Michael Summers - Art from Joshua Tree

February 15, 2021

Michael Summers - Art from Joshua Tree

The creator of a world of spirit animals that deal with the most human of themes, friendship, self-belief, and freedom; Michael Summers has enjoyed phenomenal success on both sides of the Atlantic.

The creator of a world of spirit animals that deal with the most human of themes, friendship, self-belief, and freedom; Michael Summers has enjoyed phenomenal success on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in Joshua Tree and influenced by idealistic dreamers, his unconventional upbringing has born an undefinable genre of whimsical animals.


INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL


As the exclusive representative of Michael Summers in Europe, we can offer incredible works from this renowned artist as part of our portfolio. With large murals commissioned for prominent public spaces and exhibitions reaching from East to West coast, Summers’ approach has captured a contemporary zeitgeist in which the imagination reigns, rainbow rain pours from the skies and flamingos are more than just pink.

Our exclusive interview with Michael shows how his brilliant mind has come to create an amazing portfolio of works that continues to swirl and drip with surreal vibrancy. He talks about his inspiration, artistic process, hobbies and how his love of art first flourished in his youth.


Where did your love of art begin? Who encouraged you?


"It would be difficult for me to pinpoint exactly when my love of art began. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t drawing, coloring, or creating in some capacity. My mother always firmly supported my creative endeavors; she firmly embraced the counterculture ideology of that time and disliked the crass consumer culture and advertising that permeated youth-oriented entertainment. The trending must-have electronic, blinking, beeping toy-of-the-season was viewed with disdain, and often suspicion, in our household. Anything that lent itself to creative endeavors, on the other hand, was encouraged and always readily available. A radio-controlled robot with glowing electronic eyes and built-in laser sound effects would only be given to me after begging, pleading, and bargaining. However, crayons, fingerpaints, watercolors, Legos, Lincoln logs, tinker toys, etc. were always available and encouraged."

Tell us a little about your inspiration.


Somewhat Ironically, my family’s aversion to Saturday morning cartoons that were simply thinly veiled 30-minute toy commercials and the bright, shiny, plastic, and diecast metal toys that they were hawking made them a source of almost taboo fascination for me. I remember watching the hyper-color saturated cartoons on Saturday mornings in my youth and nearly instantly being inspired to grab some paper and a pencil, pen, or box of crayons. As I got older, my fascination with all things nerdy continued to influence my artistic choices; the beautiful cover art of my favorite fantasy and sci-fi pulp novels, as well as the rich visual artistry of Dungeons and Dragons books, continued to inspire me to create.

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In college voraciously devoured art history classes and became obsessed with learning the classical painting styles and techniques of the old masters, especially the Italian painters Leonardo Davinci and Carravaggio.

Catnap, the large rainbow tiger mural I painted in Carlsbad, CA, was truly a defining piece in my body of work. The painting was inspired by a quote from the American philosopher and Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “Change is the essence of life; be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.” These words so eloquently and succinctly conveyed the concepts that I was struggling to define and express at the time, and I was instantly inspired when I read them. Catnap was the result of my inspiration, and I can safely say that everything I have painted since then has been influenced by that process.

What is your studio like?


My workspace is a mix of tidiness and chaos. Before starting a project or painting, I typically start by giving my studio a thorough cleaning. When everything is in order, it's easier to focus on the creative process without distraction. As work progresses, the environment around me becomes increasingly chaotic as studies, sketches, and reference photos are hastily pinned or taped to every available surface, and tools and paints are scattered in a seemingly haphazard mess around my workspace. As the work progresses, I become completely inundated and surrounded by what (to the outside eye) looks like a confusing mess of pages, sketchbooks, brushes, and palettes, but I can find every tool, color, or sketch by almost innate instinct. When the latest piece is completed, it's time to begin cleaning up and preparing to start the process all over again.

If you could hang your pieces anywhere in the world, where would you like to see them?


I don't know that there is a specific location that I would most like to see my work. In general, I love creating public works. There is something magical about creating a large outdoor mural in a public location. Art is a form of communication. I create a painting when there is a concept or idea that I want to share, but I am unable to express it verbally or in writing. Public murals allow me to reach a large and diverse audience and the work can be shared with everyone without social or economic barriers.

Where did your love of art begin? Who encouraged you?


