Michael Carson’s paintings are pieces that transcend time, with figures that emanate classic cool, in muted colors that give the works an immortal feel. It’s amazing the 42-year-old Phoenix artist is self-taught, since he has collectors from around the world who have followed him since he pursued his professional art career a dozen years ago.
You can see an exhibition of more than 20 of Carson’s works starting this Thursday, November 19, at Bonner David Galleries in Scottsdale. The Nefariousness exhibition includes some paintings on metal and runs through December 8.
Carson, who is also represented by Arcadia Contemporary in New York City, talked about what has inspired his latest collection and how he’s made it as a professional artist. You can hear him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video below.
What brought you to Arizona?
Five years ago, my wife got a job opportunity. She didn’t want to take it, but I was in a spot in life where I needed to move some place. I had that need, that feel for travel, and I was selling out of a gallery in Scottsdale called Bonner David. It seemed like the stars aligned, and we took a chance and moved here in 2010.
I was born in Minneapolis and lived there basically my whole life until moving here.
What’s your earliest memory of being interested in art?
Going back to age 5 or 6, I used to create pages and pages of my own puppets. I thought I was going to be a Muppets/Jim Henson kind of guy.
I never really thought I was going to do anything with art. I was living in a house with two brothers who were athletes. I never took it very seriously, but I always was interested in art. Instead of doing homework, I was always sketching.
How has your career as an artist evolved?
I started off my art career at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. My degree was in design. I didn’t do a single painting in art school. I was way more anal retentive and into the computer side of things. Out of college, I worked as a product designer for eight years. I literally drew Winnie the Pooh for seven years.
I loved the product design job. It was kind of corporate, I was in a lot of meetings, and I was doing quality control and traveling to places like China. It started getting less creative, and I wasn’t really getting any further in that job. I never knew what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to do something creative. That side of my brain was telling me it was something that needed to help me make a living, and the idea of painting to make a living seemed ridiculous.
I remember I was in Amsterdam with my wife, and we traveled to England. By happenstance, we walked in this little gallery, and there was this art on the wall that I thought was so cool. It inspired me to try something like that. I did a painting two weeks later, and I quit my job six months later to dive in and paint full time. It was like a really random accident.
I have never taken a painting class in my life, just figure drawing classes. When I finished my first painting, it felt like freedom. The first painting was inspired by Amsterdam and turned out pretty cool. It was called Red Light Lunch Break, with all these guys lined up outside a door, one with flowers. It led to the next painting pretty quickly. I’ve been painting for about 12 years.
One of the best changes in my painting happened after I moved to Arizona. I realized, if you move, you just soak in the influences that are around you that are slightly different. Here, the colors and smells are different, and in six months of living here, my work looked completely different.
I’ve painted landscapes, cows, babies — all different types of things. In Minneapolis, we have these great lakes, and I used to paint these old bridges and things like that. When I started getting into people, I realized I could keep myself interested in this one subject the rest of my life and keep evolving this one thing. It’s been working so far. I’m not bored doing anything. I’m always trying to figure out a new technique to put into it to keep things fresh.
What has your gallery representation been like throughout the years?
I’ve dabbled in a bunch of galleries. I started out in a Minneapolis gallery, which was the hardest thing to do, to get into your first gallery. That happened to me relatively quickly, after a few years. We started doing advertisements in national magazines, which got the ball rolling. I was sending out discs to every gallery, and I’ve been represented by Bonner David for about 10 years.
I’m always considering another gallery. The thing about galleries is that they’re hard to get into, typically they’re far away, and you don’t really know what’s going on. The nice thing about Bonner David is that they’re close, and they work really hard. I’ve been with Arcadia Contemporary for awhile, too.
How would you describe your style?
I’m still inspired by the figure and people, which relates to my totally inappropriate addiction I have to people-watching and why I like to go out all the time. I’ll literally just watch people. It’s slightly creepy, but I’ve turned it into a bit of a career, so it’s worked out for me. That’s what’s always interested me the most, is the story of what’s going on in people’s minds when they’re sitting there.
