Michael Guidry describes his paintings as a celebration of the splendor of the Coastal South. His style is reminiscent of naturalist illustrator John James Audubon, except that he infuses his images with brighter color combinations and a surreal sense of humor.
Michael’s just finished his 12th year exhibiting at Jazzfest. In the last few years it’s started to make sense for him from a business point of view because he has to spend at least 5 months preparing for it. Michael’s experience illustrates how long it can take for a talented artist to achieve recognition with the general public. Luckily he discovered his passion for painting at a young age and never wavered in his focus on developing his skills as artist.
NCM: Are you from Louisiana?
Michael: Yes, I grew up in Metairie. I spent some time at LSU in Baton Rouge, but I ended up coming back to the New Orleans area and have been here ever since.
NCM: How old were you when you first started making art?
Michael: I was about 18 when I first started making art. Before that I was an athlete. My identity revolved around being a state champ wrestler. My brother was the “artist”. I used to enjoy looking at art books when I was growing up. But I never thought that I could be a painter.
NCM: What made you decide to try?
Michael: Because I wanted to be surrounded by art. I couldn’t afford to buy what I wanted.
NCM: Where did you learn to paint?
Michael: I first started taking classes at LSU. But when I moved back to New Orleans, I started to go to the Academy of Fine Art on Magazine Street.
When I moved back to New Orleans from Baton Rouge, I thought I was going to be a sculptor. My sister had an apartment with a small space for me to work. It was too small to make sculptures, but I could paint in there.
I was a waiter at the Windsor Court Hotel and I structured my day so that I could wait tables in the morning or at night. Then I could have my afternoons open to take classes at the Academy.
Sometimes I still go back and retake classes there just to sharpen my skills. I fell like there is an opportunity to learn at every corner.
NCM: Do you come from a family of artists?
Michael: No. Not at all.
NCM: What did your family think when you decided to become an artist?
Michael: They encouraged me. My family always encouraged me to do anything I wanted to do. My mom was so supportive.
NCM: Are you associated with a gallery?
Michael: I try to stay independent. I will occasionally do a show here and there. But I don’t like having to pay a 50% commission to a gallery.
Last year I had more commission than I could handle. So I’m going to start raising my prices.
NCM: How did you establish yourself professionally, since you’ve eschewed galleries?
Michael: I started out having to paint in my spare time. I worked in a lot of restaurants when I was younger in order to pay my bills and maintain health insurance. My big breakthrough came with Jazzfest. The people at Jazzfest saw images from a show I had done called “Out of the Marsh”, which was my first real show. It took me several years of displaying at Jazzfest before I felt really comfortable there.
I also have used social media to get the word out about my paintings. Social media has really helped me engage with the public without the use of a gallery.
NCM: What materials do you prefer to use for your paintings?
Michael: I generally paint on wood or canvas. When I am painting on wood, I often cover it with a burlap surface. The burlap on wood is a process that I developed over about 10 years. There was a lot of trial and error before I became comfortable with it. I use oil paint on top of the burlap. I almost always paint with oil paint.
I have had to cut back on using burlap and wood because it is time consuming and I have received so many commissions that I can’t physically complete everything fast enough.
NCM: Is there a reason that you choose really bright colors?
Michael: It slowly happened over time. I started falling in love with particular pigments because of what they could do. I started experimenting with different color theories.
I want to paint my portraits of Napoleon with traditional skin tones, but also make the rest of the painting look electric in its use of color.
NCM: How do you come up with your subject matter?
Michael: I’ve started trying to plan out my subjects each year based on what I want to show at Jazz Fest. I’ll sketch out approximately 15 paintings at a time based on a theme for that year. I don’t always stick to that plan. Sometimes when I’m working, ideas pop into my head.
Last year, I ended up having so many commissions that I didn’t have an opportunity to paint any new work. I did start to paint these Napoleons because I had to get them from my mind to the canvas. Some of my clients are a little upset because I had to postpone finishing theirs. But I had to work on the Napoleons.
When Napoleon expelled the Bourbons, he decided to use bees as a symbol rather than the fleur de lis, which was used by the Bourbons. The original founders of France used the honeybee as a symbol. So my next series is going to be populated with more bees along with tropical plants and birds called “Bee Eaters”.
NCM: Do you work on one painting at a time exclusively, or do you have several going at once?
Michael: I generally have several going at once. I have been experimenting with Griffith Alkyd Oil quick drying white. I do the skin tones in three or four layers. First, there’s a dead layer that has generic colors. And then, the next layer is the one where you work on the values. And then the third or fourth one you put the local color in it. I paint them quickly with the quick drying paint.
NCM: What color canvas are you starting with when you begin the underpainting?
Michael: First I paint the canvas pink. Then I do my initial “drawing” of the figure in burnt sienna.
NCM: What do you wish you knew about oil panning before you started?
Michael: It was such a mystery to me. I would have liked to have been a little less intimidated. I was intimidated by the fact that it took so long to dry. When I was 18 years old, I went and got a couple of tubes of oil paint and squirted it onto the canvas. It wouldn’t dry. It stayed that way for months. Eventually, I learned to work with the palette at the Academy. It helped me become acquainted with all of the paint. Right now I am obsessed with Egyptian Violet and Indian Yellow.
NCM: Do you use one brand of paint exclusively?
Michael: No, I mix them all. I spent a period indulging in all of these really expensive pigmented paints. But once I started doing the portraits, I realized that’s not necessarily the best way to achieve the desired result. I am constantly experimenting with paint.
NCM: Do you ever find that manufacturers change their formulas and then you come away disappointed with the result?
Michael: Sometimes paint companies change owners or the names of colors are changed.
NCM: How do you deal with negative criticism? Do you ever get negative feedback?
Michael: It doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve heard negative comments in the past because I’ve painted roaches or birds eating insects. I don’t beat myself up about any of it.
NCM: Tell us about your work space.
Michael: I’m a mess. So one thing I get really excited about it is when I have a studio visit because I have to clean it. Otherwise I’m totally shamed and each time it gets a little bit better. I’ve just started using three easels and I might want to progress to four. I have a detached building where I paint because I have a young toddler and need to keep my work space where she can’t get into things like oil paint.
NCM: Do you have a favorite tool you like to use while painting?
Michael: My most used tool is a Q-Tip. I use it to help line stuff and remove excess paint in a very controlled way. I use them a lot with Burnt Sienna, which looks like earwax, so if a stranger were to walk into the studio and see them all over my floor, they might think I have hygiene issues!
NCM: Do you use a varnish once the paintings are finished?
Michael: I spray Kamar Varnish. I find it easier to spray on varnish than to paint it on.
NCM: Which other artists influence you the most?
Michael: Right now my biggest influence is the work of Walton Ford. I’m also interested in Pierre-Joseph Redoute’, who was the favorite botanical painter of Marie Antoinette and Josephine Bonaparte.
You can see more of Michael Guidry’s work at https://mguidrystudio.com/