69 Susan Lyon
"Why I do art is I love to create. I love to study. I love to put all of my focus on something. I love the tactile feel of holding a stick or brush and moving it around. It puts a spell on me."
Susan Lyon is an award-winning figurative painter from North Carolina. She was the youngest artist to win a gold medal at the Palette & Chisel club in Chicago. She's also won first place from the Portrait Society of America, and two Artist Choice Awards at the Northwest Rendezvous Show. Susan focuses on portraits under dramatic, almost fantastical lighting. I say portraits, but not in the usual sense, as these works transcend the usually purpose of capturing a likeness, and aim more toward fleeting expressions of love and tenderness. It reminds me of when George Carlin said, "Life is not measured by the breathes you take, but by the moments that take your breathe away.” Susan finds and captures these moments on canvas.
Susan Lyon grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She began studying art her junior year in high school, after watching a PBS documentary on the life of Georgia O'Keeffe. She says in this interview with Dave Geada (Fine Art Views, 2018):
"I was never one of those kids who drew or did art. When I would try to draw it wasn't easy, so I'd usually give up, but when I saw the program on Georgia O'Keeffe, I was inspired by how she not only did art, but actually lived her art without fear. Having this woman as a role model inspired me completely.
"Because of that PBS program, I took some Saturday classes at the Art Institute in Chicago during my senior year in high school. But that’s a very modernist school, and their program for high school kids was mostly just baby-sitting a bunch of teenagers playing without much real instruction. Even so, it was the first time I picked up a pastel and the first time I saw a nude model. Everything about it was completely new to me and really exciting, but I can't say there was one thing I actually learned. But at least it started me on the idea that, 'Oh, this a new direction, a new way to live your life and to think, and that was exciting.'”
Susan studied at the American Academy of Art and the Palette & Chisel Academy, both located in Chicago - these were the same schools where the incredible Nancy Guzik also studied - Indeed, Susan is friends with both Nancy and Richard Schmid. It was while studying at the Palette & Chisel that Susan met the artist Scott Burdick, whom she married in 1993. Susan says about the American Academy (Geades, 2018):
"My father had known a teacher who taught at the American Academy of Art, which at that time was just a technical college that offered an Associates Degree. I was disillusioned with the Art Institute and I didn't know where I was going go, but my dad said, 'I signed you up for some classes at the American Academy of Art.' and I was like, 'Oh my gosh!', because even to get into the American Academy you had to show a portfolio, and I didn’t have a portfolio. I found art books and put together something to show the administration person. I remember thinking, 'I am never going to get in.' But I did."
Besides O'Keeffe, Susan draws much inspiration from 'Gilded Age' artists like Sargent, Sorolla, and Zorn. Susan shares their love of large, gestural brushstrokes, painting under natural light, with bright, brilliant impressionist color palettes. She says on her website, "My style is realistic with as much impressionistic color as possible. I like to combine wide brushes for sweeping strokes in the background with small, soft brushes for subtle details in my center of interest."
'Maria with Flowers'
Nancy is a great experimenter, not only in the otherworldly light she uses, but in her materials. According to her husband, quoted in this interview with Bill Inman (Master Oil Painting, 2018), “She isn’t afraid to fail over and over, until finding just the right mix of watercolor, pastel, glued fabric, paper of every sort, and even gold leaf or thick glitter.”
In the same interview, Susan gives this advice to art students, "My biggest advice is to not get into debt – live below your means. If you work with passion you can promote yourself through social media… you can have a lot of control of your future."
Susan also says, "I think the greatest blocks that artists have is not being too influenced by other artists… we all start out being inspired by master artists – we want to emulate them, but then you have to move on. I had a hard time finding my own vision.. there are so many images out there that get imprinted on us. It’s a balance between learning from others, but then expanding on that."
Despite Susan and Scott's incredible skill and vision, they've found it a struggle to make a living as artists. Living modestly in rural North Carolina, filled with nature, and far from distractions, they spend two-three months a year traveling, finding exciting and exotic new places to photograph and paint. Susan says:
"Figurative work like we do is the least on the chain of sellable work, because a lot of times people wonder why anyone would buy a portrait of somebody they don't know and put it on their wall. You have to find people who are interested in people the same way we are. When someone is moved enough by a painting of a stranger to pay their hard-earned money for it, then you know you've succeeded in telling that story. When you do figurative work, it's much more emotional. It's also more provocative. So, our paintings don't always sell right away, but sooner or later there is usually at least one person that it will connect with."
