Michael Summers is a painter based in Oceanside, California. His paintings are known for their bold color palette and dream-like characters. We had a chance to visit Michael in his studio, where we had a chance to learn more about his career and inspirations.
You grew up near Joshua tree surrounded by artists. How did your upbringing influence your art and your life?
I grew up in Joshua tree. I lived in a couple of places, but that was where I spent the most time. My parents were sort of nomad hippies. My dad’s house was 2 miles from pavement and my parents were very much unwilling to buy a lot of plastic toys and shiny things, but always willing to make sure that I had crayons, paper, canvas, and things like that. Our next door neighbor was an eccentric artist who was always working on amazing sculptures and building a kind of ramshackled, iconically “desert” house. It looked like somebody took about 15 different house ideas and smashed it into one. It seemed he was always working on those things. He was one of the first artists I encountered who was always willing to share whatever he was doing and explain the process while he was doing it.
I went to an alternative school for a while during grade school. It was taught by an artist, so the first 3 days per week were actual academic study, then Thursday was entirely dedicated to art, and Friday was usually field trips. On the field trips, we were encouraged to bring sketchbooks and draw what we saw and things like that. Interestingly, when I went back into the public school system, I was about a year ahead of where all the other students were, which I hadn’t expected because I spent so much less time on the academic side of it.
What are your biggest influences in your painting, particularly the animals you depict?
It’s kind of a long list, some of which is readily and instantly apparent and some of which is not. I’ve just always loved animals. I grew up surrounded by nature. I remember desert tortoises would actually come into the house because we lived out in the country and didn’t even close our doors or lock them. Tortoises would walk in during their migration, waiting for some lettuce. We’d feed them and they’d continue back along their trail. I remember waking up with coyotes, with their noses pressed against the window looking into my room and staring at my cat. I was always fascinated by nature and wildlife.
I feel like painting animals is an interesting way to tell a story. Whenever you paint a person, everyone has all sorts of ideas about who that person is or who it looks like. They often have preconceived notions of “this looks like somebody I know,” or “this looks like some famous person,” you know? But, when you paint an animal, viewers don’t typically have those kinds of biases attached to it, so when you’re telling the story, people focus on the image instead of the character.
The bright, shiny toys of the 70’s and 80’s, I loved them, but they were always a little bit out of reach. I definitely had my share, but my parents were always encouraging the creative side, so I developed this almost neurotic obsession with them. If you look in the toy case in my studio, it’s like my monument to plastic and diecast toys from the 70’s and 80’s. I have always loved the crazy vivid colors and the saturated imagery, along with the Saturday morning cartoons of that era, most of which were designed to sell those toys. I was absolutely in love with that imagery; the cartoons, pop culture, comic books, the art of fantasy, book covers, etc. All of these were the things that really made me want to paint and draw. They were my first inspiration to move into this artistic world.
How did your relationship with your art change, if at all, when you transitioned from painting for pleasure to doing it as a career?
That’s a really interesting question. There was most definitely a major shift in my relationship with painting and with artwork when it became a career. For the longest time, this is what I did to unwind, to get away from work. It was the thing I did instead of working or dealing with “responsibilities”. When I started showing in galleries, it was still a hobby. It was extra money. So it was still something that I was doing for fun, but all of a sudden, the hobby was paying for all of the remarkably expensive paints and canvases and art supplies, which was awesome. There was a tipping point where I realized that I was probably losing money by going to my day job. I was like, “Hmmm, I think I’m making more money staying home and painting.”
So I made the jump, and suddenly I was self-employed, so there were no parameters on when I was working. I felt that since I used to work for 8 hours, then paint for 8 hours, then logically I should be working 16 hour days. The amount of paintings that I was producing at first was honestly a little bit insane. It took me a while to kind of scale back and find balance again and to realize that I needed other hobbies, to realize I needed something that wasn’t just work. I honestly still haven’t quite gotten that balance down. In years past, I used to have a ton of hobbies, but then all of a sudden I didn’t really have any, because all I was doing was painting, which was also my job. When you’re just starting, you feel like you have to be continually rushing in order to afford nice things, like food and shelter. So once I realized that I could actually slow down a little bit, and catch my breath and enjoy myself, I feel like my work got better because I was still dedicating a lot of time to it, but I wasn’t on the edge of burnout anymore.
