Let’s Talk SHOP: Mike Kelly

Abby Leon, Paradigm Gallery Director

Artist Mike Kelly creates abstracted landscapes in pastels and oils, but his subject is secondary to his use of color, which dominates the visual narrative. Nearly hallucinatory, Kelly guides you on an emotional journey through his color stories, combining unusual and awesomely unexpected hues that leave you pondering the color palette. He’s a true talent! Read on to learn more about Mike Kelly, his process, and his newest works now on display in the Paradigm Gallery at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

A portrait of the artist, Mike Kelly. Photograph courtesy of Mike Kelly.

I began my career in illustration but quickly switched to design when reality set in. After 35 years in Chicago working as a designer, creative director, and firm partner I decided it was time to escape the tyranny of decision by focus groups to pursue fine art.

Design is about problem solving. Fine art is about problem creation. My work is not about recording a specific image that is in front of me, for that we have photography; instead, I’m interested in suggesting the emotion of the moment by finding the color equivalents of that emotion.

My work is rarely about a specific place or subject. Inspiration is everywhere and can be triggered by many things: color combinations, fashion, nature, and the work of other artists that I filter through my own perceptions and esthetics. My key influences are the great colorists that use strong design and spontaneous brushwork: Mark Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn, Sean Scully, and Wolf Kahn.

For my process, the first step is to choose a format and medium. In this case, I have decided to work in pastel. My primary medium is pastel on sanded paper, which allows me to make numerous revisions quickly. Oils take more time and usually need to dry before making changes. I make a lot of changes until the painting reaches an interesting place!

Next, I create pencil drawings to evaluate design potential. When I am not sure what to do, I just start, even if the initial warm-up hits the waste basket. I have many pencil sketches that I have saved over time to refer to as an introduction.

Initial pencil sketches. Photos courtesy of Mike Kelly.

My work borders on the edge of abstraction and representation. Therefore, I am not concerned with the literal interpretation of a scene or telling a story in the initial sketches or my work in general. I use landscape as the starting point, but my objective is to create a compelling image where color is the focus and soul of the painting. Therefore, the pencil sketches are followed by a series of color experiments. At first, the rough color is fast and intuitive with no judgement or evaluation, just searching for potential.

Initial color experiments on the two completed works, East of Eden and Summertime. Photos courtesy of Mike Kelly.

Then I work more rationally, gradually fine tuning the final palettes, proportions, shapes, and values.

Each painting evolves from a combination of direct observation, photo reference, memory, and intention. These color studies may also lead to a series of the same subject, with each variation evoking a different emotional response for the viewer.

L: East of Eden, pastel. 22×22, framed. $1,000. R: Summertime, pastel. 22×22, framed. $1,000.

To see East of Eden, Summertime, and more of Mike Kelly’s vibrant work, come visit us at the Paradigm Gallery: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm; Thursday 10am-8pm; Sunday 12pm-5pm.

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