The painting has taken on a whole new layer, because it’s become more technique-driven for me. It’s a subject matter I love, and I think about how I’m going to continue to paint people and change. It’s a matter of learning different techniques of how I want the paint to look. It’s a whole different subject than the figure itself, and it really can be applied to any style of art. It’s experimenting with techniques, finding what I like, and bringing them to the next paintings.
How would you describe your technique now?
I like to paint very thin, almost watercolor-like, in layers, so you get this depth that happens, and you also get to see some of the remaining layers. I even like to see some of the initial pencil work, the story of how this was built. Toward the end, I’ll put some thick paint on to give some places the pop it might need, or put some patterns on top to help with the push and pull.
There’s a blending of certain colors together, like a guy’s suit might blend into a couch. It’s one of these things that, your eye is making that line for you, so you know exactly what’s going on, but it’s almost like an editing process for me. I’m getting simpler as I go. I’m finding new ways to push existing ideas, just by paint colors and brushstrokes.
Tell me about your palette choices.
My palette is very minimal. I stay pretty muted. There are pops of color in there, but I’ll use one color and bring that color to every color, so there’s almost a haze to it. For example, in one painting, I have a red couch with a lot of grays in it that bleeds into the figures’ gray dresses. It’s a muted palette that’s very minimal. I’ll use five or six paints sometimes, and you can get so much contrast from one color.
Another technique I use a lot is I rub off paint and use my fingers or paper towels. When you wipe paint off, there’s like a ghostly effect where there’s a stain left.
The palette reminds me a lot of a desert landscape. It’s one of those things I think has soaked into me, just from looking around.
What are your paintings on metal like?
I paint this piece of steel completely white, and then I sand off the white to expose the dark metal. It’s like a way of painting backwards. It’s super-subtle to get gray scale, and then I’ll let it sit in the grass and pour some acid on it and let it rust, so it’s like this found object. I’m always trying to think of new ways to present this figure painting.
Are there other artists who inspire you?
Oh, yeah. I have so many artists who inspire me, it’d be hard to name them. Alex Kanevsky is one of my favorites. He does the figure and does it very much abstractly. I love his technique.
Jenny Saville is a beautiful figurative artist who does these grandiose, almost abstract, super-colorful paintings. Those two are a couple of my favorites right now.
Tell me about your composition process.
The actual composition process happens when I’m drawing on the board. I do use models to set up scenes sometimes. I used to get reference wherever I could, from magazines or from Instagram.
I would piecemeal these people together. I have a cabinet of heads I love to use. If you look at some of my paintings, the light sources don’t even match up. The heads will be different than the bodies, and I’ll give someone a different arm. It will still work, and you can trick people into thinking this figure existed the whole time.
For years and years, I was piecemealing people together with different bodies and different heads, and I’d have like 15 pieces of reference to go into a three-figure painting. Now, I’m realizing I actually like to control the light and get models in here. I’m learning how to do that. It’s kind of new to me. I’m not a photographer, so I’m still learning how to manipulate the painting and make it different from the reference.
As I get better at taking photographs, I’ll probably take more time to set up the environments. I think it’ll be effective and will make my paintings more successful. Right now, my backgrounds are so simplified. I take the simplest versions of architectural detail, and to me, less is more. I can make a wall look interesting just with the subtle brushstrokes and change of color.
If I really try to go off a photographic reference too much, it gets real technical too fast, and I want to have that brushstroke feel in it.
You’ve said the “in” restaurants of Phoenix have inspired some of your background choices. What are some of those places?
I love Durant’s, an old-school steakhouse on Central Avenue in Phoenix, which has velvet on the walls and booths.
Now, all these restaurants in central Phoenix are super-design-savvy. Everyone’s got that modern, industrial, funky thing, and I love it. The food might be OK, and I still want to hang out there.
What advice do you have for artists to get gallery representation?
It’s important to get yourself a body of work. It has to have some cohesiveness to it and can’t just be these random things. You have to understand, when you’re presenting to a gallery, you’re presenting to a business person, and they’re thinking, “Can I make money off this?” You have to create this package for them. If you’re giving them this beautiful package, they’re going to be more likely to say, “OK, I’ll give this a go.” If you send them one beautiful painting, they might like the painting, but they have rent and employees and need someone coming in with business sense.
