Beyond the Figure: How Oil Painter Nathan Seay Incorporates Atmosphere Into His Work

In the November 2016 issue of The Artist’s Magazine we get to know oil painter Nathan Seay, who strives to look beyond the figure and consider how the sitter fits into the world around him. Read Seay’s own words below about his process and how his travels changed his art.

beyond the figure

Just Tea (oil on canvas, 36×48) by Nathan Seay

A Life Changing Experience

In 2014, I spent 6 weeks living in a Buddhist temple to find answers to many of the questions that challenged me at that time. I was greeted by the abbot of the temple, who welcomed me upstairs for tea. He embodied perfect concentration. It was as if nothing existed other than the teapot, the water, the cup–whatever was the center of his attention at the time. Once tea had been prepared, he then focused the same sincere attention to me. Over the following weeks, rather than the answers to the questions I pursued, I saw the bigger picture. Living day-to-day and focusing on the task at hand freed me more than any idea ever could. “When walking, just walk. When listening, just listen. When painting, just paint,” he said. The title of this painting reflects that insight. There is nothing else, Just Tea.

My Process

When composing Just Tea, I decided the figure should be the focal point, but I wanted his gaze to direct attention to his actions. There was a purposeful way in which he arranged everything in front of him. In an effort to keep everything true to my own experience, I cropped the painting to only what I could see. I began with a burnt umber tonal sketch, and preceded to block-in the large color shapes throughout the composition. From there, I would resolve the painting in sections, the table, the wall, the figure, etc. I prefer to use a large brush as much as possible. When the work I am doing doesn’t change the way the painting looks from 10 feet back, I move on. I have no desire to render everything perfectly, and I want to leave my hand in my work as much as possible.

My palette consists of burnt umber, burnt sienna, permanent alizarin crimson, cadmium red, cadmium orange, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow pale, permanent green light, pthalo green, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue, dioxazine violet and titanium white. The pigments are arranged from warm to cool. There is essentially a light and dark version of every primary and secondary color so I have access to the full spectrum of tone without compromising color vibrance.

beyond the figure

Nathan Seay at work in his studio.

New Perspectives

While studying at the Repin Academy, the professors emphasized observing the whole painting simultaneously. I think more often than not, painting is challenging because we see too much. That is why I recommend standing back as much as possible and not allowing yourself to stare into the painting.

Learn More

To see more of the artist’s work, visit his website or his Instagram account.

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