How to Improve at Life Painting in 52 Steps

-By Howard Lyon

Last September, almost exactly one year ago I started hosting a portrait painting group in my studio.  I had always felt that my life painting skills were struggling and also knew that working from life would improve my invented work as well as improve my work done referencing photography.

I decided to host the group to make sure that I would paint each week.  There were a few weeks that were missed for holidays or vacations but I managed to finish the year with 52 head studies, 46 of them done from life and the other done from a photo to make up for missed weeks.  I wiped out 2 of the head studies early on because I thought they were terrible, but moving forward I decided to keep even those that I wasn't happy with to document the process.

Over the course of the year, I tried several approaches and palettes.  For a while, I was able to really explore a 4 color palettes, using just white, black, yellow and red.  I also tried doing a detailed drawing and then painting over it, blocking in an average tone and then working up and down in value.  Most recently I have been working from the mass tone of the shadow side first and then blocking in the mass tone of the light side.  None of these are new ideas, but I hadn't really explored them with enough consistency to decide what I liked or disliked about them.

Here are my paintings from the last year, warts and all in a rough order.  Most of these are not great paintings, just sketches to study an approach.  Some of the process videos are embedded through Instagram.  Hopefully they work smoothly.  If you scroll through to the end, I will have some thoughts on what I have learned.




A video posted by Howard Lyon (@howardlyonart) on




A video posted by Howard Lyon (@howardlyonart) on




A video posted by Howard Lyon (@howardlyonart) on







A video posted by Howard Lyon (@howardlyonart) on




A video posted by Howard Lyon (@howardlyonart) on

I spent two weeks on this pose, from life:



This was another two week pose:


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The next few pieces were done from photos to make up for a missed weeks


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A video posted by Howard Lyon (@howardlyonart) on





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A photo posted by Howard Lyon (@howardlyonart) on















I took the image above a little farther (below), painting from imagination.



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In the 49th week, I felt like I had a breakthrough



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A video posted by Howard Lyon (@howardlyonart) on

My painting from this last week:


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Some of the things that I have learned that have stood out.  Again, not new ideas, but many were driven home so I share them to emphasize:
I feel that I have improved significantly.  It might not show to anyone else, but I end this first year absolutely enthused to start the second year and look forward to learning and improving each week. 

If you want to see my progress this next year, my Instagram account will continue to have weekly updates and I would love to see you there.

Thank you,
Howard Lyon

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