What were you doing prior to painting for a career?
I was working behind the scenes for an art publishing company building fine art frames and working in the paint shop. The publishing company also owned and operated an art gallery, and it was an interesting experience because I got to see how the business ran, the good and the bad. I learned so much from being on both sides of it and I honestly think it did me a lot of good. I think that a lot of artists have a hard time understanding why galleries operate the way they do and why price points are the way they are. The experience let me see how much actually goes into the behind the scenes operations. It made it a little easier for me to work with galleries and see things from their perspective.
What kind of materials are used in your paintings and how long does it take to complete each piece?
It depends entirely on the size, subject matter, and whether or not the painting is going to “fight” with me. For example, I’ve finished a 30x40 sized piece in as little as a week. More typically a piece of that size takes me 2-3 weeks, but I’ve had some take as much as 5 weeks. Sometimes you start painting and everything runs smoothly and you’re instantly in the zone, and sometimes you wake up and look at a piece, and you’re just like “ugh,” and it’s a struggle the entire time.
For about 95% of what I paint, I’m using primarily slow drying acrylics on masonite, which behave a little different than traditional acrylics. I can get more oil-like effects, depending on what mediums I mix them with. I can get wet-on-wet blending for up to 30 minutes. With the old school acrylics, you were lucky if you had 5 minutes. I prefer using acrylics over oils primarily because they’re less toxic and I have studio cats. Using oils would wreak havoc on their poor little lungs and mine too. Also, I really like the richness and the saturation of acrylics. They have that really bright, vivid color that I love. And I get really impatient if I’m working with oils.
How do you hope to see your work evolve over the next 5 years?
I don’t necessarily have a set goal in mind of how I want to see my work evolve. I kind of let that happen organically. There are times when I’m working on certain themes and I’m really trying to figure out how to portray a specific feel or mood or lighting effect or color combination. But I’m rarely looking towards the evolution, because that happens so organically. The more you paint, the more you see things, and the more you play with different things.
In terms of upcoming projects, I’ve got a show early in the year in Arizona that I’m really excited about. I’m doing a bunch of found object pieces. Instead of painting on masonite, I’ve just been scavenging all kinds of odd surfaces, like old sliced tree trunks and old cabinet doors. I have all kinds of weird objects that I’m really excited to start painting a bunch of images on.
What is your dream project to work on?
Honestly, I’m lucky enough to have done a couple dream projects so far. One of my absolute favorite things to do is large scale public work. I love creating really large scale pieces that I am able to share with a huge number of people. The process of creating them is so much fun. I typically work in my studio, which is isolated. But with public art, such as murals, you’re working out in the open where people can come up and talk with you about the work while you’re creating it. And really people are so nice and friendly. I’ve had so many people bring me a coffee or a slice of pizza.
I had a funny experience while working on my “Catnap” mural in Carlsbad. Some young “taggers” walked up and talked with me for a little while. They were high school aged kids with skateboards and backpacks full of rattling paint cans. They were super nice, just a bunch of aspiring artists that are into the same thing with public art, they are just not going through official channels with the permit process and all of that. I talked to them for a while, and after chatting for a bit, they said, “If you want, we can set up a look out and let you know if the cops are coming.” I was so flattered. But I said, “No, thanks. The city actually hired me to do this.” That was one of my favorite moments working on that piece.
If you weren’t a painter, what do you think you would be doing for a career?
Right before I reached enough success to begin painting full-time, I made a promise to myself. At that point, I had been gaining momentum, then losing momentum, then gaining momentum once again. So I told myself that I was giving it a year, and if I couldn’t make a living as an artist after a year, then I’d go back to school and become a history professor. I’ve always been a huge history nerd. I’m continually fascinated by the strings of events have have unfolded over the past several thousand years that are still influencing current events and society today. Everything from the way artists create, to the ways we interact with each other, it’s all historically connected and endlessly fascinating to me. I figure, regardless of which one is my “job”, I’ll always be painting and learning, and maybe teaching.