"It would be difficult for me to pinpoint exactly when my love of art began. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t drawing, coloring, or creating in some capacity. My mother always firmly supported my creative endeavors; she firmly embraced the counterculture ideology of that time and disliked the crass consumer culture and advertising that permeated youth-oriented entertainment. The trending must-have electronic, blinking, beeping toy-of-the-season was viewed with disdain, and often suspicion, in our household. Anything that lent itself to creative endeavors, on the other hand, was encouraged and always readily available. A radio-controlled robot with glowing electronic eyes and built-in laser sound effects would only be given to me after begging, pleading, and bargaining. However, crayons, fingerpaints, watercolors, Legos, Lincoln logs, tinker toys, etc. were always available and encouraged."

Tell us a little about your inspiration.


Somewhat Ironically, my family’s aversion to Saturday morning cartoons that were simply thinly veiled 30-minute toy commercials and the bright, shiny, plastic, and diecast metal toys that they were hawking made them a source of almost taboo fascination for me. I remember watching the hyper-color saturated cartoons on Saturday mornings in my youth and nearly instantly being inspired to grab some paper and a pencil, pen, or box of crayons. As I got older, my fascination with all things nerdy continued to influence my artistic choices; the beautiful cover art of my favorite fantasy and sci-fi pulp novels, as well as the rich visual artistry of Dungeons and Dragons books, continued to inspire me to create.

In college voraciously devoured art history classes and became obsessed with learning the classical painting styles and techniques of the old masters, especially the Italian painters Leonardo Davinci and Carravaggio.

Catnap, the large rainbow tiger mural I painted in Carlsbad, CA, was truly a defining piece in my body of work. The painting was inspired by a quote from the American philosopher and Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “Change is the essence of life; be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.” These words so eloquently and succinctly conveyed the concepts that I was struggling to define and express at the time, and I was instantly inspired when I read them. Catnap was the result of my inspiration, and I can safely say that everything I have painted since then has been influenced by that process.

"Catnap" by Michael Summers

What is your studio like?


My workspace is a mix of tidiness and chaos. Before starting a project or painting, I typically start by giving my studio a thorough cleaning. When everything is in order, it's easier to focus on the creative process without distraction. As work progresses, the environment around me becomes increasingly chaotic as studies, sketches, and reference photos are hastily pinned or taped to every available surface, and tools and paints are scattered in a seemingly haphazard mess around my workspace. As the work progresses, I become completely inundated and surrounded by what (to the outside eye) looks like a confusing mess of pages, sketchbooks, brushes, and palettes, but I can find every tool, color, or sketch by almost innate instinct. When the latest piece is completed, it's time to begin cleaning up and preparing to start the process all over again.

If you could hang your pieces anywhere in the world, where would you like to see them?


I don't know that there is a specific location that I would most like to see my work. In general, I love creating public works. There is something magical about creating a large outdoor mural in a public location. Art is a form of communication. I create a painting when there is a concept or idea that I want to share, but I am unable to express it verbally or in writing. Public murals allow me to reach a large and diverse audience and the work can be shared with everyone without social or economic barriers.

What is a typical day for you?


I don't really have a “typical” day, as I often let my inspiration guide the flow of my process. For a week or two I might wake up every day at sunrise, go for a run or bike ride, then have breakfast and paint for 8-9 hours. Then one day, inspiration might strike at midnight, and I will stay up the entire night painting, and sleep most of the next day, then shift into a semi-nocturnal existence for the next few days, or even weeks. One of the great advantages of this career is that I rarely have to set an alarm, and aside from shows and events, there is rarely a particular place to be at a specific time. For years I tried to treat this like a regular nine-to-five job but found that productivity and inspiration increased dramatically once I finally abandoned that notion and let it come naturally.

What do you like to do in your spare time?


Honestly, I am a huge nerd in general, with a special affinity for history and martial arts. My love of these disciplines/studies has led me to the discovery of Western Martial Arts and the Historical European Martial Arts. Working from translations of manuals from original sources, we attempt to recreate the (often largely forgotten) martial traditions of the west. While there are schools that study everything from wrestling to mounted combat, I focus my practice primarily on medieval and renaissance swordsmanship.

Do you have a preferred medium to work with and why?


My sketches and studies are made with pencils, pens, ink and brush, markers, gouache, model paints, photoshop, etc.-- just about anything that can help me to capture the concept. Once the study (or studies) are completed, the final painting is almost always acrylic paint on Masonite or wood. While I paint using a very traditional oil-painting technique utilizing very thin transparent layers, I find that traditional oil paints simply do not respond with the speed that I prefer to create. With acrylics I can easily slow down the drying time in order to create the subtle color blends and gradations that are so important to my work, then I can easily speed the drying process up so that I can begin working on the next layer in a matter of minutes. This versatility allows for the creation of very rich vivid colors while still allowing for subtle shading and gradients, letting me focus on each individual creation while my inspiration is at its peak.