That’s the advantage I had being in the corporate artistic field for awhile. It allowed me to understand these things a little better. A lot of these young artists, unfortunately they’re not getting taught at art school the business side of things. I made 50 discs with 10 pieces of a portfolio and sent them out to everyone and got one call back.
It’s a hustle. A lot of kids out of art school think, “I’m going to create this one piece and become famous,” but it’s a hustle. You have to work your tail off. You have to meet people and talk to people, and hopefully that one lucky conversation creates that network. There’s some luck involved, but you have to make that luck happen.
What digital branding tips do you have for artists?
You have to be involved. Instagram has become almost my portfolio. It has now become a viable tool I sell paintings through. Young artists have an advantage these days in that you can get your art to a lot of people for very little money. The problem is it’s an over-saturated market due to the fact there are 10 other billion people putting paintings out. How do you make someone who is scrolling stop at your painting? Nobody has that attention span anymore, so you have to be good and have that skill level.
Presentation is huge. I go to some art shows of younger artists, and the presentation isn’t there. They haven’t put time into the lighting and framing, and to me, that says everything about the level of professionalism you’re at. Little subtle things like that matter.
What can people expect from your Nefariousness exhibition at Bonner David Galleries?
They can expect about 20 oil paintings. I would say the evolution of the work is getting more subtle. If you looked a couple years ago, I was making major shifts, especially when I moved here, but now I’m inspired by people who are doing more realistic things, while balancing this abstract quality to my paintings.
I’m going back and getting to the more technical side of painting, where it’s beautifully painted instead of getting washed-out and lost. That’s what people will take away from this show. I’m trying to focus the viewer on certain areas of painting.
Your subjects are very attractive. Is that intentional?
It’s funny, because people tell me I’m always painting the same woman, maybe because of the hair style. A lot of the reference I end up taking always ends up looking like this ideal version I have of a person, whether it’s a guy or a girl. There’s this similarity to them all. It’s an unconscious thing, because as I’m painting, I will eventually stop paying attention to the person, because I have the bones done for the painting.
That’s when I get this recurring thing that happens. I have this idealistic face in mind I don’t even intend to. I would like my paintings to look a little bit different, but I always go back to this face. I don’t know who this person is.
The color palette and the brushstrokes also unite everything. I love that someone can look at my work and know it’s mine. I think that’s everything.
What are your goals?
I just want to be able to do whatever it is I want to do. I want to have freedom. I want to be able to paint and do other things. I just did this very experimental piece, which was a reproduction of a crop circle done in toothpicks. It took me so long, over 37,000 toothpicks in a board that were sticking up. It was painted white and a completely different thing for me, but I loved it.
I want to be able to play music and make furniture and sculpt and experiment with whatever I want to. The point of being an artist is to be free to do whatever comes to your mind. I’ll never not paint, but I would like to be able to spend time doing other creative things I want to.
Do you tend to stick to a schedule with your painting?
I do, because my family is on a schedule, but now that I work out of my house, I’ve become a night owl again and work super-late and super-early. I start getting the energy at 11 o’clock at night. I’ll be here in my studio until 4 in the morning sometimes.
How do you hope your work impacts viewers?
I’ve been lucky to where I’ve had a group of collectors who have bought more than one of my paintings, and they tell me they’re intrigued by the people, that there’s some sort of story there. I’m not trying to illustrate any stories. I’m actually trying to do the opposite of that, but when I get into these faces, and there’s the subtle expression on someone’s face, it’s the difference between one brushstroke that makes the mood of the piece completely different.
I think people like the quality of the face that’s not telling you anything. It’s like people-watching. There might be a person at the bar who is sitting on his phone doing nothing, or reading, but to me, that’s the most interesting thing, to think about what’s going on in his head.
The paintings aren’t saying anything specific. There’s no narrative. I just want someone to look at the painting, and because of their own influences, they’ll create their own storyline.
What advice do you have for aspiring professional artists?
It’s the same advice you’d give anyone for any career. You just have to really work your tail off if it’s what you really want to do. Put in the time. Become the best artist you can possibly be. Meet artists, and talk to them, and talk to galleries. Ask people if you can buy them a cup of coffee and ask them questions. Meet as many people as you can in the industry.