I ran into several Michael Carson paintings whilst perusing Pinterest and instantly fell in love. There is a vintage feel to these works, what with muted tones, sepia hues, “fading” areas, and fashion styles. However, Carson still manages to keep these paintings feeling somehow fresh and fascinating. Granted, not all of the paintings are to my liking. Sometimes the models get a little too “posy”, like they are in a fashion shoot and all too aware of the camera. Those pieces do not feel as authentic to me.
Carson keeps his style painterly. In fact, he embraces the whims of the material. Some paintings have drips, and some faces seem oddly blurred (see Figure 1). However, these details work for the painting (for the most part, anyway). In fact, sometimes it seems as though the odd stroke is somewhat responsible for tying the figures together in the painting. It opens shapes to one another, allowing the figure to be physically unbound (see Figure 2).
Though some aspects are blurred, others are distinctly detailed and carefully contained. Such variety creates a wave-effect, as objects weave in and out of focus.
This wave-effect is also created with the very weight of the oil paint. Areas such as clothing and high heels are often thickly coated, while other areas seem thin like watercolor.
Carson does not fuss about the backgrounds in his paintings. Most simply feature a blank wall and a floor, and there are very few extra objects featured apart from the figure. Yet, these backgrounds remain in integral character in the painting. In fact, two kinds of backgrounds make some sort of appearance in Carson’s paintings: the Textured and the Contrast.
By “Textured” I mean that the background has visible brushstrokes; this can give a blank wall life! The strokes have various hues and come in various shapes. Hence, there is an element of spontaneity and organic movement. These background areas interact with the foreground, contouring and overlapping strokes from the figure (see Figure 3).
The Contrast backgrounds are BOLD. They are usually very dark in comparison to the figures and other areas in the background. These areas create a strong horizontal, and such an effect is particularly welcome when there are several tall, vertical figures standing about. Not only that, the dark areas are often devoid of many hue variations, and so act as a solid, negative space in the work. Hence, a lovely sense of balance is restored.
Yes, most of the figures featured are women. Yes, usually they are tall, thin women. Let’s not look too much into that choice of subject right now…it’s not all he paints, anyway. Instead, let’s talk about their limbs. I’m not even sure the women he paints are tall, but Carson really highlights the figures’ arms and legs. At first, these females seem lengthy and elegant and — dare I say — delicate. He accentuates their verticality, but he also enjoys the angles the body can make. The figures almost always break that aura of fragile, china-doll femininity with the angles they create with their bodies. Carson paints sharply bent arms and legs, shoulder blades, and hunched backs. Such accentuated features are decisively painted (i.e. thick paint at angles), and that process transfers a sense of confidence to the figure.
I think this is where Carson really brings his paintings to the doorstep of the modern viewer. He said himself: “I’m bringing what I consider traditional subject matter – the figure- into a more contemporary realm.” Here collides the fashion/ideals of femininity from the 1950s and the confidence and attitude of more modern women. This sort of female is exemplary, perhaps, of the issues facing Third Wave Feminism today.
The Group Shots
Carson has painted several works that feature a gathering of figures. These folks are having fun — dancing, gambling, singing. Most of these sorts of paintings have very dark hues; figures and objects seem to meld with the darkness, and all kinds of detail disappears. What is particularly interesting to me is that this can even happen in the foreground (see Figure 4)! Particularly in these crowd scenes, Carson plays up the contrasts. People are light and/or bright figures with deep shadows in a dark world (wow, that got deep real fast).
Ok, perhaps not totally dark. Usually there is also a good amount of light background, too (muted walls). Carson does a great job balancing these light backgrounds and areas of solid darkness. This interaction of light and dark boosts the drama of the scene, and the “blankness” of these areas support the central figures by not detaining the viewer’s eyes, taking focus off the scene.
Check out the images below to see some of my favorites!