Award-winning artist Michael Van Zeyl paints portraits by skylight in his Chicago studio. He features deep-dish pizza with bottles of Heineken in his still-life paintings and emulates the techniques of 17th-century Dutch masters. He talked to Funsherpa about light, doctors, and urban scenes.
F: How do you get the credentials to become a portrait-painter? Is it a matter of schooling, competitions, or experience?
Many years of practice working with live models. And taking workshops with other working portrait artists. Entering and winning competitions gives you the sense of security necessary to accept commissions.
F: How many sittings are necessary for a portrait?
1-3 three-hour sittings. I prefer to work from life but there is usually a conflict with the client’s schedule, so I work mostly from photos I take in my studio.
F: What is your favorite part of the face to paint? Why?
I would have to say the eyes – it’s where you see the most emotion.
F: Not everyone commissions a painted portrait. Why do you think people choose to have their portraits painted?
I think it’s a matter of tradition and honor.
F: How do you incorporate your own style into a portrait?
The application of paint is very personal. It’s nearly impossible to replicate another artist’s painterly stroke. I have many influences – Rembrandt, Velasquez, Van Dyke, Sargent, Manchini, Sarolla – and you might see little bits of them in my work. But the way I see and record what I see personalizes my work, because no on one can put paint down the exact same way I do. When I’m painting in a room full of 20 painters, we’re all staring at the same exact same subject but you get twenty different results. I think I just see things differently, interpret color differently, and compose a little differently – so I get a different result.
F: Do you ever ‘photoshop’ your subjects and make them look better?
Only when the client requests it. The client hires me to create an image of themselves or of how they wish to be remembered. Sometimes that does not strictly reflect real life. When doing a posthumous portrait, photos are compiled over a wide range of years to create the best image of that person.
F: You appear to have quite a few clients who are doctors? Why is that?
I’ve done work for the University of Chicago, Depaul, and Rush Hospital. The clients are typically not the doctors themselves; either the hospital board or the school commissions me. If a doctor steps down or retires, they give the portrait as a gift or honor that person by hanging it up on the wall of the institution.
F: What is your inspiration for still-life paintings? Do you arrange or spot the scene?
It’s a little bit of both. I have a variety of different props in the studio and I’ll arrange them to try and make abstract designs with light and shadow. I create color themes with different types of fruits, vegetables and backdrops.
On the website there’s one that I like – the painting of a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza and bottles of beer – that looks like an everyday set-up. My inspiration comes from the 17th-century Dutch masters; instead of painting antique objects, I try to incorporate modern-day objects and paint them using the techniques of the old masters.
F: What can a still-life painting tell the viewer? What is it meant to convey?
I like to think the themes of my paintings have something to do with light– the way light moves or the way it illuminates an object. It doesn’t matter if it’s a still-life, a figure, or a landscape: all my paintings are about light.
F: Do you think there is a better market for paintings of urban scenes?
I think people living in a metropolitan area are drawn to urban scenes, especially of restaurants, because they can connect with people – there’s a lot of movement versus a still-life painting. A painting with multiple figures is more interesting to people than still-life. But it’s hard to say – people are drawn to paintings for all sorts of different reasons.
F: What/where are your favorite places to paint in Chicago?
The two places where I paint are my north light studio in my home and the Palette & Chisel Academy of Art. I’ve been a faculty member there for 4 years and an an artist member for 12 years. It’s near the corner of Dearborn and Oak Streets; It was established in 1895 by students of the Art Institute. That’s my second home – I’m there 3 or 4 days a week painting from life, because they have 60 hours of live-model time.
F: Where are your favorite art galleries in Chicago?
F: What paintings decorate your house?
The paintings on my walls are portraits I’ve done of family members as well as portraits of myself and my family done by other artists.