How has your artwork evolved over the years of your career?


My work has evolved fairly dramatically, so much so, that it would be pretty unlikely for someone who saw my earlier work to recognize it as having been created by the same artist. When I first started showing in galleries, my body of work was centered on very quiet compositions of people dressed in Victorian attire juxtaposed against scenes of modern dilapidated buildings and landscapes. The colors were all very subdued and muted, almost somber.

There was never a sharp distinction created from one body of work to the next, instead it was a gradual and natural progression; colors became brighter and richer, the figures in the paintings began to be joined by animal companions, and then slowly the animals became the focal points, as I found that viewers often had an easier time connecting to the animals than the people.

Read More

Because my paintings are fairly crisp and illustrative, I was often frustrated by the preconceived notions that the audience brought to the work when people were the focal point. I remember collectors telling me that the figures looked like a particular actor or model, or even like a relative or ex-spouse. Eventually the people faded into the background and then disappeared entirely. Elaborate backgrounds began to become more sparse, then more abstract, until finally I found a visual language and style that would allow me to communicate the ideas I wanted to convey. The characters became the absolute focal point, and the backgrounds became entirely abstract, a pure expression of the concept of change and raw emotion.

What is a typical day for you?


I don't really have a “typical” day, as I often let my inspiration guide the flow of my process. For a week or two I might wake up every day at sunrise, go for a run or bike ride, then have breakfast and paint for 8-9 hours. Then one day, inspiration might strike at midnight, and I will stay up the entire night painting, and sleep most of the next day, then shift into a semi-nocturnal existence for the next few days, or even weeks. One of the great advantages of this career is that I rarely have to set an alarm, and aside from shows and events, there is rarely a particular place to be at a specific time. For years I tried to treat this like a regular nine-to-five job but found that productivity and inspiration increased dramatically once I finally abandoned that notion and let it come naturally.

What do you like to do in your spare time?


Honestly, I am a huge nerd in general, with a special affinity for history and martial arts. My love of these disciplines/studies has led me to the discovery of Western Martial Arts and the Historical European Martial Arts. Working from translations of manuals from original sources, we attempt to recreate the (often largely forgotten) martial traditions of the west. While there are schools that study everything from wrestling to mounted combat, I focus my practice primarily on medieval and renaissance swordsmanship.

Do you have a preferred medium to work with and why?


My sketches and studies are made with pencils, pens, ink and brush, markers, gouache, model paints, photoshop, etc.-- just about anything that can help me to capture the concept. Once the study (or studies) are completed, the final painting is almost always acrylic paint on Masonite or wood. While I paint using a very traditional oil-painting technique utilizing very thin transparent layers, I find that traditional oil paints simply do not respond with the speed that I prefer to create. With acrylics I can easily slow down the drying time in order to create the subtle color blends and gradations that are so important to my work, then I can easily speed the drying process up so that I can begin working on the next layer in a matter of minutes. This versatility allows for the creation of very rich vivid colors while still allowing for subtle shading and gradients, letting me focus on each individual creation while my inspiration is at its peak.

How has your artwork evolved over the years of your career?


My work has evolved fairly dramatically, so much so, that it would be pretty unlikely for someone who saw my earlier work to recognize it as having been created by the same artist. When I first started showing in galleries, my body of work was centered on very quiet compositions of people dressed in Victorian attire juxtaposed against scenes of modern dilapidated buildings and landscapes. The colors were all very subdued and muted, almost somber.

There was never a sharp distinction created from one body of work to the next, instead it was a gradual and natural progression; colors became brighter and richer, the figures in the paintings began to be joined by animal companions, and then slowly the animals became the focal points, as I found that viewers often had an easier time connecting to the animals than the people.

Because my paintings are fairly crisp and illustrative, I was often frustrated by the preconceived notions that the audience brought to the work when people were the focal point. I remember collectors telling me that the figures looked like a particular actor or model, or even like a relative or ex-spouse. Eventually the people faded into the background and then disappeared entirely. Elaborate backgrounds began to become more sparse, then more abstract, until finally I found a visual language and style that would allow me to communicate the ideas I wanted to convey. The characters became the absolute focal point, and the backgrounds became entirely abstract, a pure expression of the concept of change and raw emotion.






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