Painting in the Hallowed Halls

Karen Cunningham, M Gallery CFO recently attended M Gallery Artist Michelle Dunaway’s workshop in Putney Vermont. What follows are her reflections and revelations from this fantastic experience.


Hallowed Halls

So. Three days with Michelle Dunaway in Putney, Vt. Mecca for realistic painters, representational artists, and all those whose breath catches at the sight of their work.  It’s a wonderful workshop, portrait and figurative, with Michelle for 15 artists in a studio/barn in Putney, Vt. In reality, these are the hallowed halls where Richard Schmid paints, Nancy Guzik, Sherry McGraw, all their friends.  For us they are icons, heroes. Entering this “barn” has the same effect on me as entering a church, a little spiritual, a little historical, a great deal of awe. 


Michelle’s wonderful and excited. In fact, she’s not only an inspired painter with so many moving paintings, she’s a gifted teacher.  Our first day was filed with information and her first demonstration. She created a back nude working from our model, and as she explained flow, she looked for rhythms in the pose. In fact she told us that if the model’s pose was not dynamic, to look for rhythms in the light or the connection between eyebrows and eyes or other structures. She of course immediately found rhythm in the pose, and created a beautiful piece.  Our afternoon was spent on another back study of the same model in another pose, and it was impressive how much of her instruction we could incorporate. 


Lara’s Orchards

Even in writing my notes about her instructions and thoughts, I find myself blending the experience of this beautiful location, rural Vermont, the local Putney Painters we are meeting, all of this, with art, the artist, our education. With each break, we wander around the studio, looking at the works on the walls, at the views from the back door, at the works in progress. There’s so much to take in. Our fifteen students/painters have a great deal of experience and ideas and come from as far and wide as Alaska and Brazil. There’s so much to share, from paintings, to the local fare in Putney and Brattleboro.  Our first night’s supper was a little Irish pub with live Irish music. Our second night we dined in an eclectic pizza restaurant in Downtown Brattleboro. 


Michelle with second model

Our second day of classes began with a portrait Michelle created of a beautiful young woman, beginning with her eyes.  “Set an intention, for the day, for the painting” suggests Michelle.  Dunaway always reminding us to look for the rhythmical quality, and some of us already seeing the change in our drawings, the emotion coming through.  Michelle quoted Henri, saying the most important technique is the enthusiasm of the artist.  That we had. 


Full of insight, Michelle talked about the hierarchy of elements, shadows, variation and dominance. She talked about her own process: collecting piles of photos and clipping out pieces of “stuff.” She said she did this accumulating a tremendous mass of material, in order to look at it all together and determine what she was drawn to in things, pictures and works. She then revisited the idea of a flow, a rhythm and color notes. 


Michelle’s first study

She told us, “Don’t do to details at the expense of the structure. You have to have the structure first. For Richard Schmid, every thing enhances the structure.  Brushwork enhances the structure. “


On Friday we were graced with a beautiful red haired, Irish portrait model who Michelle knew well. Her family has owned a local apple orchard just a few minutes away. We have Michelle’s portrait of her in the Gallery: Lara’s Legacy.


My notes reflect the treasure trove of insightful ideas Michelle shared:

  • Rhythms, temperatures, mood, area of interest, not thinking details, but rhythm. 


  • Wherever you can join shapes, wherever you can simply, anything you can simplify  becomes more dynamic. 


  • You may be painting what reminds you of a moment in your life, and a collector might  buy it because it reminds them of something completely different. When you’re attentive to those things they will resonate with someone else. 


  • Knowledge is  important. Not just painting what you’re seeing, but knowing what you’re seeing. 


  • 90% of the expression is going to be found in the eyebrows. The corners of the mouth are the other 10%. And that makes people say: “Look at the eyes!”


  • Paintings that are dynamic have a full range of light to dark.  


  • How do you get over the fear of painting too darkly? You just have to feel the fear and do it anyway. 


  •  “Seek passion and patience in equal amounts. Patience alone will not build the temple. Passion alone will tear      it down.” – Maya Angelou


  • When you feel the fear, stop, that is the ego stepping in. Switch the fear to excitement.  


  • When frustration sets in, learning stops. 


  • “Pay attention to what works and do those things again. Pay attention what doesn’t work and don’t do that again.” – Richard Schmid 


  • “Talent is cheap; dedication is costly.” – Michelangelo. 


  • Good drawing is good painting. 

Lara’s Portrait

-Karen Cunningham, M Gallery of Fine Art


About mgalleryoffineart

Owner of M Gallery of Fine Art in historic Charleston, SC
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