Painting the Nude: Artists Michael Alford and Steven Lindsay reveal the techniques that bring figures to life

by Susie Hodge

A version of article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of The Artist.

From Michelangelo to Rubens, and from Ingres to Freud, people have been painting nudes for centuries and figure painting has rarely waned in popularity among artists and viewers. Even Velázquez, under the shadow of the Spanish Inquisition, painted one of the most famous nudes in history.

Michael Alford

“The attraction of painting nudes is that it’s so difficult to get it right,” says Michael Alford. “You have to have the correct draughtsmanship, color, tone. You have to understand anatomy, but you’re not really painting it. You start with a real person —you want to capture the specificity of her form, her pose. But from this point on the process moves in the opposite direction from portraiture; you’re not painting individuals when you’re painting nudes. You’re painting archetypes. In fact the less indivualized they are, the more successful they are.”

Reclining Nude, Red Damask by Michael Alford, 20 X 30 oil on canvas on board

Reclining Nude, Red Damask by Michael Alford, 20×30, oil on canvas on board.

“I thought this pose elegant and slightly unconventional. I started with a background I later found dull, and so added white and Naples yellow quite thickly with a palette knife. I drew out the fabric with gouache before the oil paint so I had reliable forms to work with.”

One of the issues that affected artists in the past was the cost and availability of decent models. Finding them is easier than it used to me, thanks to online agencies, says Michael, “but their availability and suitability is often a problem, quite apart from the cost.”

Michael’s style continues to evolve. “You are never completely satisfied with your method and techniques.” Some of this is natual and unconsidered, such as: “I have to look at something and then almost forget it and later paint from a memory of what I’ve seen and later return to sketches or photographs for practical information as I proceed.”

Preparation and process

Michael works in a variety of media but favors oils, using a mixture of brands but always high-quality pigments. He uses watercolor for sketching and acrylic and watercolor for underpainting, particularly for cityscapes and landscapes. He usually spends two to three days painting a typical work of between 24X30 and 36X48 inches.

Reclining Nude, Gold, oil on canvas on board, 20x30. "I used a palette knife apply a mix of yellow ochre and titanium white, which I then scraped across the background to allow flecks of white to show through. I also painted a slightly richer, warmer glaze of yellow ochre wiht a rouch of red and black over the figure to soften its tones." Reclining Nude, Gold by Michael Alford, oil on canvas on board, 20×30. “I used a palette knife apply a mix of yellow ochre and titanium white, which I then scraped across the background to allow flecks of white to show through. I also painted a slightly richer, warmer glaze of yellow ochre wiht a rouch of red and black over the figure to soften its tones.”

In the nudes shown here, Michael used only Payne’s gray, white (titanium and zinc in a mixture of 3:1), cadmium red and yellow ochre. “This narrow range creates a harmony that can be lost if too many colors are used. I do the initial drawing onto a surface tinted with a variety of methods and colors — I like messy mixture of Prussian or cerulean blue and raw sienna scrubbed in, using acrylics and watercolor/gouache for their speed of drying. Thereafter, I really like to paint wet-in-wet, applying a thin mid-flesh tone first and working quickly to complete the figure before the paint gets tacky. To help with this I add a little clove or oil to the medium (usually walnut oil) and make sure that the ground is as resistant to the ‘sinking’ of the oil paint as possible.

“In these paintings I was working on gessoed and sanded canvas glued to board adn then covered with shellac and/or gelatine or PVA, which keeps the paint workable over a couple of days at least. The solidity of the board allows me to ‘attack’ the painting when required. Also, if I spend too much time in preparation I’m inclined to be timid when it comes to the painting.

Summer 1 painting by Michael Alford Summer 1 by Michael Alford, 30×24, oil on canvas on board. “Figures drawn from unfamiliar perspectives force you to see the features of the body in a purely abstract way. Only by rigorously analyzing the shapes of the elements can you produce a convincing result. For this painting, I needed to pay less attention to the outline, which I emphasized in Reclining Nude, Gold, and more to elements like the figure’s central line which begins and ends pointing to the left of the frame, but which takes every conceivable twist and turn in between.”

