Scott Burdick & Susan Lyon | Drawing out the Best

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Painter Patty Bailey Sheets has a theory about one of the qualities that makes Scott Burdick and his wife, Susan Lyon, such great teachers of drawing and painting. “They apparently have the ability to zip back and forth between both sides of the brain. Some artists are so much in the right side of the brain while they’re painting, they can hardly talk,” she notes. “Scott and Sue can communicate and demonstrate, and they can somehow get it in your head and make it come out your hand.”

Burdick and Lyon don’t necessarily think of themselves as mentors. “Most students who’ve gone on to become well known have had many teachers,” Burdick observes, in characteristically humble fashion. But some of the many artists who, over the years, have sought out the pair’s knowledge—and who’ve felt that memorable click when a difficult aspect of drawing or painting suddenly falls into place—think of the couple with the level of gratitude and respect that mentors deserve.

Burdick and Lyon would say they are merely passing on the knowledge that they received from teachers who were significant to them. Both artists grew up in the Chicago area and attended the American Academy of Art, studying with Bill Parks. Later they both took part in Chicago’s Palette and Chisel art club, where models were available to sketch and paint. Now living in rural North Carolina and spending as much time as they can traveling, Burdick and Lyon have each earned numerous awards, including Best of Show and Artists’ Choice at national shows.

Claire, Angela, Lilies, oil, 24 x 60, by Scott Burdick

Burdick is known for his acute ability to capture the humanity of subjects from around the world, as well as his mastery of color and light. Lyon’s admirers point to her sensitivity and delicacy of hand, especially in portraits of women, children, and objects of everyday life. Together they host an annual 10-day workshop at their studios; they also share their knowledge through books, online videos, DVDs, and in virtually any environment in which they find themselves side by side with other artists.

One such ongoing situation is a weekly informal drawing group they organize in Winston-Salem, where area artists split model fees and paint or draw together. Even here, notes longtime member Bailey Sheets, the couple’s natural impulse to share comes out. “We can be painting a model, and we’re all putting money in, we’ve all got the same three hours, but if you ask a question, Scott or Susan will drop everything and come over to your easel to help,” she relates.

Lee, oil, 40 x 30, Patty Bailey Sheets

Bailey Sheets, a figurative artist who lives a half-hour’s drive from the couple, creates sensitive commissioned portraits that capture essential qualities in her subjects. Ten years ago she got up the courage to email Lyon and ask for a critique of her work. Since then she has taken part in an eight-week Saturday drawing class with Lyon and Burdick, continued in the weekly drawing/painting group, and been part of the audience during video shoots.

Among the couple’s most valuable attributes as teachers, Bailey Sheets says, is their unfailing ability to put their students at ease. “There’s no fear your work will be scoffed at. It’s not in their vocabulary, not in their life,” she declares. This sentiment is echoed by Atlanta-based painter Melissa Gann, who took part in her first workshop with Burdick and Lyon in 2006.

With a degree in piano performance, Gann saw work by Burdick shortly after receiving her first painting instruction from artist Claudia Hartley. She learned Burdick taught and, as she puts it, “a light went on. At the time, I had a dream of traveling and painting, and here were two artists doing exactly that, and they’re phenomenal artists.” Since studying with Burdick and Lyon, Gann has taken part in a number of plein-air paint-outs and juried national exhibitions. “They go out of their way to make you feel comfortable, which does wonders for you if you’re trying to learn, because it takes the fear away,” she says. “In the workshop Scott was constantly saying, ‘Isn’t this fun! Isn’t this fun!’ And he’s absolutely sincere.”

Burdick has no question about the origins of his approach. “Mr. Parks gave [his students] all the basic information, but one of the greatest parts of studying with him was he enjoyed it so much,” he explains. “He brought in art books and inspirational sayings. He would talk about how your attitude and enthusiasm for art are as important as technique.”

Burdick also knows first hand how intimidating the learning experience can be. “Before the Academy, I had some classes where the atmosphere was competitive and oppressive,” he recalls. “People were nervous; teachers would yell at students, and you were afraid the teacher would come around and say nasty things about your work.”

