Studio Visit: Michael Thomas

Studio Visit: Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas, 61, of Champaign is the art director at WILL and an artist. He maintains the blog, Words to Inspire. His art will be shown in the "Figurative Work of Michael Thomas" exhibition from Thursday through May at the Illini Union Art Gallery, with the reception from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

How long have you been making art?

Since I was little. I had two older brothers who were close to me in age but a lot bigger than me so I was not included in their games a lot of times. So I spent a lot of time drawing and painting. People remarked on my abilities. When I was in high school, my ego was such I didn't take an art class until my senior year. The art teacher warned me she would immerse me in a variety of drawing and painting. I made my first oil painting that year.

Did you go on to major in art?

I did, but it was in graphic design at the UI. I'm one of the few people who are actually working in the field they got their degree in. I was a freelance graphic designer for a while, but I still wanted to do illustration.

I started out doing graphite and colored-pencil drawings and then at one point, I felt like pencil drawings weren't valued as much as oil paintings. So I figured if I wanted to make a living at this I better get back into oil painting. It took a while, but I finally felt proficient.

But I hit a plateau. So I got into a painting class at the UI. The teacher, a grad student, asked us why we wanted to be there. I said I had hit a plateau and needed help to get past it. I told him I wanted to think more conceptually. I was doing all representational but representational for the beauty of it rather than telling a story. He said, "Yes, I can help you."

How many paintings and drawings will you have in your show?

Probably more than 35 different things. There are a few that are graphic design pieces.

As art director at WILL, what do you do?

We do the monthly program guides. We do weekly ads. I'm in the midst of working on a project for our major donors where they meet with the WILL director, so I developed a logo for that, with a little cup of coffee, called "Wake Up with WILL." I design a lot of logos for programs. I also do photography. If we have a new employee or intern, I do a portrait of that person. I do a lot of event photography too.

Why do you like figurative work so much?

I don't know. I always have. I remember that when I was in seventh and eighth grades, I could get a likeness in my drawings when I did a portrait of my favorite TV star or whoever. I just like people.

Have you shown your work a lot? Are you represented by a gallery?

No, but I've been fortunate to get into a couple of juried shows at Parkland College and one in Tacoma, Wash. I've been kind of thinking about gallery representation, but the way things are changing online, I can do just as well through social media.

Favorite medium?

It depends on the day. I like colored pencil because there is less setup and tear down time. When you work with oils — and I really enjoying working with them — there's a lot of preparation work and cleanup.

Do you work from photos for your portraits?

Yes, because most people aren't willing to give you the hours it takes to pose. I like to shoot my own photographs of subjects. Especially if you're going to enter competitions. A lot of them, if you use a photograph taken by another person, require an affidavit from that person saying it was OK for you to use the photo. You don't need to do that if you use a photograph you took.

Topics (1):Art
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