Today is Wednesday, the day of the weekly section of the American artist Michael Bell. He is famous for his series of paintings and celebrities portraits. Precisely, this interview is going to be focus on portraits, difficult field of arts. But don’t worry, we are talking to an expert.
Isabel del Rio: A good portrait is technically very difficult. Fit factions, calculate the distance of the eyes, the thickness of the lips … any deviation detracts from the resemblance. However this is only the beginning of the difficulties because afterwards, the artist must reflect the ‘soul’ of the models and create an atmosphere which says something about their personalities. In your opinion, is a good portraitist a kind of psychologist? How do you manage to get inside people?
Michael Bell: Absolutely. I think the most important job of a portrait is to capture that person’s soul. Capturing likeness, that’s the easy part. Anybody with a good eye can do that, or because of technological advances anyone can project an image like the photo realists do and simply trace and color. But to capture “the soul”, that’s a different ball game. That’s for the real pros. It’s the kind of moment you arrive at when painting your subject where you feel their soul staring back at you, not a “likeness” but an “essence.”
Because people look so different in every photo, the first thing I do is get to know who I’m painting, and I mean, really get to know them as best I can. I tend to spend a lot of time with my clientele, and it’s natural we usually become friends – for a while, or sometimes for a lifetime. They need to trust me like a psychologist, you are right, in order to reveal certain truths about them there’s no way around this. I “prefer” to work from my own photographs that I take of the person as I’m speaking with them. I try never to work strictly from one photograph of someone, especially one that I didn’t take if I can help it, and almost never, unless it’s some impossible situation (like being commissioned to paint a portrait of the departed), of a person I’ve never met. The reason is simple – you know how once you really start to get to know somebody their face changes? That’s their soul shining through. It’s how come sometimes the ugliest of people on the surface can appear beautiful and vice-versa once you really get to know them. It’s how I find beauty in most people I paint. Simply put, while I spend a lot of time on the surface, it’s the “inside” that I’m really after. The end results have always been satisfying – well, ALMOST.
I once did an unveiling out in Hollywood for a high profile woman who was an author, stuntwoman and former Mob Wife. Her longtime boyfriend at that time was there at the unveiling and went on to tell me how much he hated the portrait of her – yes, HATED. It turned out to be the biggest compliment I could’ve ever received, because when I asked him why he simply said, “she only ever looks at me that way.” I replied by telling him that “it must have been you she was thinking of as I painted her.”
I.d. R: I’ve always admired Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Queen Marie Antoinette of France portraitist. She is always so nice with the model. No matter if people are old, wrinkled or ugly, she gets a dignified character. Do you think that an artist is bound to improve the sitter? To me, it’s difficult to understand how some women paid their portraits by Picasso.
M. B: That’s difficult to say. I think that answer lies in the heart and mind of the artist doing the portrait. I, personally, always do that – dignify my subjects even more. I believe a portrait is a way to acknowledge that someone is important to be remembered. I also find portraits to be very prophetic, and love the Old Masters too. As an artist, you create something in a piece because it’s the work itself telling you to do so. If you’re an artist who listens to what the work is really telling you. I’ve had that happen on occasion, and the most famous example of that in Art History would be in the 1883 Sargent portrait Portraits d’Enfants or Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. The painting is large and exactly square, for this reason and its composition, it baffled and intrigued the critics of the day.
None of the girls ever married, the two rear daughters became to some extent mentally or emotionally disturbed. The front two girls remained close as they grew older, and Julia, the youngest, became an accomplished painter in watercolors. How prophetic is that? It’s all there in the painting.
I believe Sargent’s gift of seeing the world through very metaphorical ways is what makes him and other artists that also share that very special gift so important to study.
Back to your question of making people look more “dignified”, I always have people always say to me thank you for making them look better than they do, as long as it doesn’t change the integrity of what their soul is projecting to me. I’ll even share the autographed photo from Tony Sirico from “The Sopranos” illustrating my point (below).
Another example of the impact of portraiture can be viewed in this short video of a Red Carpet Unveiling I did in New York of a portrait featuring “The Sopranos” Joe Gannascoli and Lucas, son of Bright Steps Forward Charity Founder Eileen de Oliveira. It also shows you a glimpse into the merge of Arts & Entertainment Industry. Two worlds that helped make me who I am today. Joey G had some comedic comments about the portrait, because that’s just Joe. He’s hilarious. And Dominic Chianese (of “the Godfather” and “The Sopranos”) also gave tribute to the work with some touching comments as well. He’s a beautiful man himself. I know it hit both of them hard, as it did us all, with the sudden passing of longtime friend Jim Gandolfini.
I.d. R: As I said before, you have already portrayed really well-known people, including the mob boss John Gotti, Dominic Capone III, the Sopranos James Gandolfini, Tony Sirico and Joseph R. Gannascoli, Mob wife Toni Marie Ricci http://yareah.com/1382-seven-scars-what-are-your-scars-what-michael-bell-scars/ and the nice and tragic portrait of Amanda Todd: http://yareah.com/short-film-honoring-amanda-todd-0802/ Who would you like to portray in the future? How about the President of the United States?
M.B: Who knows what the future will hold. The President? No, definitely not interested. I’m not into Politics at all, plus I don’t find most politicians all that interesting. It wouldn’t make for a very colorful portrait. Right now I have around a six month waiting list for commissioned portraits. I have another scheduled for Dominic Capone, along with others in my Carnevale Italiano series http://mbellart.com/prequel.htm that may be debuted for the world on an episode of Dominic’s new reality tv show which airs next fall called “the Capone’s” – what else, right? I do have a strong passion for the sport of boxing though. My Grandfather was a boxer. I think I’d like to portray a boxing champion at some point in my career. Maybe Paulie Malignaggi? Who knows.