Learning to see
"We have to teach our eyes to look at nature, and there are many of us who have never seen it and never will." These words, spoken by the 18th century French painter Chardin, are an appropriate introduction to artist Michele Mitchell's philosophy of painting.
As one of the most talented portrait artists painting today, Mitchell stresses that her priority as an artist is to paint the soul of her subjects; to give tangible form and shape to the intangible spirit within us all. But how she accomplishes this feat is as impressive as her work. Her technique is more than simply a means to an end. Mitchell sees it as an "evolution of the eye".
"The brush serves the eye in its skillful and discerning selection from nature of line, color and value harmoniously united." she said.
She is constantly focused on expanding her powers in the art of seeing. Without truly seeing the world around her, she would be unable to capture the beauty of the visual world that so moves her.
This striving to see links Mitchell to a long line of classical painters and Old Masters and is evidence of her training under Richard Lack. After attending the University of Illinois and the American Academy of Art in Chicago, she embarked on extensive travels in Europe. Between her stays in Europe she undertook a four-year apprentice program at the famed Atelier Lack. She finished the apprenticeship, but still longed to increase her ability to "articulate nature truthfully." So the Atelier director Richard Lack worked with Mitchell and reinforced her to the basics.
"The most profound part of my education in art which transformed my limitations to possibilities, was my apprenticeship under the tutelage of Richard Lack," she said.
"He taught me to see nature and to understand the importance of having practical connection to the great tradition of picture making."
Explaining the more technical side of her technique, Mitchell said she chooses to paint in the direct method, which consists primarily of getting a good drawing and the big shapes composed well on canvas.
"DaVinci discovered that the contour and the edge of shadow are the key elements in expressing form," she said.
"Silhouettes of the masses help capture the essential proportions and gesture."
As she puts down an impression of the subject as a whole, she continues to refine the drawing, acquiring the more subtle variations of color value and detail.
Moving Toward the Light is further proof of Mitchell's ability to gain the trust of her model, as they work together to create a powerful piece.
"The finish is the return to the initial impression you were moved to record," she said.
The ability to see and consequently the ability to paint the soul requires a knowledge of the subject's personality, a knowledge that can't be gained from a photograph. It is for this reason that Mitchell, like many portrait artists, feels that painting from life is so important.
"The photograph of a sunrise can never replace the feeling or vision one has standing in that moment surrounded by that experience," Mitchell said. In the same manner, a mere likeness of the subject will not convey to the artist the subject's soul, the vitality and spirit that defines his/her humanity. If you can't see it, or know it, you can't paint it.
And it is her own humanity that makes Mitchell the artist she is, maybe even more than her dedication, talent and training. Her zest for life and passion for her craft and all art is obvious after only a few moments of speaking with her and listening to her kind voice and gentle manner.
Mitchell's description of her creative process also highlights her humanity and dedication.
"To me the creative process is the genuine unfolding of being a human being," she said. "To strive with commitment towards excellence, it is my aspiration to grow within the wisdom of learning to engage in a communicative process of appreciation and response."
Mitchell herself recognizes how essential humanity and her self-awareness are in her quest to capture the soul of her subjects on canvas, and acknowledge that we are all connected.
"If I am able to find the 'truth' in myself, it allows me a window to see the 'truth' in someone else," she said.
A Breath of Spring was painted in California after Mitchell carefully chose and picked fruit from the orchards in Malibu.
"The possibility of Nature revealing itself emerges the closer the subject approaches that nature within themselves, and the artist is then allowed to step inside to witness perfection unfolding," she said.
The perfection in Mitchell's paintings has gained her many awards, including recognition by her peers when she won "Best of Show" at ASOPA's Portrait Arts Festival in 1998-an award she won jointly with her husband, portrait painter Jim Ostlund.
She describes the beauty of having a partner that so totally shares her life and loves.
It is wonderful and challenging to be married to another artist, " she said. "In our journey of partnership through life, he walks with me, at times he walks in front of me and at times, he stops and recognizes aspects of life within his vision that I may miss because of his unique and different nature. I learn, and for this, I am grateful."
She also has another important relationship in her life; the one with her young daughter, Olivia.
Her roles of caring mother and loving wife seem serenely balanced with her ingenious talent and drive to create art. In this way, Mitchell encompasses every facet of womanhood, gracefully.
Mitchell painted the still life with pears while she was pregnant. The painting is a "rich, deep and loving record on canvas" of her emotions at the time. It is, as all of her work, "a celebration."
Every artist has an aspect of his art that he holds dear, a quality that is his passion. Aside from her continual striving to see, Mitchell's passion is color. She explained why color is so important to her work saying simply, "Just imagine the world in black and white."
"I fall in love with life again and again through color as it plays within the palette of light and dark," she said.
As witty as she is talented, Mitchell played on the name of her home, Bat Cave, North Carolina, when talking about slowing down her commissioned portrait painting.
"Well, you know I live in the bat cave," she jokingly said. "And every time I start thinking about slowing down, someone comes along, and writes and article about me, and I get more commissions. It is like someone flashing the bat signal in the sky for batman."
Comparing her talent to that of a super hero is not at all far-fetched, and as long as people value beauty and integrity, her work will be in strong demand.
By Jennifer Kornegay
Article featured in The Portrait Signature, Volume 1 - 2001