By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Pennsylvania-based painter Michele Byrne had a flourishing freelance graphic design business when the tragedies of September 11, 2001, shocked the nation. In the aftermath, many of her steady clients experienced a loss of revenue and decided that it would be more economical to use staff designers. For Byrne it was a signal that it might be the right moment to devote more time to her passion—fine art. She had enjoyed a successful career for 20 years, but in her spare hours she relished setting up her easel and painting city streets and outdoor café scenes.
Today, Byrne is a full-time painter with a full roster of shows on her schedule. This summer, for example, she was juried into Colorado’s Telluride Plein Air and Aspen Plein Air as well as Plein Air Easton in Maryland. As Byrne was being interviewed for this story, she was standing on a hill overlooking the downtown streets of the picturesque resort town of Telluride. “I’m trying to capture the light over the mountains. They’re backlit and blue right now,” Byrne explained. “And I’m trying to capture the sun hitting the tops of cars downtown. I was up and painting at 8 a.m. It’s all about capturing the feeling of morning light.” This is Byrne’s fourth year participating in Telluride Plein Air, and last year she won second place in the Artists’ Choice division.
Over the years Byrne’s style has evolved from tightly detailed to a looser, more abstract style. Her color palette has softened, too. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is her affection for street and café scenes sprinkled with figures engaged in conversation. In fact, Byrne has published two books on the subject: The Art of Conversation: Manhattan and The Art of Conversation. Along these lines, the artist says she is particularly drawn to and inspired by the work of French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. “Lautrec had a way with the figure,” Byrne notes. “I like the grittiness of his bar scenes. He captured people in their everyday lives and didn’t try to make them glamorous.”
For Byrne, winter is the season to paint in her studio using sketches as reference, while summer is the time to head outdoors as much as possible. Ever since she attended her first plein-air show in 2006 in Annapolis, MD, she has been hooked on painting on location. “Plein-air painting is magical. I like to absorb all the sounds and colors around me,” Byrne says. “Things happen outside that never happen in the studio. There’s the movement of people coming and going in a café scene. Then there’s the excitement of the light changing, and you have to hurry up to finish, or there’s the surprise when someone parks a bike in front of the scene you’re painting. You have to paint spontaneously, fast, and intuitively.”
Her love of painting café scenes, she says, probably stems from the fact that she enjoys dining al fresco and sharing conversation and the camaraderie of friends. She is an admitted people-watcher who studies body language and how it expresses what people may be thinking and feeling. But that said, as with most plein-air painters, painting on location is mostly about the light. “I’m just drawn to people in conversation and how the light falls on them and delineates their shapes,” she says.
Although Byrne’s roots are on the East Coast, she has loved the West since she was in high school. These days, with her youngest son in college, she thinks about the possibility of moving someday. “The West seems more relaxed than the East Coast,” Byrne says. “I think relaxing and having conversations with people is very important in everyone’s life. I’m trying to convey that in my work.”
Uptown Gallery, New York, NY; The American Art Gallery, Snow Hill, MD; Evalyn Dunn’s Gallery, Westfield, NJ; East End Gallery, Margate City, NJ; Longwood Art Gallery, Kennett Square, PA; William Ris Gallery, Stone Harbor, NJ; Connor Ryan Gallery, Wayne, PA.
San Luis Obispo Plein Air Festival, San Luis Obispo, CA, October 2-9.
Featured in September 2011.