Michael Ward, 63, is a Montana-born artist based in Southern California who paints scenes from everyday life in minute detail, based on his own photographs. When he started out photographing in the 70's he used film, which "trained his eye", and took architecture classes which taught him rendering and perspective. Ward does not edit out any details that might seemingly clash with a "pleasant" aesthetic– which makes for some quite interesting scenes. Ward's paintings depict moments and places so casual and commonplace, initially you might wonder what makes this particular frame worth painting. Upon further inspection, you begin to notice how the present, the past, and even social class are present in the smallest most random corners of the world.
Where are you originally from?
Where do you currently live?
Costa Mesa, CA
Preferred art medium and why?
Acrylic on canvas. I started painting in acrylic so as not to stink up the house, and never stopped.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Historical: Vermeer, Gerome, Manet.
Modern: Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Bellows, Eakins. Robert Henri, Alfred Sisley. Contemporary: Richard Estes, Robert Bechtle, Theibaud, Richard Bunkall, John Register
Gloria starring Gena Rowlands (not the remake)
There are so many. But Color and Light by James Gurney is one every artist should read.
What is something you deeply love about yourself?
I love being a painter.
What is your definition of art?
I’ll let others spend their energy defining what art is or isn’t. What I paint is (my) art, what I like that others create is art to me.
Briefly describe the circumstances under which you grew up, and how did these influence your art?
I was born in Montana, and as an infant was sent to live with my aunt in Helena, later in Bozeman. This is Big Sky country, and gave me an appreciation of wide open spaces, and sunny days. I came to California when I was twelve, hated it initially (we came in June, when it is interminably gloomy), but grew to love it. Palm trees, stucco houses, and more sunny skies, tinged with smog then but bluer now.
“Everyday life is a theme. Another is the layering of time. In the scenes I photograph and paint I see elements from the past and present converging.”
Artists paths are normally non-linear. Can you recall for us what your path has been like?
I came to painting in a roundabout way. I had an interest in architecture from a very early age, which led me to take architecture classes in high school, though I flaked out in college and became an English major instead. But the architecture classes taught me rendering and perspective. And I became interested in historical architecture, something rare in southern California. From these interests I got involved in drawing Victorian houses and buildings in pen and ink, which I tried selling with modest success. The search for subject matter led me to travelling around southern California, taking pictures of old houses and whatever else caught my eye. I had friends who were professional photographers, and they encouraged me in my photography, and influenced my aesthetic at the same time. This was the late 70s, when Photorealism began to have an impact. I was taken by the works of John Baeder and Richard Estes, among others in that genre. So I began experimenting with painting some of my photographic images. I used gouache on illustration board, “borrowing” those from my day job as art director. Those images turned out well, and I even made a sale, but other life events intervened and I put painting aside for a few years, concentrating on pen and ink drawing. But I always regretted parting with the painting I sold, and one day I decided to get it back by painting it again, this time in acrylic on canvas. That led to another painting, and another, and I’ve been painting steadily ever since.
What would you say are your artwork’s main themes?
I’m not really sure. Everyday life is a theme, I guess. Another is the layering of time. In the scenes I photograph and paint I see elements from the past and present converging. Someone else painting a house from the mid-20th century might leave out the satellite dish, but I leave it in. I love how the past is always with us, even though we may not pay attention to it.
How would you describe your style?
I paint in a realist style. It can be described as photorealism, since I work from photographs. But I do not aim to recreate photographic effects as some do (limited depth of field, etc.). Nor is it hyperrealism, which to me means an obsessive rendering of detail. Realism is a sufficient descriptor. I paint what’s in the photograph, and while some might consider this limiting, it gives me an opportunity to minutely scan every facet of the image, to figure out how it is all put together. Rarely do we look at a photograph, or an actual scene that way. I’m sort of a detective, finding tiny clues that others overlook. That is the fun of painting the image in detail. There are always discoveries to be made.
“When I shot on film, I had to be a little more discriminating, so as not to run out of exposures. Digital allows one to be more promiscuous, which is not always a good thing, aesthetically.”
