  I need to explore this more.

I started with a pencil drawing, then inked the important lines with a Micron Pigma pen followed by a quick wash with casein and then went right into oils.

Watch the video below to see a time-lapse of the sketch.


I find doing small personal pieces like this immensly rewarding professionally, but also psychologically.  It feels great to start and finish a piece in the same day and they give me a little boost each time.  Some are duds, but often enough there is a spark of inspiration or problem that resolves and I take a baby step towards my goals.

25 comments:

  1. Wow. Love the way the tiniest variation in the form of an eyebrow conveys so much emotional information. Pinecone's a nice touch too, kinda primally spiritual. Good work sir.

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    1. Thank you Tom. Sometimes those little variations can drive me nuts... :) Pinecones are cool.

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    1. Thank you Miss! I happened to paint an axolotl once, for Magic the Gathering. Cool and strange little creatures. Here is a link to my version: http://howardlyon.com/blog/wp-content/gallery/magic-the-gathering/whimglow.jpg

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  3. This is fantastic! The comment about hitting you with a shovel made me laugh too, but I know what you mean.

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    1. Thanks Keith! Let's agree to hold each other's shovel then, okay? Should the time come, I will be there to whack you over the back of the head and bury you in a corn field. You just have to agree to do the same for me. :)

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  4. All my life of drawing--and I would say I first started seriously studying drawing at age 17, I'm 51 now and still have much to do--I hampered/handicapped myself with the aspiration of just getting "good enough", by which I realized I sought an end to struggle, "comfort". At 43 years of age I was very fortunate in meeting a teacher at the local community college who taught pastel portrait and figure painting. He made me see the struggle in art is never over, that comfort is a trap leading to frustration, and, as he often told me, "Frustration is death to the artist." But when you embrace the struggle, when you are excited by the prospect of an ever higher level of skill/understanding/sensitivity to aspire to you paradoxically experience something more profound and enduring than mere comfort; peace. In the on-going travails of just living I'm afraid I lost sight of these essential truths. Thank you for reminding me with this excellent post.

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    1. Cory - Thank you for response. I think that there is much to be learned from the struggle to improve. Not just with art, but in all aspects of life. I think it would be much less fulfilling without struggle for where is the victory if no enemy is present? Keep at it and thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

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    2. Exactly. To be more concise than my last post, peace comes with your conviction that you are fighting the good fight, however you define it. Thanks again.

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  5. I learn something each time I paint....but I still have A LOT to learn. Beautiful painting BTW and some great advice and inspiration.

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  6. Simply gorgeous! I loved watching you paint this...Something about the end result is so unexpectedly pleasant...it just feels so genuine. There is love here. It makes me want to paint. I wonder do you use a particular thinner? It's so small but so smoothly rendered...it makes for a very intimate portrait. I love this painting!

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    1. I am not very experienced with oils, so I try to keep things pretty simple. I use little to no medium and I have been pretty happy with the results. When I do thin things down, I use a 5:1:1 medium of 5 parts turpentine, 1 part damar varnish, 1 part stand oil. It is in Richard Schmid's book Alla Prima and I figure that if he suggests it, it must have some merit. :) Thank you for the kind response!

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  7. My painting teacher always said that the moment an artist feels as if they've "arrived", they're dead! He drilled this into us well. Thank you for letting us watch you produce this lovely painting. And thank goodness for children who are gracious enough to model for us!

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  8. Thank you Howard for sharing this tip--you are right on. I can easily slip on my horse blinders when I am under a deadline working on my portrait commissions. Internally I am thinking it is the fastest way to get things done but my creativity is screaming at me to do other personal work. I do set aside one day of week to study (currently I am enrolled once a week in Rob Liberace's classes). And before that I copied regularly at the National Gallery of Art. But it is not enough-- it must be daily practice as you describe apart from our work in order to really grow into the artists we want to be. I like your post so much I am going to make this my New Years resolution. Thank you for the inspiration! Your work is fabulous!

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    1. Wow! How great that you get to study with Rob Liberace! And I am definitely jealous of your time copying in the National Gallery. What a great opportunity. Thanks for the great reply and I wish you luck and endurance in your New Years resolution and hope for the same on my part!

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  10. Holy lord that's beautiful. I've got my shovel ready if you ever stop doing this.

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    1. Sounds good Bradly, I will keep a grateful eye out over my shoulder should I ever descend into complacency! :)

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  11. I love the picture, and I love the observations on practice, personal time, risk and improvement. It's something I need to internalize and remember. Looking forward to your future posts.

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  12. Great post Howard. Thanks for sharing and for the inspiration!

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  13. Very Nice Howard! Looking forward to more of your insights here on MC.

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  14. This piece has been rendered with such beauty that its mesmerizing.

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  15. Mr. Lyon, the music, presentation, and subject matter were so beautiful and wanted to make me cry. Its inspiring.

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