Section:

Sketching from the imagination: Sean Layh

Masters of Sketching artist Sean Layh explains his process in creating classically styled art and offers some tips on working with charcoal...

Masters of Sketching artist Sean Layh explains his process in creating classically styled art and offers some tips on working with charcoal...

I am a studio based fine artist, located in Melbourne, Australia. My time is pretty evenly split between conceptual, design work and the execution of final paintings. The preparatory work is quite longwinded with varying stages of development that collectively dovetail into a final piece.

My artworks are largely designed digitally and then painted, or in the case of charcoal, drawn

My artworks are largely designed digitally and then painted, or in the case of charcoal, drawn

These preparatory stages include sketching (in the form of rough compositional sketches all the way to detailed charcoal-based tonal works), research (in all forms from pod-casts, books to internet image searches) and finally an extended period of design, which, nowadays, is almost exclusively digital.

The preparatory phase is most important for my practice. The reason for this is that I want to resolve what the artwork is actually about in its entirety and how the subject matter is going to be dealt with before putting paint to canvas. Once painting it is by no means the end of the design phase, I invariably realise faults in my original design, or new ideas have emerged, which I wish to change or incorporate.

After the preliminary design phase the canvas is gridded and the image is sketched on

After the preliminary design phase the canvas is gridded and the image is sketched on

This begins a second phase, or re-design, of the artwork that is far more fluid than the first. The redesign is undertaken simultaneously with the painting itself, the two feeding off each other. How this practically unfolds is I tend to do a day worth of painting then consolidate my thoughts by tinkering with the design either in the evening or the next morning before recommencing the painting. This process can take the form of simple scribbles or labour intensive reworking.

Altogether this is trying, to the best of my abilities, to represent an idea or image that I have in my mind. Im not very spontaneous or fast so these different approaches and their intersections at different stages tend to work like proof checking mechanism, constantly, step-by-step, correcting and refining the artwork until its completion.

Separate colours are used to sketch to canvas: red is used for the measurements and angles, and graphite or pencil is used to sketch in the forms

Separate colours are used to sketch to canvas: red is used for the measurements and angles, and graphite or pencil is used to sketch in the forms

INSPIRATION & IDEAS

Inspiration tends to come to me in the form of images, either things Ive seen or read which elicit a strong visual response. Conceptual ideas tend to come afterwards, and develop as the artwork is being executed. More concretely a lot of my work is directly influenced by 19th and early 20th century European painting especially their compositions and scale. I like to depict narrative scenes in which people are interacting with the natural world, either animals or natural elements, which themselves have been largely dramatized. Funnily enough I rarely cite music or films as direct sources of inspiration.

A light layer of oil paint is applied over the drawing to get a sense of the colour and tonal quality of the final painting

A light layer of oil paint is applied over the drawing to get a sense of the colour and tonal quality of the final painting

MATERIALS

For preparatory sketches I mainly use compressed charcoal and conté. The reason for this is I want maximum impact with minimal labour - that is reserved for painting. For this I use kneadable erasers, smudge sticks and, or course, fingers. For oil-painting, I use an even split between flat and sharp brushes of every conceivable size. The alternation of bush size gives a painting a more mature quality. Typical materials also include palette knives (used for mixing and applying paint to surface), a good glass palette and the indispensible mahl-stick (so not to smudge or dirty your work).

A thicker more complex series of layer succeeds the underpainting

A thicker more complex series of layer succeeds the underpainting

SKETCHING TECHNIQUES

In terms of sketches one of my favourites is the use of charcoal for a tonal study of a design destined to be a painting or sometimes a thing in itself. Firstly the paper is completely blacked out with compressed charcoal and smoothed to give an even mid-tone black. Next you can either start to rub back into the charcoal to form your images (very dream like) or you can sketch up with white conté. This gives you control over more precise details in the image and the two materials blend nicely together.

Compressed charcoal layer with white conté built up over the top

Compressed charcoal layer with white conté built up over the top

Top tip 1: Mahl-stick

The best materials that I have come across to make a mahl-stick is either a thin, light weight wood pole (such as balsa wood), or even better a cheap light weight meter ruler as pictured, so as to use it to measure and check proportions. Attach a cloth or some other padded material to the tip with tape or elastic bands and thats all you need. Best qualities of the stick are to light and flexible.

Use a mahl-stick to prevent smudging

Use a mahl-stick to prevent smudging

Top tip 2: Measure proportions

If youre doing a figurative piece and you would like to capture realism then proportionality is a must. A good way, although laborious and not very romantic, is to measure the differences between different body parts. For example, is the thigh two heads wide? Or is it one and half necks? I tend to use the head as an arbitrary point of measurement. This can be used to overcome tricky foreshortening.

Measure foreshortening

Measure foreshortening

Top tip 3: Look before you leap

This applies for both life-drawing and drawing from another reference. We tend to exaggerate proportions or distort what we are looking at, which can be great for certain styles or drawing. If realism is your aim, really looking at your subject and seeing past what your initial impressions are is important. For example you might exaggerate the eyes as they are what we are naturally drawn to. A good technique for proof checking your drawing is the 3/1 rule. Spend three seconds looking at your subject to every second looking at your drawing. This process can be refined by lots of life-drawing.

Three one rule

Three one rule

Related links

Check out more of Sean Layhs amazing work at his website
See Seans full tutorial in Masters of Sketching
Pick up a few more sketching skills with a copy of Sketching from the Imagination