The light of an artist. Interview with American artist Michael Bell by Isabel del Rio

The light of an artist. Interview with American artist Michael Bell by Isabel del Rio

Today, in the weekly section of Michael Bell on Yareah Magazine MBELLART a different subject: The Light of an Artist.

Hi Michael,

I.R.- In different forums, I’ve read about the attraction that light produces in you. Can you tell us a little about these feelings? Do you remember a special moment when they started?

M.B.- Absolutely Isabel. There’s something so mysterious and beautiful about light and shadow. It’s like having a romance with the unknown. Why do you think every romantic date begins by candlelight and more directors are opting to shoot films in this way? Rembrandt, Vermeer and Caravaggio all had that same attraction to light, and for me, it wasn’t until I attended an amazing workshop with artist friend Duane Sabiston about how to “unlock the color of WHITE”…yes, you heard me, white…that I really “got it.” His workshop really opened my mind and helped me re-program my preconceived thoughts and stereotypes about colors I thought I was really seeing but wasn’t. For example, you see an apple – you say – it’s RED. Red makes you think of the “Crayola Red” out of the crayon box from when you were a kid, so if you’re painting that apple your mind gets in the way of allowing you to see what your eyes are really supposed to be seeing. It’s not actually red at all. It’s really red-ISH, purpl-ISH in some areas with a plasticity that glows. Then you ask what color is the glow REALLY? It’s certainly not “white!” If you can freely associate its true colors with things the colors remind you of, then it becomes easier for an apple to turn into a metaphor for something else and have even deeper meaning.

Take this quote from Steinbeck: “The Sunset Bled into the Valley.” How visually arresting is that! You can literally picture that sunset slowly bleeding on into the valley. I’ve found that if you can describe a color accurately, and differentiate between all the rich, true colors that really are present, then you can paint it.

Things like this made me search for the kind of light that illuminates in such a magical way about an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset, which was when I snapped this photograph just the other day (on left) and in this self-portrait I did from direct observation using a mirror outdoors on one hot summer day as the sun slowly set in the west. 

“6:45” Photograph by Michael Bell, 2013 (right) | “Self-Portrait in Summer”, 18” X 24” oils on paper, 2001 (left)

“6:45” Photograph by Michael Bell, 2013 (right) | “Self-Portrait in Summer”, 18” X 24” oils on paper, 2001 (left)

I.R.- This year, exhibits will be around Spain about Camille Pissarro and Joaquin Sorolla (face to face In my opinion, light is the main topic of both artists. However, Pissaro (in France) is Impressionist and Sorolla (in Spain) is very different… The Mediterranean light is so strong! Do you like Impressionism? Is Impressionism still valid or only and ancient movement?

M.B.- I don’t think Impressionism is an ancient movement, in fact the Plein Air painters of today’s generation are still in great abundance, and there are valid lessons for artists to learn by painting out in nature and working from direct observation, or from looking at artists Pissarro and Sorolla. They teach you how to “see”…because after all, anyone can “look” but it’s the artist that truly “sees” with new eyes and perceives life as though through the lens of a camera.

The artists I really learned a lot about color and light from may also surprise you. If you want to learn how to see color in shadows look to Wayne Thiebaud and early works by Richard Diebenkorn.  Want theatrical colors look to the ballerinas of Degas and the “Arabian Nights” series works by Maxfield Parrish. If you want colors to literally scream out at you in nature look to Wolf Kahn. If you want to study just how much that Mediterranean light you speak of can affect someone look to Van Gogh and why his move to Arles (south of France), where Gauguin joined him influenced him to paint his famous “Sunflowers” during this period.

I don’t think Impressionism has ever truly left us. I think the problem with today’s contemporary art is that it’s been reduced to a shadow-less environment. In doing that it got rid of the mystery that lurks within the shadows.

I.R.- Can you choose one of your paintings as an icon of your feelings about light?

M.B.- I’d have to say the portrait I did of my wife Lisa would be my best example of an icon of my feelings about light. Although I haven’t put the pedal to the metal in recent works like I did in this one I plan to return to this palette again.

“The Zodiac” by Michael Bell, 60” X 60”, oils on canvas, 2004

“The Zodiac” by Michael Bell, 60” X 60”, oils on canvas, 2004

“The Zodiac” by Michael Bell, 60” X 60”, oils on canvas, 2004

“The Zodiac” by Michael Bell, 60” X 60”, oils on canvas, 2004

Thanks Michael. Nice week!

View Comments (1)
  • another great interview michael – i am particularly taken with your perspective on “light” as it’s one i share as well – especially your comment that today’s contemporary art has been reduced to a shadow-less environment – and in doing so, no longer contains that mystery that lurks “within the shadows” –


is renowned American painter and muralist, famous for his larger-than-life sized narrative series paintings and for his infamous portrait clientele, which includes the late Mob Boss John Gotti, best friend Dominic Capone III (Al Capone’s great nephew) and numerous actors from The Sopranos, Goodfellas, A Bronx Tale and more. Yes, his works are the mirror of a tragic world, but they deepen our human psychology with strong brush strokes and vivid colors, from personal memories and silent echoes, with courage and creativity. Bell was naturally gifted in art and won 1st Place in his first juried art exhibition at age 5. As an emerging artist he spent a lot of his time in and around New York City, studying art with his maternal grandmother, Violet Vallery, a self-taught artist from Lyndhurst, New Jersey. Then, after the still-born death of his sister Amanda and the sudden passing of his Grandfather, a former professional boxer, Bell began to explore life's personal and psychological issues through his paintings. In addition, Bell has written his first screenplay based on the real-life events surrounding his famous "TICKET TO RIDE™" painting series and has won three national awards in 2013. Bell exhibits his large, narrative series paintings in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

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