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  • Michelle Dahl

Michelle Dahl: Life's Faces

Interview & Feature

Uncle Jim

The Nest

Portrait 26 of 100

Tiger Lily

Heritage Still Life

Portrait 43 of 100

Portrait 47 of 100

Portrait 49 of 100


When painting portraits, do you work from a live model or a photograph?

Mostly from photographs, though I have been putting an effort towards working live. Photographs have their pitfalls, but I feel that any tool does: if you know what the limits are you can work around them. As a disabled artist, I can't always complete a portrait in a single session. I often have to alter my position and take long breaks, and photos allow me the ability to work around my ailments.

What is the story behind the 2022 commission (Uncle Jim) depicting the handicapped artist?

A good friend of mine and fellow artist had an uncle with cerebral palsy, but who also happened to be a gifted landscape painter himself. When my friend's partner inquired about a commission I jumped at the chance to paint such an inspiring story. I worked from a copy of a black-and-white photo, and I didn't want to take away from the nostalgia by adding colour. I painted in black and white on a burnt umber imprimatura to keep some warmth in the midtones.

We have noticed that you have painted various master copies of compositions by Leonardo da Vinci and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. How have these artists affected your own work and what have you learnt from them?

Both have been major influences along my educational pathway in terms of the technical aspects of art. Growing up, I didn't have much in the way of art education, but da Vinci was easily accessible and became the goal marker. I could study his work and, through study, refine my drawing skills. I learned of Bouguereau's body of work after attending college, and found a new aspiration. Bouguereau's glowing skin tones and varied tints have helped me immensely in mastering colour shifts within forms. I find I prefer da Vinci's drawings for variety and Bouguereau's paintings for colour study. Bouguereau's work has so much more subtlety without loss of form, something that I hope to capture in my work as well.

What inspired you to begin your ‘100 Portraits’ series?

Many things went into that decision, but fear was probably the biggest factor. About 2 years after graduating with my degree, I was compiling an inventory for all of my completed works. It struck me that I was 35 years old and my traceable work had amounted to less than one hundred pieces. I was an emerging artist with my first professional series, and my portfolio felt very thin. My focus turned away from building up technical skills and towards building my CV, as well as joining the art community. At the same time, the world was suffering a year of COVID restrictions and people were sparse. On social media, illustrators were challenging one another to complete 100 heads in 100 days. I was attracted to the human connection this project would provide and I thought I could make this work as a painter by completing 100 portraits within a year. And then I dragged my feet. I avoided it; the task seemed monumental. When I recognized the fear, I picked up the paintbrush and made this my first focus. Working mostly with photos, the project has been an amazing task to (re)connect with people from a safe distance.

How has your disability affected your painting?

I definitely can't dawdle! I have learned a lot about efficiency out of necessity. I have three hours of good working time if I'm lucky. I spend a lot of my down-time planning how to work out the problem areas so I am better-prepared for the challenges I face at the painting stage. My concepts and composition ideas are almost always decided long before I enter the studio because I donit have the luxury to wait for the mood to strike. Whether I paint directly or indirectly, I make the process work for me. When I work in layers I can break the painting into smaller chunks; when I work Alla Prima I try to stick to only direct impressions on the canvas. I've learned to embrace the mistakes as they come, and this acceptance has helped me carry on and progress. If you assume the failure when you start, it won't shock you when it shows up. I scrap far fewer paintings now that I am comfortable making corrections in the moment.

What did you paint as a child? Where did your artistic journey begin?

My first real foray into painting was when my parents bought me a Bob Ross VHS and paint set. I began making directed landscape paintings and getting familiar with the medium. Up until this point I had mainly been drawing and using coloured pencil, with only limited experience using cheap box-store watercolor bricks. Later I would attempt painting pets, my dad's classic car, and skulls. I have always loved depicting skulls.

What attracted you to oil paints as a medium?

The oil paintings at museums always felt more real to me. Watercolors always looked too sweet and washed out, and acrylics felt too superficial and plastic. Oil gives a depth and substance to the scene. Oil was also always attributed to the old masters, and as a kid hungering after artistic knowledge, this became my aim. Now that I have worked with oil for some time, its versatility is what keeps me hooked. You can attain the softness of watercolor or the immediacy of acrylic using different mediums and approaches. But most of all, oil is magnificent because of its translucent effects. The glowing skin tones and deep shadows that remind me of stained glass are what I love about the medium.

About Michelle Dahl:

Michelle Dahl (b. 1983) is an American artist raised in California. She has been a gifted artist since childhood, selling her first oil paintings to teachers and parents from her classroom at age 12. She began her college education promptly, but necessity drove her to drop out of college to pursue a career in the health-care industry. In 2013, Michelle was forced into early retirement due to a debilitating back condition she had struggled with for many years.

At 29 years old she found herself unable to work and floundering. She used the opportunity of time her disability afforded her to rekindle the love and practice of art. She returned to university to complete an Associates degree in Studio Arts (2019). While her disability slowed her down, she has not been dissuaded. Michelle continues technical training with a voracious appetite for knowledge. She says she hopes to never stop learning. She applies her knowledge and steady hand to both commission and personal work. Her portraits are intimate and loaded with character; her animal portraits capture the personalities of each. Her work holds the charm of classical realism with a gentle hand and bold brushstrokes.

In her current pursuit "100 Portraits" series, Michelle contemplates humanity and connection in the many faces that shape her world. Self portraits, famous actors, fictional characters made real, and even friends and family grace the many canvases. Michelle celebrates and explores her place within the many faces of this world. You can find more of her work on Instagram @michelledahlart and be sure to sign up for her newsletter on her website:


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