MIDDLETOWN—Artist Michael Tobin showed very personal works of art in his first one-person exhibit, which ran in January at SUNY Orange.
He came to his art from a more commercial side of the visual arts—graphic design. “Graphic design was a very hands-on kind of career,” he said.
His life took a turn when graphic design went digital. “I felt that there wasn’t anything in my hands anymore,” Tobin said. “Once everything went to computers my hands were at a loss at what to do.”
Tobin’s talented hands turned to oil painting. At his home in Goshen, he paints from photographs, but he learned his craft in life drawing classes at the National Academy of Design in New York. “This informs my process when I work from photography, telling me when to lighten shade, emphasize a shadow halftone, when to go cool or warm or soften an edge,” he explained in his artist statement for the exhibition.
The photograph is his first step in bringing a portrait to life. “Somehow I’ve already made choices in taking the photograph that will reveal themselves later on in the painting,” he said.
Pulled to the Subject
He began to concentrate on portraits. His portraits are of family and friends. Some of his most interesting are uncles and cousins on his father’s side who live in Newfoundland. The portraits seem to capture that special quality of the person that pulls Tobin to his subject.
Tobin said one of his favorite portraits is that of his Uncle Phil. He used a photo taken more than 40 years ago. “He didn’t like having his picture taken—just part of the grimace, I think, you get in that. But it reveals a lot, too.”
Tobin takes the photograph to a higher level with oils on linen. “When I feel I’ve succeeded most with a portrait, I sense that the sitter seems ennobled in a way that photography would be hard pressed to match.”
The oil painting process seems to connect the artist to the old masters and even further back in history. “Perhaps in attempting to paint like an old master, I create a tension between bathos, grounded in familiarity, and apotheosis, buoyed by countless images of gods and prophets, queens and saints.”
Like many masters in Western art, light plays a big part in a painting. Tobin said he exaggerated the light on the forehead of Uncle Phil like 19th century artists. The artistic decision suggests “the in-dwelling spirit, the consciousness. I did that with him, plus his white hair kind of suggests there is something going on there,” Tobin said.
His wife, Gloria Bonelli, has posed for several portraits. She said she doesn’t think of it as posing and takes an objective view of the final result. “I understand that there’s a lot of me that’s captured. I understand what people are seeing,” Bonelli said. “For me it’s looking at a whole separate thing. After a while it’s not like looking at myself at all.”
None of his portraits are for sale. “I am very attached to all these paintings,” Tobin said. “I think if I did a painting that I intended to sell, I would put less into it. I would hold back emotionally.” That’s the way he likes it. “I have no client to satisfy except for myself.”
The exhibit was the first and only exhibit Tobin has had and he has his wife to thank. Bonelli was the driving force in arranging and organizing the solo exhibit at SUNY Orange.
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Corrected on March 14, stating that Tobin’s home is in Goshen.