Amelia Brookes talks to Beeston artist Matthew Lyons about painting the local community, appearing on Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, and his painting process...
When did you first know that you wanted to be an artist?
I had a career in retail design. I’ve always painted, always sketched - Covid came along, and I suddenly discovered that I had all this time - so I just started painting again. It was like a piece of my life was missing, and there it was. I don’t regret not doing art when I was going to uni, this is the right time.
Can you tell us how you began the People of Beeston exhibition…
I couldn’t meet people because we were all locked down, so I started finding free images on the internet to paint from, and photoshoots from art schools. I didn’t set out initially to do a project to paint and celebrate the local people - what I wanted to do was just meet people that I could paint.
The start of it was a painting of Will Gavin, who is a postman. He’s a neighbour of mine, and at the time he had this fantastic beard, and there’s a portrait that Van Gogh did of his postman, who also had a magnificent beard. I thought, wouldn’t it be fantastic to paint Will in the same pose as this Van Gogh painting? Will is a fine art student himself, so he was happy to help. It created a nice painting that I was happy with, and then I thought that I could do more of this.
I put this portrait on Facebook and said, ‘I’m painting portraits, here’s this example, can you think of anybody who might like to be painted?’ I got nominations from people - I decided I would paint twenty people, with a demographic mix - so it was a good representation of the people of Beeston. It evolved into something, but what I was not ready for was the experience that it brought to people, because most people are unlikely to ever have a portrait painted of them. To be able to do that was wonderful. Painting so many portraits was a massive challenge for me.
I’ve had people who have been anxious about the process, who are not used to seeing themselves, people who don’t like to look at themselves in a mirror. But I’ve painted them and they’ve seen themselves in a different way. They say, ‘it’s more than me.’
I meet people and I spend a bit of time with them and it’s enough to get a sense of who they are, and then I try to bring that out in the painting
You’ve done other things for the local community as well! Tell me about your group of paintings for the Treetop Hospice, and how you got involved with that
At the People of Beeston show, I did two tours of the exhibition, and I talked about each of the paintings. Afterwards, I said what I’d love to do next is the idea of painting groups of people at work. One of the members of the Treetop’s management team was at one of those talks, and contacted me afterwards, and said, ‘Would you be interested in painting us?’ It ticked that box, but they also have lots of space, so I could paint big pictures, which otherwise you don’t get the opportunity to do. These pictures are five feet by three feet!
The idea was, let’s look at celebrating the staff and volunteers of Treetops by painting them in these three groups. I’ve called them ‘Portraits in the Counselling Centre’, ‘Portrait in the Rainy Rose Garden’, and ‘Portrait in the Wellbeing Room’.
I think you mentioned that one of the paintings was really difficult to do because of the lighting?
The one in the rainy rose garden… it was quite a dreary day and the perspective in it was difficult. I have a good friend who’s a critic, so I’ll send him pictures of work in progress and he’s the only person I share them with. He will tell me ‘that’s wrong’ and doesn’t pull any punches, it’s helpful. He said to me ‘I’m afraid all of your perspective is out’, so then I had to take it outside, lay it on the lawn, and use string to sort it.
I wanted to ask about your appearance on Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year?
It was quite something. That programme was one of the things that got me back into painting, because I used to really love watching it. I was interested in the programme and seeing if I could get myself onto it, just for the experience. After I finished the People of Beeston portraits, I ran out of anything to do, and was at a bit of a loss. So I painted this portrait of myself feeling a bit lost, and that was the painting that I submitted.
The people involved in the programme, they are so nice to you. You feel like you are the most important person. And they must be doing it with everybody, but it was a wonderful experience all the way up to the day. On the actual day, the painting was the hardest thing I’ve ever tried, because you only have four hours. Plus, you have all the stress of painting on television. I thought it’ll be alright, I’ll just paint in the same scale as my People of Beeston portraits, because I know I can paint at that scale - but it was too big, so I made some fundamental mistakes. I painted Fleur East, I was sketching it out, and I realised that my symmetry was all wrong, and I thought I corrected it, I got interrupted, and I moved on. Stress does very strange things to you. At the end of the day, I was happy with the painting that I was able to produce in the time. It looks like one of my paintings. I didn’t go through to the next round, but that’s fine. My mistake was to not just paint a head - but that’s not my style.
I think that there are some artists that have a longer process than others, and I think that art is not a thing to be rushed. It is, however, interesting to see speed painting on TV, because then you can see the way that everything comes together.
Absolutely. You’ve got to let the painting have its time to mature as you sit with it. That’s all part of the process.
I wanted to ask you about the painting style itself. When you paint people’s visages, what is your process when deciding on colour? One interesting feature of your work is that colour seems to kaleidoscope around people.
I have a textured board, and I sketch everything out in charcoal before fixing it. I apply a grey wash, and use that grey as a mid-tone in the portrait, so for some of the paintings there’ll be very little paint applied, because I’ll let the tone do its thing. I’ve used a very limited palette before. What I would do with the face is mix up a mid-range skin tone and gradually add it. I tend to use broad brushstrokes - I love hogs-hair brushes. I want to create quite a scratchy impression of the person, but getting enough contrast in there is always a challenge.
How do you manage to achieve such individual expressions?
I’ll go into detail in the eyes and the mouth - (they) give the portrait its personality and the likeness. The portraits are a composite of lots of photos, and sometimes the way the painting will develop will look more like the person than the photos do. Through sheer chance, sometimes. I meet people and I spend a bit of time with them and it’s enough to get a sense of who they are, and then I try to bring that out in the painting.
Often, paintings have a real depth of field that some photographs just don’t have, because you’re painting not just the person but also the take on what you can see as an artist. There’s always going to be that something more.
I think people are a lot more engaged in the process, even for a short period of time, than if you were taking a photograph.
You also paint with short brushstrokes, which gives it a real interesting cross-textural sharpness, which has a contrast with the softness of the people themselves. How did you settle on the way you paint?
I’m not settled on anything. I’ll always try to develop. Now the Treetop project is finished, so I haven’t got anything lined up. I’ve started to experiment a bit more with narrative in painting. My paintings have just been about people - now I’ve done a painting that’s a double self-portrait, a portrait of myself as a businessman, and myself as an artist. It represents my personal experience of having work related stress, and the art has been restorative.
You’ve lived in Nottingham a long time, what do you think of Nottingham’s artistic scene?
I’m part of the Attenborough-Beeston-Chilwell Art Trail - a little community of artists, and we open our studios to the local community once a year. The area that I’m in is creative, but Beeston doesn’t have a gallery, which is really sad! I would love for there to be a location where we can sell our work.
I went to the New Art Exchange and the exhibition there - that was a national exhibition, but there were local artists there. I was so grateful to have been involved in that. They do training events, as well - they teach you how to get funding from the Arts Council.
Nottingham is a really artistic county, and a really artistic city, but I think there are hundreds and thousands of people producing art, doing their thing.
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