In November, Nicole and I had the opportunity to meet the exceptionally gifted artist, Michelle Dunaway. She graciously allowed us to audit one of her demos and the instruction was nothing short of inspirational. After a series of fascinating conversations, her profound correlation with art, literature, music and poetry became visible. She truly is an artist in every sense of the word and we look forward to many more meetings with her in the future. Below is a remarkably insightful interview Michelle was kind enough to grant us.
1. Do you have a specific goal every time you paint?
My goal when painting is to be as faithful as I can to what I am seeing and perceiving. Keeping in mind throughout the process, to maintain a main focal point and have a hierarchy of elements is also forefront on my mind. When beginning a painting I ask myself “What is the most important element I want to capture?”
Especially when painting from life, it’s essential to ask yourself these questions prior to putting brush to canvas because you are working in a limited time frame. Orchestrating the elements in their level of importance is key. Just as in music, the desire is to have elements harmonize and play off of each other, strengthening the whole composition. If the artist gives every element in a painting equal weight it is like listening to a symphony where every instrument is playing at the same time with equal volume…the beauty is lost. The human eye can only focus on one thing at a time – this is where photos can fool us. We need, as artists, to always be aware of where our chosen focus is in the painting and subdue some of the surrounding elements to support that main intention. That’s what the eye does when you focus on the subject in life, and I’m interested in painting as closely to how the human eye sees.
2. Could you please share a little about your painting career? How old were you when you started? Did you take lessons? Did you go to art school?
I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember. I believe at age 2 I did my first drawing of a person and never stopped being fascinated with the many varied subtle expressions that a face can convey. I attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena CA, studying primarily drawing and anatomy with the intention of being an illustrator. At age 24 I walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time. I was living temporarily on the east coast doing a sculpture commission and it was my first time visiting such an amazing museum. When I walked into the American wing and saw the Sargent portraits, my whole focus in art shifted and I knew I would be passionately pursuing fine art painting for the rest of my life. I took a couple of workshops with artists I admired to hone my skill and painted and drew from life constantly.
3. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Be true to yourself and trust your intuitions. Listen to your own instincts and inclinations when it comes to what you desire to paint and strive to express those inspirations with honesty. We each have a unique voice and no one else can tell you what valid subject matter is…if it moves you enough to paint it, chances are it will move others. Be fearless…try new techniques, or as one of my early art teachers used to say “feel the fear and do it anyway!” Draw, draw, draw from life. Good painting is good drawing, you may not be drawing with lines, but you are drawing with colored shapes of paint. Listen to critiques from artists you admire, some people hate critiques but it is the best way to learn and you have to be tough and take in the information a more experienced artist is telling you about developing the fundamentals (drawing, composition, value, color and edges). We are all always seeking to improve as artists and it takes looking at your work with a critical eye. Seek to learn something new with each painting so that your skill develops steadily and you can more aptly convey what you wish to say through paint.
4. Your portraits are remarkable. In your opinion what is the most important thing to consider when painting a portrait?
Thank you. Well, in all painting, especially in portraiture it’s important to get the essentials; good drawing, concise value patterns, clean color with temperature variance, an effect of light and edges that translate space and form. Structure is very important in portraiture, creating a sense of mass and getting the drawing accurate in the triad of the face (the eyes nose and mouth). But that is just the foundation. In a portrait the most essential aspect to me is capturing the emotional essence of the person I’m painting – capturing a bit of who they are. As the artist I’m getting a glimpse into the story of this person and my hope is that the painting will embody that and it will translate to the viewer. The emotional aspect can be elusive and takes patience and attentiveness to capture but it’s the “life” of a painting.
5. What is your preferred medium and why?
Oils, because it allows me to push and pull edges in a painting giving a sense of atmosphere. Edges are like inflections in music, they add emotional content
6. Who are your primary inspirations?
Nature first and foremost, there is so much to be seen and inspired by in the little everyday moments. As far as other painters, John Singer Sargent, Cecilia Beaux , Joaquin Sorolla, Anders Zorn, Jules Bastien LePage,and Richard Schmid to name a few.
7. If you could only paint one more painting, what would it be of?
My future child one day.
Here is a photo of one of Michelle’s astounding portraits.