The Art of Lynn Sweat

You’ve heard of Lynn Sweat and seen his art.

You might not remember off the top of your head, but trust me, you have.

Sweat was born in 1934 in Louisiana and raised in Nederland, Texas. No doubt he spent many hours as a child running beneath the thick trees in the satellite regions of the Big Thicket while the sunlight fell in dappled rays around him. The shaping of his artistic vision by his surroundings is one common to artists born in Southeast Texas. Some quality of the place, the closeness with nature (existing as it does in such proximity to the Big Thicket), the straightforwardness of rural living; these are often mentioned as inspiration by artists who grew up here. This is visible in Sweat’s compositions in the form of an obvious love for open spaces and a somewhat bucolic aesthetic often at play in the background.

After his graduation from Lamar University as a Commercial Artist in 1956, Sweat followed job opportunities from Beaumont, Texas, to New York City. There he found employment as an illustrator for, among other things, children’s books such as Amelia Bedelia. If that title is unfamiliar to you, grab a time machine stat! You missed a portion of your childhood.

And though mention of the madcap maid tends to manifest memories of a certain moment in most people older than 30 (the local library, children’s section, chairs hardwood, small and uncomfortable, dust and paper), Sweat’s commercial work is not what this missive is about. Instead, we’re going to have a look at his true passion: painting.

Hodgepodge of Color

To get an idea of what a man is passionate about, simply pay attention to what he is always thinking about. One need only follow Sweat on social media to know that the man thinks (and does) painting. Painting and painting. He posts prolifically to Instagram (@lynnsweat.illustrator) almost every day showing both old work and new.

Sweat’s work is fascinating. A universal characteristic is scintillating patterns of light falling across canvases that seem to glow despite their matte finish. His background in illustration and design is obvious in the bold compositions and focus on color theory. By limiting his subjects he prevents the intrusion of visual chaos; the complex patterns of color and textured application of paint could overwhelm the recognition of form if too many were present. By abstracting his subjects he captures them in symbol rather than in specific; the viewer is able to immerse themselves in the tone of the work without being distracted by the identity of the figures.

Whether warm or cool in hue, Sweat’s paintings always possess a mysterious atmosphere suffused with bright lights and deep shadows. A fine mist seems to hang in the air between us, ever so lightly muting the scene. Nevertheless, a mastery of color sets the canvas aflame with inner light, curiously paradoxical to the hazy spaces depicted and mixing mystery with a vibrant sense of life. There’s a particularly introspective feeling when looking at Sweat’s work, as though he has shared some poignant thought with us.

His drawings are less mysterious. Friendly and open, they lay about the surface with gestural ease. Their whimsical and extroverted lines more readily call to mind Sweat’s well-known children’s illustrations. It is interesting to note that though his paintings all begin as drawings – he begins with quick sketches each morning – his handling of the different media result in so divergent a tone.

Sweat draws inspiration from many sources. At a glance one can see touches of surrealism, impressionism, abstract expressionism. He has looked to the masters such as Rembrandt and Goya, searching out the genius in their dramatic lighting and evocative imagery. Stylistically he cites the brutal forms of Pre-Columbian artwork. Their stripped-down essentialism has an obvious appeal to a commercial artist by trade, who is forever searching for the perfect marriage of simplicity and expressiveness. Finally, there’s the dancer, a recurring subject; Sweat’s wife Elynor was a dancer and she remains an obvious muse to this day.

“My childhood was spent on the coast of Texas. My first memories are those of being close to nature, dragonflies, turtles, frogs, ducks, wild geese, birds, and clouds. I always had a love for pencils, crayons, and libraries. After I graduated from high school, my interest in art led me to study commercial illustration.”

Every semester starry eyed young artists emerge from their classrooms and into a demanding and competitive world. It’s no different – fundamentally – today than it was in 1956. Sweat’s advice? Take every opportunity to learn. He was willing to follow the work and put in the effort. He draws every day, his warm up sketches leading naturally into new ideas and ending in finished paintings.

Recently Sweat has designated the Art Studio, Inc. as his (un)official link to the past. He has donated work to help the studio with fundraising efforts and indicated his intention to continue sending paintings as fast as they can sell them. In addition, the studio will often have Sweat’s work available for shows, such as the one that just ended including artwork from DJ Kava, Grace Megnet, Tam Keihnhoff, Chuck Russell and Larry Leach. Quite a bit of Sweat’s work is unexpectedly affordable and can be found on his website, or at the Art Studio, Inc.

Obligatory Amelia Bedelia