“To apply the paint I use bristle and synthetic brushes, fan brushes and 2-inch decorator’s brushes for blending, as well as my fingers and palette knives. I work as fast as I can and break off from working on any given area if I find I am getting bogged down. If I do this I often find I can resolve the problem in a few minutes that has been frustrating me for hours.”


“The discipline of exhibiting is good for me, although it naturally causes anxieties,” Michael says. “You have to exhibit ot keep people aware of you and what you’re up to. I sometimes enter competitions, but there is usually a great deal of time spent in making submissions and dropping off and picking up work and I’d rather be working. Prizes are great for one’s CV, but winning doesn’t change the quality of one’s work.”

Steven Lindsay

Steven Lindsay’s work, although with a coherent style, can be diverse in terms of subject. “I love figure painting but also do the occasional still life. I find painting the nude a fundamental part of art: it teaches balance, form and relativity in a way that no other subject matter can. My prime object is t study how light and shade affects the form and flesh tones. I often use dramatic lighting to make the figures almost abstract and spend a fair amount of time positioning the figure on the canvas until the composition works.

painting by steven lindsay-reclining nude Reclining Nude by Steven Lindsay, oil on canvas, 19.25×39.50in (50x100cm)

“I always start with a drawing — when problems arise, it’s most often from the ‘bones’ not being right. I make a Conté and pencil sketch on the canvas, then I add some shading. I use fixative so not to lose the drawing, which is crucial. I normally do a wash of burnt sienna and umber and use a cloth to wipe out the highlights while the wash is still wet. Normally some of the drawing will still blend with the wash, which I like, and can be one of those very few happy accidents in painting. I prefer thicker finishes that show the brushmarks.

“I always have a few paintings in progress simultaneously and find returning to a work after taking a break from it is invaluable as you can spot the flaws right away. Some paintings can take weeks, others days. I fail more than I succeed and am my own biggest critic — which you have to be.”

Paint and process

Steven’s nude paintings portray detached figures, rendered in terms of strongly contrasting lights and darks. He says his style developed without him noticing. “I feel I am still evolving as a painter.” The person he paints is less important that what the figure represents.

“Composition always surprises me,” he says, “so I never take things for granted. What works for one thing doesn’t necessarily work for another and I sometimes change what I see to make a painting work. The largest painting I’ve completed is 48×60 inches (122×152.5cm) and it took a couple of weeks.

“I believe that painting is a process mark making and as such these marks should be evident. I prefer working in oils. I like the depth it gives you and how it can challenge you constantly. I work with alkyd paint to build layers and then move on to higher-quality paint for the final stages. I also use Conté and pastels. I use sketches and photographs for reference. The photographs are great for light but often distort things so I use my sketches for form. We have two eyes to take in information, whereas a camera only has one, so the results are very different. I use the traditional grid method to transfer work onto canvas.”

For his nude paintings Steven says, “Ilike earth and cadmium colors. I don’t like to see colors mixed or blended together on the canvas. I prefer flat almost geometric strokes laid side-by-side to show the form of the nude and enable the viewer to blend the colors in their heads. I normally use a set palette of ochre, cadmium yellow and reds, umber, cobalt blue, white and terre verte, a lovely, subtle green for cooler skin tones. I mostly use flat brushes for bolder strokes but do have filberts for very occasional blending. Artificial light gives better control and it creates a more dramatic effect. In Glasgow it’s not often I’m able to capture the beautiful light streaming through the window.”

Influences, exhibitions and competitions

“I’ve entered a few competitions, and it’s flattering to get recognition but you have to remember not to be offended if you don’t. I work pretty slowly and have very tight control over what I feel is good enough to leave the studio. I’ve turned down some offers for exhibitions as I don’t want to show work that’s rushed just for the sake of it. Learn more about Steven Lindsay.

Cover image of The Artists December 2014About the writer: Susie Hodge is an author, art historian, historian and artist. As well as non-fiction books for adults and children she writes articles and web resources for galleries and museums. She also paints and illustrates for various publications. Learn more about Susie.

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