Q and A with London artist Peter Michael
(originally published in Bootleg magazine, September 2008)
By Brian Tucker
Based in London, Peter Michael’s works are created after taking photographs of his subjects, painted into permanence through Michael’s interpretation. Most of his subjects are from, or around, London, yet he says much of the interest in his work comes from Europe and the United States. He doesn’t have an interest in connecting people through his art, and the same goes for delivering any messages to them either.
“I would like people to experience pleasure in some way when looking at my painting, but I have no message to give them,” he says.
His work speaks for itself – descriptive images dealt with weighty coloring and tiny details. Heavy handed yet truthful, Michael holds up a mirror to his subjects and directs without question to look directly into their eyes. It feels at once confrontational and emotional. Below Michael discusses his work through technique, subject, and personal attributes.
You use your scientific background in the process of art. What scientific background do you have?
Michael: I have a degree in Computer Science and have worked as a scientist for the Ministry of Defence and in financial institutions.
You alter photos on the computer before painting subjects. What is the process for creating a painting like this?
I am using the computer as a study tool less as time goes on. I still however take hundreds of digital photos of the subject and then go through a painstaking image selection process. I will then do some minor manipulation in Photoshop – removing backgrounds and playing with light and tone. In the past I used to completely distort images and spend a huge amount of time on this phase. I have realized with time that when I actually paint this manipulated image a lot of the manipulations do not filter down to the final painting anyway, so I paint from a more unaltered image these days.
Can you describe some of the techniques you use?
The cotton-on-board only lasted for two pieces. I soon went back to paint as I felt it was a childish medium and lacked any permanence. I like at present to keep colors understated. I work a lot with glazes; this helps me to add color gradually and gives me more control.
What is the usual size of one of your paintings?
The usual size is around 2 to 2.5 meters in length/width. I will be concentrating on smaller canvases for the next year or so, possibly around 1 meter to 1.5 meters in length and width.
What materials are generally involved?
I make my own stretchers using very thick wood and heavy-gauge cotton with many layers of primer. I mainly use acrylic and oils together – acrylics first, followed by oil glazes. I do sometimes only use oils. I use very cheap hog hair brushes.
What is it about the human body that moves you?
The human form is, I think, the only thing worth painting. It is the only thing that instantly moves me in other people’s work. A still life, landscape or 3D installation does not draw me in the way the human form does. So it is kind of fundamental, rather than a plan.
Where do you find subjects and how do they generally respond to their bodies transformed into artwork?
I have mainly used the Internet, Myspace, Facebook, etc. However I do ask people I meet sometimes. Most of the subjects know my work, so they know what to expect. I have had mainly good feedback from all of the subjects. Sometimes a few do go a bit quiet after the painting, but never anything hostile, yet.
You mentioned the background of paintings are free-from visual stimuli, as a way to distance the subject from the viewer. What is it about keeping this distance that is important to you?
My interests in the human body are quite free from any kind of narrative, I am not interested in the viewer connecting with the subject, or seeing a story. Although, I think they do, from the feedback I get, but this is totally out of my control. I can only talk about the way my work is set about, not the way it is received.
I do not give them titles and would rather the viewer not know about the subjects in anyway. The white backgrounds I believe adds a kind of sculptural quality to each piece, as does the fact they are one singular figure – no backgrounds, no clothes, and no other people to interact with. To walk along a wall of my paintings I would hope is like walking along a wall of sculptures. I think maybe I am reflecting my own personality, or maybe I am just reticent to reveal anything about myself in my work. I am not a fan of sentimental, claustrophobic portraits, but some people have said my paintings are exactly that.
You select photos of people who are most “intriguing.” What qualifies someone as an “intriguing” subject to paint?
I think everyone can be intriguing, I probably meant the most intriguing images. I have taken photos of people before that I didn’t think would make a good painting and they have made very good paintings, so I cannot go by simply meeting the subject. Everyone behaves differently without clothes on, some people clam up and some people become more expressive. In a photo shoot, I may take 400 photos, sometime there are only a few images I would consider painting, sometimes every image is worth painting.
What is your philosophy about art?
I suppose my own personal philosophy is to not get too bogged down with the misguided pursuit for originality. I am a painter and I am involved in a practice that has been evolving for thousands of years. I can be original, but I want my discipline to be rich in history also. I think the problem with originality is that it is overrated and is all some people look for in any work of art. It is causing many young artists problems as they believe that there is no other virtue in a piece of art.
I personally think it is a vain pursuit and has people more interested in their own legacy. You should strive for brilliance; originality is but one component of brilliance. Lucian Freud is doing what all life artists have done since early cave drawings – painting people. However his work is different and excites my eyes as much as El Greco or Lysippos.
Every now and then, there are people that come and rewrite the books, turning things upside down. There is nothing wrong with that either, it is just that many people believe this is the only way to go and most fail miserably. Originality can and should be a subtle process, after all art is a subtle process, we shouldn’t need to smear our work with shit to make it original, shit is only one color. I think what inspired this is hearing the word contemporary and original only mainly applied to ‘new’ media.
Are there any people, ideas, or eras from the past that influenced you?
Michelangelo was a strong influence initially. I believe that my work is quite strongly influenced by his solitary figures on the Sistine Chapel. I also went to Florence to learn the art of buon fresco painting. This has been the basis of all my work ever since. My work is executed in exactly the same way as a buon fresco painting, apart from one fundamental difference, they are on canvas and not on wet plaster. I start with an outline and then using very watery paint, move from light to dark. Fortunately I have no time constraints and can easily correct any mistakes, unlike fresco painting.
When did you first become interested in painting?
I was a relatively late starter, I didn’t really start painting until my late twenties, I then went to university in East London to study Fine Art, however before that I studied buon fresco painting in Florence.
What do you feel makes your artwork unique?
I believe this to be of lesser importance. That said, I still think my work is unique, it is by my hand, is in my style, is through my eyes and has my signature on it. We are all unique, therefore my work must be unique. I paint people as I see them, or as I see them in the photographs, I can see all of my influences in my paintings – subtle influences that would take me far too long to explain. This is what must make my work is unique.