Interview with Oil Painter Michelle Arnold PainePosted November 27 2012
Originally Posted on: Oct 21, 2011 by Kelly Powers
Michelle Arnold Paine spent three years working in Italy and while she already knew how to oil paint, she created her own sort of painting lessons on the streets of Europe. After she returned to the United States, Paine's portfolio grew from these memories of rooftops and cathedrals.
What is the importance to travel in your work? When you were living in Italy, how did you approach your art? Was it more important to capture images with a camera or to capture emotions in a journal? Or did you spend your time with your paints and sketchbooks in the spaces you hope to paint fully later?
Though I often represent faraway places, my work isn’t about traveling in the sense of “vacation.” It is about journeying through life. When I was living in Italy I spent a lot of time journaling. I also wandered the streets with sketchbooks, paint, pastels, watercolors capturing whatever scenes caught my eye. I had a job there, so I didn’t have endless hours for artistic pursuit – but at that time (10 years ago), I also didn’t have unlimited Internet access to suck that time away!
After my return to the US, in a moment of unhappiness, I wanted to paint my memories of Italy, that place where beauty seemed more tangible and enduring. I went through all of my sketches, paintings, etc. from the time I was there and I realized that one of the themes that attracted me was architecture, particularly the churches. During my time in Italy I had joined the Roman Catholic church, and suddenly the sketches, which had been made without any sense of purpose, held great meaning for me as a representation of my spiritual home.
I have not had the resources in recent years to make many trips, but the depths of my experiences continue to resonate in my work.
What is your goal when representing a subject? Do you have different goals for different subject matter for example your architectural paintings and your figurative paintings?
My goal is to communicate some sense of beauty, some sense of the transcendent. It manifests itself differently in the different genres, but I think the goal is the same. I believe our physical world is a work of great beauty in itself, and in painting I try to capture that – an invitation to slow down and contemplate the immense gifts that are our stories, our lives, our world. I also seek in some sense to capture the beauty that is our inner life, our emotions, prayers, and yearnings beyond words.
You clearly do a lot of drawing of architecture as well. Where does sketching fall in your process? When you sit down to draw is the goal the piece itself or is it a step in a longer painting process? What do you hope to learn from sketching when you sit down to create one?
When I sketch I seek to grow in familiarity with the subject so that I begin to know its details and structure from memory. When, from repetition and study, I no longer need to refer to a photograph or drawing for information, I am able to get closer to what I am seeking in my painting.
Do you work on one painting until it is finished or is it important for you to let a painting sit for awhile? How much time do you spend thinking about a painting between painting sessions? Do you hide them for awhile and then revisit them or is it important that they are out?
I usually let them sit for awhile. I usually have between five and ten paintings going at a time, mostly visible all around the studio. I don’t usually know which painting I am going to work on when I walk into the studio. I will glance around at all of them, perhaps spending a few minutes studying two or three. I look at most of them and say “It’s not done, but I’m not sure what needs to be done next.” Eventually I find one that I realize needs to be darker/lighter/warmer/cooler, and I grab the painting and get to work. Sometimes a painting will sit for a couple of days, sometimes a couple of months; sometimes it will sit for a couple of years. I don’t often think about paintings actively, but in the back of my brain there are always many things simmering.
In your artist statement you say "I experience the painting process also as this dwelling – a means of grappling with the boundary between celestial and terrestrial." That is a lovely sentiment. Talk about how you grapple with the boundary between celestial and terrestrial with your paintings.
We have trouble grasping what we cannot touch or see. Painting (and all the arts) makes tangible and visible that which is invisible. I believe that we all have some desire of eternity. The forms of the visual become a means of relationship with the eternal.
Most of your oil paintings fits very much within the representational but sometimes like with your piece Forest Landscape (below) you move much more toward the abstract. Or for example, Breaking Clouds, below, pushes more toward the abstract than say Gloucester Landscape, above. What about a scene dictates how far you'll go into the abstract?
Sometimes I am looking for a quality of light or mystery… sometimes that is put aside a bit as I get lost in the details of representation before I am able to let them go… The Gloucester Landscape you mention is an older work, before I had explored more of the abstract imagery.
Sometimes we hit upon moments of genius by accident. Forest Landscape was painted en plein air… and then I had to go to the bathroom, but didn’t want to leave my things, so I smeared all the paint around to cover the blank canvas, drawing some orthogonal-like lines with my palette knife, packed up and left. It wasn’t until some time later that I realized how beautiful that painting is!
I am very interested in deep space, and I like to walk the line creating tension between a “window” into another space and the beauty of paint that dissoves into abstract shapes on the surface. That tension is what painting is all about, and so I swing back and forth on the spectrum.
How much do you work from photos and sketches and how much do you work in plein air? Do you have a preference? What are the advantages and disadvantages to each?
I use photos, sketches and my memory when working on my series of architectural interiors.
I do a lot of life drawing, too. I love drawing from a nude model. I could do it all day. Sometimes I have a painting in mind when working with a model, but usually not. The human figure is the most complex subject to draw, and it always challenges me forward.
My landscape paintings are generally from life, en plein air… though the winter ones are from a window!! I am a somewhat lazy landscape painter – I have to really like the spot (including practicalities like not having to walk too far to my car), and so I find that my landscape work ebbs and flows depending on whether or not I have studio space, the weather, and where I live (I loved living by the ocean in a fishing town – so much to look at!).
How do you organize your time painting? How much of it is spent drawing or working on commissioned work? How much of your time do you give to non painting business components of being an artist?
I also teach Painting and Drawing as an adjunct instructor at a couple of area colleges, so at this moment my painting schedule flows according to the academic year. I have more time in the summer and winter and two or so days a week during the school year. I am usually spent after three or four hours in the studio (usually morning/early afternoon), but I will spend another couple of hours a day on correspondence, editing photos, or other non-painting aspects of the biz. I have only recently begun to take on any significant amount of commission work and would like to take on more. It does take a certain amount of time and creative energy away from my own ideas, but it also pushes and challenges me forward. I turn down any commission proposal that doesn’t in some way coalesce with my own subject matter, materials or style.
I struggle with remembering that not all of my creative work is done in the studio: time spent at museums, wandering in the woods, reading, meditating, and exercising all feed my creative process. I need to care for my body, mind, and spirit if I am to enter the studio with all of those resources at my disposal for work, and so I need to schedule in exercise, alone time, museum trips, etc. to keep myself “in working order.”