At the same time, he and Lyon understand how an instructor can be challenged by the needs of artists impatient to learn. “Students can get very frustrated. They want to learn instantly, and sometimes they want extra attention,” Lyon points out. “The main thing I hear about Scott is that he’s incredibly patient.” For her part, Lyon brings to the teaching experience her own empathetic memories of earlier years. “Drawing did not come easily to me,” she acknowledges. “I know what it’s like to have performance anxiety.”

In all their teaching sessions, Lyon and Burdick work to create not only a comfortable atmosphere but ideal conditions, including excellent lighting and models. In workshops they each make a point of spending time with each artist every day, so all students receive input from both teachers.

The Red Umbrella, oil, 24 x 18, Sarah Kidner

Painter Sarah Kidner, who lives and paints near Banff, Alberta, first saw Burdick’s work in Southwest Art in 2003 and took her first workshop with the couple in 2006. Two years later she joined them on a five-day painting trip in Italy, where Burdick and Lyon were doing their own sketching and painting. Intrigued by architecture, urban and café scenes, and the figure in moments of daily life, Kidner was especially excited about watching the more experienced artists as they painted Italian buildings and people on location. She took the lessons to heart. In the years since then her award-winning, often warmly hued work has been juried into national shows in Canada and the United States.

Burdick and Lyon’s students don’t seem concerned about losing their own artistic voices through studying intensely with painters who’ve had years to develop a particular style. For one thing, what the couple teaches to artists of all levels are the fundamentals: how to see, how to draw, how to squint and compare, and how to use values, edges, and color. “These things apply across the board, so you take those and apply them to the way you already paint,” notes Gann. Beyond technique, another of the teachers’ basic precepts, when followed, leads inevitably to each student finding his or her own voice. “They talk a lot about painting what excites you, what you love. Without that personal connection, [your work] ends up missing something. It ends up as a copy,” Gann points out.

Sometimes mentorship reaches beyond even this kind of advice and into the realm of true friendship. When Bailey Sheets’ husband died three years ago, the artist knew she needed to support herself and was afraid of trying to do so with her art. She remembers Burdick and Lyon sitting her down and saying, “You need to be an artist. You are good enough. Don’t stop now, or you’ll never get the momentum back.” Thinking back on it now, she says, “They were right. But had they not said what they did, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do it. That was huge.”

Yanca Ponytail, oil, 6 x 8, by Susan Lyon

Still, the teacher-student relationship is never a one-way street. Those who mentor often gain as much as they give. For Lyon one much-appreciated benefit is the company of other artists, especially in a rural environment. “I don’t think I could survive as an artist if I didn’t have that fellowship,” she reflects. For both she and Scott, another significant bonus is the constant opportunity to refresh their own basic skills. “We’re always telling students that there actually is a process; it’s not a matter of just being born with talent,” Burdick stresses. “If you like it enough and work hard enough, you’ll be able to do it. So we have to be able to put it in a simple way, so people can learn.

“We’re all standing on the shoulders of people before us,” he continues. “It’s our obligation to pass that on to the next generation of artists, who will pass it on to the next.” For him and for Lyon, those broad shoulders include such artists as Richard Schmid, a master at painting from life, as well as Bill Parks. Bailey Sheets, who now teaches workshops herself, describes the phenomenon as a “nice little staircase. They’re passing down to me, and I pass down to my students. It’s a continuum.”

Susan Lyon and Scott Burdick
Sylvan Gallery, Charleston, SC; Germanton Gallery, Germanton, NC; InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Sage Creek Gallery, Santa Fe, NM. Burdick is also represented by Gallery 1261, Denver, CO, and

Patty Bailey Sheets
Hampton House Art & Framing, Winston-Salem, NC; Germanton Gallery, Germanton, NC;

Melissa Gann
Lagerquist Gallery, Atlanta, GA; Ann Jacob Gallery, Highlands, NC;

Sarah Kidner
Diana Paul Galleries, Calgary, Alberta;

Featured in July 2011.