Your work “depicts scenes of everyday life that are often overlooked”. What about these scenes capture your artistic eye and why?
What captures my eye? That’s hard to say. Why do we fall in love with one person and not another? It’s a mystery. Alan Watts has a phrase, “the mystery of the ordinary”, which is a good description. I travel around, and take photographs of what interests me at the moment. A few of them end up as paintings. When I shot on film, I had to be a little more discriminating, so as not to run out of exposures. That actually helped me train my eye. Digital allows one to be more promiscuous, which is not always a good thing, aesthetically.
What is your opinion of the art world as it is right now? Is there anything you'd like to change?
I don’t have a great opinion of the for-profit art world. Money seems to rule everything, with a few tastemakers dictating what is “important”. Last year I visited the new Whitney in NY, and the Broad in LA, and it felt like going from Neiman’s to Barney’s—same basic stock with few surprises. Billionaires collect what they’re told, which leaves the millions of “emerging” artists out in the cold.
Artists are some of the most politically/socially engaged people. Do you find yourself actively supporting a particular movement or cause?
To me the purpose of art is to document the world we live in, to bear witness and reveal some essential truth. Truth-telling seems to be under assault these days, so I think artists need to redouble their efforts. We don’t need to be polemical; we just need to be truthful.
“Truth-telling seems to be under assault these days, so I think artists need to redouble their efforts. We don’t need to be polemical; we just need to be truthful”
How do you think the internet aids/complements the art world? And how do you think it deteriorates it?
The internet is a great tool for connecting artists to one another. I am able to see the work of people I would never see otherwise, and even have some nice conversations. It’s a great source of ideas and inspiration, sort of like having an infinite clip file. There’s no substitute for seeing the actual work, but what’s available on the internet is usually better quality than printed reproductions were a generation or two ago. But it deteriorates the art world in two ways that I can think of. One, it spawns a host of leeches who seek to rip off artists with everything from shipping scams to pay-to-play galleries, to overpriced and never seen “world’s greatest artist” books. Those scams were always out there, but the internet makes them persist and proliferate. And two, it is a tremendous time-suck when we should be making art.
What are the main obstacles you have had to overcome as an artist?
Finding time to paint is a key obstacle, since I have to attend to my day job to pay the bills. But I have managed to devote more and more time to painting as time goes by. Doing it every day helps. Now the key obstacle is getting my work out in the world, through galleries, shows and online.
What kind of patterns, routines or rituals do you have to keep the creative juices flowing?
I visit museums and galleries on a regular basis. And I take a camera with me wherever I go, to be ready for any scene that strikes my fancy.
“I don’t have a great opinion of the for-profit art world. Money seems to rule everything, with a few tastemakers dictating what is “important”. Billionaires collect what they’re told, which leaves the millions of “emerging” artists out in the cold.”
What project/series are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a series of paintings of simple, ordinary houses, ones without grand architectural pretensions. Rather, their importance derives from the lives lived within them, of which we see very little. The houses are from a variety of locations in the United States and Mexico. They are, in a sense, the places we all grew up in, places of nurture, experience, trial, memory and forgiveness. Exhibiting these, I have found that there is a tremendous resonance in these houses for people. They remind them of houses they grew up in, or their parents or grandparents did.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I recently started doing semi-abstract paintings on cigar boxes. These were inspired by the work of Richard Diebenkorn, especially his Ocean Park series. In a recent exhibit I saw, there were several cigar box lids that he had painted as gifts for friends. I thought I’d try doing that, but rather than pure abstracts I started with some of my existing works, recreating them in a rectilinear format. It was a lot of fun, but it also made me aware of the underlying composition in my paintings, something I had understood intuitively, but never on a conscious level. I do these now between larger, realistic paintings, and like Diebenkorn, I give them to friends, and I also sell them. •
You can purchase Michael Ward's paintings through his website here!
Michael's next show will be at the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts, in Laguna Beach, CA. July 5 to August 31.
This will be his 5th year at the Festival!