Michael Sheldon is a British artist whose portrait Pain or Relief was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2019. His portraits are rendered with striking realism and his shortlisted piece Pain or Relief is a marked example of his technical skill and draughtsmanship. We spoke with him to find out more about his process, the materials he uses, and how he develops his work.
Daniel: Hi Michael, please tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education.
Michael: I’ve been creative from a young age. I used to spend most evenings sat on the sofa with an art set on my lap. I remember designing different types of space ships, showing them from above, below and side profiles, with labels to which part was which. This carried on through school and I gained an A at GCSE Art. I then went on to study A-level Art, however my confidence was knocked and I decided to drop that A-level.
I went on to join the Royal Marines which led to a long period of time without doing any art. I went onto a job in Maritime security and started to dabble a bit in my art. My passion came back and I started painting on and off over the last 5 years or so, and more seriously since the beginning of 2018.
Daniel: How would you describe your practice?
Michael: I would say I am a realist painter, touching on hyperrealism. I usually start my paintings with a simple sketch, I try not to put too much detail in, just the position of facial features, shape of head etc. I then seal it in with clear gesso.
I almost always do a grisaille which helps with the tonal range, and also just to get some paint down on the surface. Again, I try not to get too much detail. I work in many layers to build up the detail which is quite time-consuming. Most pieces take months to finish.
Daniel: What interests you about painting with such fine detail?
Michael: I’m obsessed with detail and I find it fascinating that the closer you get to a painting, the more you can see. Unlike other artists who prefer the painterly look, I aim for a more realistic approach trying to hide my brush strokes. My goal is to try and render a painting so it is hard to distinguish if it was a real person or painted.
I work with many photographs focusing on different areas, so unlike a single photograph where you get the bokeh effect, I try to get the whole painting in detail. It would be hard for me to paint from life because of how long I spend on a painting.
Daniel: I’ve noticed that some of your portraits are painted in a chiaroscuro style. What interests you about this technique?
Michael: I love dark and moody portraits, and I refuse to paint anyone smiling – much to my other half’s annoyance.
Daniel: Your work varies between pastel and oil paint. What typically influences your decision to use either medium?
Michael: I started off with pastel at the beginning of 2018 and I took to it very well. At that time I was focusing on doing pet portraits. I then decided to try oil painting and fell in love with the medium. Almost all my paintings are now painted on Aluminium panels from Jackson’s. I love the smooth surface and the fact they come ready treated.
My decision to use either medium comes down to the time frame. After spending months on a single oil painting, its nice to do a pastel drawing over a couple of weeks.
Daniel: Since leaving the Royal Marines, it must have been difficult to adapt to a normal civilian routine. Did painting help with this transition?
Michael: Yes very much so, I would go as far as saying it saved me. The time spent painting means less time for my mind to wander. It helps focus my thoughts and gives me a strong sense of achievement at the end.
I am also a member of The Royal Marines Arts Society, which is set up with the view of helping artists to connect within the military and to use the power of creativity to overcome adversity.
Daniel: What are your most important tools? Do you have any favourites?
Michael: I’m very simplistic to my approach with regards to tools. I use a glass palette and I try not to use any medium in the oil paint, maybe a bit of liquin in the bottom layers.
I tend to favour Michael Harding and Winsor & Newton paints, and I make sure that I’m not using any fugitive pigments. A fellow artist and friend pointed out to me early on that Alizarin Crimson was fugitive and I quickly changed to an Old Holland variant. I paint with Rosemary and Co brushes which are fantastic. The only other tool I use is a Mahl stick.
Daniel: And what is a good day in the studio for you?
Michael: A good day for me is when I can see some progress, like the eye starting to come to life. I enjoy painting eyes the most.
Daniel: When you’re working – do you listen to music, audiobooks, radio, or do you prefer to work in silence?
Michael: If I listen to the radio then it has to be Radio 6, I can’t stand commercial radio channels like Radio 1. Otherwise, I listen to Spotify. Current playlist is Townes Van Zant, The Doors and Rolling Coastal Blackouts Fever.
Daniel: What are your artistic influences? Do you have any favourite contemporary artists?
Michael: I have quite a few favourite artists, but the ones which I have seen in the flesh and the ones which made the biggest impact on me are Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, which is in the National Gallery, and Meredith Frampton’s Portrait of a Young Woman in the Tate Modern.
Daniel: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh or online?
I was in the Ruth Borchard Self Portrait Exhibition this year and my painting was commended by the judges. There were some fantastic artists in the exhibition and I felt privileged to be amongst them.
Click here to find out more about Jackson’s Painting Prize 2020
Featured Image: Self Portrait 2, Michael Sheldon, Oil on aluminium panel, 51 x 41 cm.