Painter Takes a Knife
to His Paintings
By Hank Putnam
American artist and gallery owner, Steve Lyons is most known for his paintings, and a unique style he calls "sculptural." His unusual impasto technique, applied within an 'organic' process, in a series of themes, has garnered international attention, and has been featured in exhibitions in Berlin and Freising, Germany, Poznan, Poland, and Mexico. In his bold signature pieces, which began as seascapes, Lyons finds ways to blend the representational and the abstract with methods that challenge the very notion of what a painting can be, visually, or on the surface of the work itself.
How did you develop such an original style?
I was heavily influenced, early on, by Expressionism. After my career took off, my work started to be referenced as Northern European Expressionism, and I was compared to artists like the German Expressionist, Emile Nolde, who the Nazi's crushed, and the the great Norwegian artist, Peder Balke.
Even though I have an art history minor from undergrad and grad school, I had never heard of Balke until his great granddaughter sort of "discovered" me and my work while showing and selling my work on the street on Cape Cod. I'd say the turning point for me and my "career" was when I began painting water. Water speaks to me. I love interpreting water because it is always changing. It's a strong metaphor for our personal lives - calm one moment and full of energy the next.
My work is considered very unusual here. I'm a different kind of painter, compared to other contemporary artists in the Cape Cod area. The impasto technique dates back to the 13th century. 'Impasto' means using thick paint on the surface. For me, the more layers you have, the richer the art will be.
You must use a lot of paint.
Oh, buckets and buckets. To get the kind of effects I am after. I work from dark to light, then light to dark, building up the layers on the canvas, with acrylic paint, based on what the subject requires. If I used oil paint, some of these pieces would take years to dry. My paint bills are astronomical.
Which do you use more, the brush or the knife?
I often start out with a brush for the under-layers, but end up doing a lot of the work with a palette knife. Then I may combine the two, because, well, that's how we actually see life - or at least I do. It's a soft sky against a terrain that may be extremely rugged. So, I mix brush with knife work. I've been told more than once that it goes against typical academic training, but it's important for any artist to follow their gut and their muse. Because only then is their work organic.
In your painting of one giant wave, the result seems to produce a kind of
Funny story - that painting literally stopped traffic. At my working studio and gallery here, the staff usually puts a painting on an easel out front every day. That particular one, "Wave", is pretty intense. While painting it, I became obsessed. At one point, my business manager even said, "Will you stop working on that damn wave?" I couldn't. It kicked me into OCD mode.
Part of the challenge was the math involved in it. While most perceive waves as rather organic looking events, they are actually very complex math problems that have to do with intersecting orbs, triangles, water pressures and unseen objects like sand or rocks, etc. To get them to look "real" you have to at least take all that into consideration. When I finally finished "Wave", and put it on display outside, a policeman came into the gallery and asked them take it down because they said too many drivers were stopping to take a look at it.
What's the story behind your Painted Ladies series?
The Painted Ladies series is abstract work that has its own narrative-driven concept. The ladies themselves are dreamlike, an ethereal presence. I feel like they were searching for an artist to reveal themselves, like these faces wanted to live with me. There was recognition for the work right away, and recently I created a limited series of archival prints of them. The Painted Ladies have been very good to me.
How did you get the freedom to paint full time?
I've been drawing and painting since I was a little boy. But I worked, mainly as a writer, both creatively and in the corporate world for many years. I always tell young artists that success in the art world is all about distribution, and there are a lot of different avenues when conquering the world.
In 2011, I started selling small pieces painted on scrap lumber from my front porch in a small town on Cape Cod. They were tiny, inexpensive, and just instantly, they flew off the easel. This led to commissions for bigger pieces - nothing huge, but enough to give me confidence.
While the money I was making was important, the turning point was when an important international art critic, familiar with Expressionism, saw my paintings on my front porch. He understood what I was doing, the roots of my work and all that. With his support, within six months I had won my first international competition - the shared exhibition prize in Sylt, the art colony in Germany. This all led to various other opportunities and an international manager based in Berlin.
Ever feel like you won the lottery?
SL: Sure. Luck, the right people, hard work, it's all come together. I know I am one of the lucky artists. To have my paintings capture the attention of buyers, the critics, collectors, artists, and the general public, right now, I have a wonderful life.
Steve Lyons is the featured artist at Gallery 463 in Chatham, MA. In addition to his Mexican tour, and multiple exhibitions in Europe, his paintings have also been featured at Poland's popular Poznan art fair, and the famous Heckman-Hofe galleries in Berlin. In 2016, he plans to exhibit his work in Potsdam, Sylt, and Dresden, Germany. For more about Steve Lyons and his remarkable art, visit www.SteveLyonsArt.com.
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