LS Lowry Biography

Who Was LS Lowry?

L S Lowry complating Stockport

Smabs Sputzer / Flickr

LS Lowry was a 20th-century English artist most famous for his paintings of life in the bleak industrial areas of northern England, done in muted colors and containing lots of small figures or "matchstick men". His painting style was very much his own, and he struggled much of his career against perceptions that he was a self-taught, part-time, naïve artist.

Laurence Stephen Lowry was born on November 1, 1887. He never studied at art college full-time, but did attend evening art classes for many years. It's known that in 1905 he studied "antique and freehand drawing", that he studied at the Manchester Academy of Fine Art and the Salford Royal Technical College, and was still going to classes in the 1920s1.

Lowry worked most of his life as a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company, retiring at 65. He tended to keep quiet about his "daytime job", to reduce the impression that he wasn't a serious artist. Lowry painted after work and only once his mother, who he looked after, had gone to bed.

"Lowry kept this occupation secret to avoid being known as a 'Sunday painter', often painting his canvases late into the night."2

"It was not until his death that the public learned of the artist's unique industrial vision having been developed as he traversed Manchester on foot as a rent collector, committing wry and sundry observations to notebook or memory before their working into paintings in evenings and on weekends.3

Eventually, Lowry did achieve critical acclaim, starting with his first London exhibition in 1939. In 1945 he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts by the University of Manchester. In 1962 he was elected a Royal Academician. In 1964, the year Lowry turned 77, the British prime minister Harold Wilson used one of Lowry's paintings (The Pond) as his official Christmas card, and in 1968 Lowry's painting Coming Out of School was part of a series of stamps depicting great British artists. A few months after his death, on February 23, 1976, a retrospective exhibition of his paintings opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

In 1978 the song Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs, written as a tribute to Lowry, became a number one chart hit for the duo Brian and Michael. (Note: the song actually says, "matchstalk men", not "matchstick".)

1. LS Lowry - His Life and Career, The Lowry website, accessed 2 October 2010.
2. Object of the Month: Station Approach by LS Lowry RA, Royal Academy of the Arts, accessed 2 October 2010.
3. Factory at Widness by LS Lowry, The Press, 13 October 2004

Lowry's Painting Style

Lowry is most famous for his paintings of bleak industrial and urban scenes with lots of small figures. He painted factories with tall chimneys billowing smoke in the background, and in front of this a pattern of small, thin figures, all busy going somewhere or doing something, figures dwarfed by their surroundings.

The smallest of his figures are little more than black silhouettes, others basic shapes of muted color with lots of long coats and hats. In the largest figures, though, there is clear detail of what people are wearing, though it's always something drab.

The sky is typically a grey, overcast sky with smoke pollution. Weather and shadows are not depicted, but look out for dogs and horses (usually half-hidden behind something as Lowry found horses' legs difficult to paint).

Although Lowry liked to say he painted only what he saw, he composed his paintings in his studio, working from memory, sketches, and imagination. His later paintings had fewer figures in them; some none at all. He also painted some large portrait-like single figures, landscapes, and seascapes.

If you look at Lowry's earlier paintings and drawings, (for instance in The Lowry collection) you'll see that he did have the artistic skill to do traditional-style, representational portraits. He chose not to—it wasn't that his style was the way it was because he couldn't do otherwise.

"If people call me a Sunday painter I'm a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week!"1

1. LS Lowry - His Life and Career, The Lowry website, accessed 2 October 2010.

Lowry's Paint Colors

Lowry worked in oil paint, without using any mediums such as linseed oil, on canvas. His palette was limited to just five colors: ivory black, Prussian blue, vermilion, yellow ocher, and flake white.

In the 1920s, Lowry started applying a layer of flake white before he started painting. "This was a result of an argument with his teacher Bernard D Taylor, who thought Lowry's pictures were too dark. Lowry later discovered, to his pleasure, that the flake white turned creamy grey-white over the years."1

This layer also filled in the grain of the canvas and created a rough, textured surface which suited the grittiness of Lowry's subjects. Lowry is also known to have reused canvasses, painting over previous works, and to make marks in the paint with objects other than a brush.

"Looking closely at the surface of Lowry's paintings shows us the variety of ways he worked the paint with brushes (using both ends), with his fingers and with sticks or a nail."2

1. The Old House, Grove Street, Salford, 1948, Tate Collection, accessed 19 May 2012.
2. LS Lowry - His Life and Career, The Lowry website, accessed 2 October 2010.

Where to See Lowry's Paintings

The Lowry in Manchester, England has 400 artworks by Lowry from across his career and in all mediums (including oils, pastels, watercolors, and drawings). Quite a few artworks from the collection can be seen online, organized into two group: Lowry's paintings of people and paintings of places.

Painting Project: In the Style of LS Lowry

The challenge of this painting project is to paint a busy urban scene from contemporary life, with lots of little figures, in the style and colors of LS Lowry. The setting could be a busy pedestrianized street; at a mall, train or bus station; a street market or craft show; or even an office or industrial area when everyone's heading home after work (but remember Lowry's paintings are full of figures walking, not in cars).

The painting can be any size, in your preferred medium. Your palette must be limited to the five colors Lowry used—a black, a dark blue, an orange-red, yellow ocher, and white—though you needn't match the pigments he used. (A chromatic black rather than tube black is fine, too. Ensure it's thoroughly mixed and preferably made using the same blue and/or red you're using for the project.)