Susan Lyon was so kind as to respond to an interview for this blog. Here is the transcript:
1. Your work might best be described as an exploration of colors and cultures. Have you considered taking on any other themes or subjects, perhaps moving more towards narrative figure painting? Have you ever tried your hand at caricature, or considered using your work to portray or discuss social problems?
"I paint and draw many things.. I also love to do still life's."
'Far Off Moonlight'
2. Tell me about some of your models? Who are these people and how do you meet them?
"We find our models from friends and especially local coffee shops and grocery stores."
'Hope, Potential, Belief'
3. You share a great deal in terms of light, color, and design with that of your husband Scott Burdick. What's it like being an art duo, and to what extent are your works collaborative? Do you crit each other or have you learned not to? :D
"We don't tend to critique each other that often, we do paint different and we try not to influence each other too much. I love to get critiques from friends."
4. Scott says you're a great experimenter with materials, and I'm curious if you have a couple favorite drawing/painting implements or combinations that you recommend?
"I love to work with pastel or charcoal over watercolor or acrylic washes. I have also tried to incorporate papers and ribbons for texture."
5. I've followed both of you for decades on your website, and in that time, Scott's been outspoken on many topics, particularly modern art, which he lectured about in his video 'The Banishment of Beauty'. What's your take on the topic, and could you talk more about it?
"I am not as vocal as Scott about Politics or art. We agree on a lot of things, but we are different people."
6. I saw that you have a Patreon site and are giving monthly lectures in drawing and painting. Could you talk more about this? I'm curious what topics you cover, the length of each lesson, and if they are downloadable.
"My patreon page has many tutorial videos on everything. I spotlight paintings of others, I introduce art books that are important, we show how we use Photoshop and there are longer videos showing a process of a work of art from the beginning to end. I also do one on one zoom critiques. I am very excited about having this platform, I hope to share everything I wish I had when I was younger."
7. The light that you create in your works is otherworldly. I know you work from life in your studio, and I'm curious just what lamps and setup you have to get these incredible effects.
"Thank you for the compliment, I do work from life, but I also do most of my gallery work from references. We use LED spotlights on models, we get them from B&H.. I also did a video on how we photograph models and the set up."
8. What do you often worry about in terms of composing a picture? Are there any words of warning you hear in your head while you paint? Or perhaps some advice from previous teachers that repeats again and again?
"I like simple compositions, I can make my set ups too busy, too complicated.. I like intimate poses."
9. You've given great advice to young students in other interviews - living within your means, developing your own style over time. Is there anything else you'd like to add? Maybe common mistakes you often see? I also read you were a very shy student, covering your easel with paper during breaks so no one could see your work. What advice would you give to students regarding confidence?
"One common mistake I see people do is only paint what is in front of you,, I mean they are chained to exactly what is up on stage and not thinking about editing things that don't matter. When I give critiques,,, the artists paintings show every little thing, and they don't have a center of attention. Also,, people work from the worst photos, it's very hard to make a beautiful painting if the photograph is mediocre.. It's very important WHAT you choose to paint."
10. What do you see for the future of realistic figurative art? How would you like to see art education change?
"I have no idea.. :-) I think all the new online teaching outlets are going to help spread the information about realistic art."
'Girls From Mt. Kilimanjaro'
11. When I made my list I was surprised to find so many figurative and portrait painters. I hadn't set out to do that, I just found these kinds of works most powerful and moving. I realized, in literature we take it for granted a book will be about people, but in art we don't. But, it's hard to react on an emotional level to such an extent without the drama of characters posing, looking, and acting. I worry if I've been too exclusionary or narrow in my selection process and I'm curious how you and other artists on the list feel about this.
"I applaud you for putting all of this together, you seem like a very thoughtful person.. you shouldn't care if people think you should show more landscapes or abstract.. ha ha ha.. this is YOUR contribution to posterity.. let others do something different."
12. What do you say to someone who thinks art doesn't matter?
"Well, the first thing people do when they travel is visit museums and churches and parks.. they are all about art.. either actual paintings, architecture or landscape design.. if they say something like art isn't important then they have never been introspective... it's not up to us to convince them.. when you are in Europe and there is a free day because of a holiday at a museum,, you will see a line for blocks because humans crave something to aspire to."
'Young Girl From Kilimanjaro'