A! Magazine for the Arts

Unicoi artist Michele Warner, inset left, strives to produce portraits that exhibit great depth and soul. The portrait of the dog, lower right, illustrates her lighting technique. David Northern of Knoxville, Tenn., with his horses, lower left, said, "Michele's work for us is really a celebration of those things and setting that we love." (Contributed photos)

Unicoi artist Michele Warner, inset left, strives to produce portraits that exhibit great depth and soul. The portrait of the dog, lower right, illustrates her lighting technique. David Northern of Knoxville, Tenn., with his horses, lower left, said, "Michele's work for us is really a celebration of those things and setting that we love." (Contributed photos)

When Passion Takes On Life

May 18, 2010

*** Published in the Bristol Herald Courier on Sunday, May 16. ***

UNICOI, Tenn. – Artist Michele Warner of Unicoi, Tenn., has found her niche in creating unique and memorable portraits that will be appreciated for generations to come.

Warner has developed a reputation for producing portraits that exhibit great depth and soul. Her ability to replicate the life of her subjects has earned her great respect, and therefore, repeat commissions from her clients.

"We learned long ago that with artwork, the most important element really is the ability of the artist to capture the aliveness of the animals, people and landscape," said David Northern, a client for whom Warner has done several portraits. "This is what art is meant to be – it drives one to see again and again beautiful, alive images, and to appreciate the setting and memories that can be savored over and over."

Among the paintings Warner has completed for the Northerns are portraits of David Northern, his wife, Francoise, and portraits of their four horses. The Northerns, who have resided in Knoxville, Tenn., for 30 years, have lived and traveled throughout Europe and searched extensively for an artist whose style meshed with how they wished to be represented. After visiting numerous galleries in Europe and the U.S., they selected Warner to paint for them.

"Michele's work for us is really a celebration of those things and settings that we love," Northern said.

Warner's skill and ability to capture the moment has been honed over a lifetime. She started drawing and painting as a child in Pontiac, Mich. – mostly horses, which have been her passion almost since birth. She started riding horses when she was 7 years old and bought her first horse when she was 16.

Warner then attended Kendal College of Art Design in Grand Rapids, Mich., and later studied traditional figurative painting at the Slade School at the University of London. To round out her art education, she worked for one of the top illustrators in the country, Bart Forbes, who is renowned for his work as the 1992 and 1996 Olympics artist, as well as for the famous Kentucky Derby and the Westminster Dog Show.

The combination of extensive training and personal passion has blended to make Warner an inspired artist. Currently, she resides at her farm, tucked in the scenic foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, with her husband, James Noel Smith (who is also an artist), their six dogs, six cats and three horses. Two of her horses she has raised from birth.

Warner's background in horses has really paid off, as she was recently selected as the Official Artist for the 2010 United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Pony Finals National Championship, a five-day competition featuring the top young riders in the country. This year will be the second in a row that Warner has been selected for this event.
The USEF conducts a nationwide search for an artist to create a painting to capture the atmosphere of the event; the painting is used for marketing and merchandise, as well as the official poster and program cover for the event.

Additionally, Warner has been commissioned by the famous horseman, Monty Roberts, the "Horse Whisperer," to paint a portrait of him and his mustang, Shyboy.

Warner attributes her ability to capture the spirit and grace of horses in her portraits to her background and hands-on work with the animals. Not only does she interact daily with her own horses, but over the past five years, she has regularly attended horse shows, including the USEF Pony Finals National Championships, which she attends yearly. For the past several years, the Pony Finals have been held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington; in previous years the event has been hosted by the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, Va.

"All of that grooming and handling really helps me paint horses," she said. "I just close my eyes and try to feel the muscles."

The ability to understand the horse, their personalities and their composition has clearly made Warner an effective painter – her portraits exhibit the individuality of each animal.
"From the beginning, we were surprised at how well Michele captured the personality and likenesses of each of the animals," Northern said. "She has done an exceptional job."

Whether it's horses, dogs or people, Warner devotes the same attention to detail and captures the emotion of her subject. She notes that there is an intricate process involved that starts before she ever puts brush to canvas, which is where her multifaceted talents come into play.

Warner is not just a painter, she's also a photographer. To accurately represent any subject in a painting, she first shoots numerous photos, capturing the subject from different angles and with different backgrounds, to fully get a feel for her subject to enable her to best reproduce it on canvas. So her first step is to take good photos.

"It's all about getting light on form," said Warner. "Whether it's an apple you're painting or whatever. If it's not interesting lighting, I'm not interested in painting it."

Warner will shoot "tons and tons" of photos, all of which are stored on her computer in a folder for each particular painting. Then, she works through Photoshop to compile the image the client wants. Her attention to detail helps bring about her finished product. Through the computer, she can layer the image and zoom in on certain aspects of the photo, to best create the desired image. This facet of her talent also helps her to best please her clients.

"I shoot lots of different stuff and then put it together," Warner explained. "Like with people portraits, I'll shoot a head off of one or a hand off another. I just kind of mix and match. I don't really paint from life unless I just go for fun. Most of my clients don't have time to sit for an old-fashioned portrait."

The availability of photography, computers and programs like Photoshop are a great boon to the artist, Warner said. Through these mediums, the artist is able to be much more flexible and create a finished product that is more pleasing to the client.

"I'd say DaVinci would be very jealous of the tools we have today," Warner laughed.

Because of her ability to work with photography and computer programs, Warner is able to create highly customized work, which is important since most of her works are commissioned pieces.

In addition to "mixing and matching" parts of her subject to create the most pleasing finished portrait, she also develops a background to best suit the character of the subject. For example, when painting a dog portrait for one client who lived in the mountains, Warner created a mountain landscape for the background. For another dog portrait of a beloved pet that had passed away before the portrait was commissioned, she painted a blue sky background to indicate the dog being in heaven.

Again, the inclusion of the computer greatly assists Warner, as she can show the client a mockup of how the portrait will appear before she begins painting. That way, if the client wants a different background or to change a detail, it can be done before the brush actually touches the canvas.

Because Warner's paintings often represent subjects that are dear to the client, whether it be a child, a beloved pet, a husband or a wife, her pieces become cherished belongings.
"Our portraits are treasures," said Nancy Carter of Bristol, Tenn., who has commissioned several pieces from Warner, including a portrait of her daughter Kendall and her pony. "If our house ever catches on fire, make sure the kids are out, then grab our paintings and run!"

Because Warner works largely from commission, you won't find her work in a lot of galleries, though she does exhibit at fundraisers, such as last year's Spirit Gala in Johnson City, Tenn., a fundraiser for the Children's Hospital. She also has several works on display at the Blowfish Emporium in Bristol, Va., where the public can see her work and commission a piece for themselves.

"I have known Michele and her work for many years, and now have the privilege of showcasing her talent," said Bethany Wilson, owner of the Blowfish Emporium. "She truly takes the art and skill of oil portraits to a new level, both locally and nationally. It just takes one glance at her work to know she is one of the best in this field."

Often, Warner travels to horse shows along the East Coast to reach her customers. While at the shows, she displays her work and does photo shoots for upcoming projects.

"I often travel to horse shows to shoot reference material [photos] for clients that have commissioned me to paint their animals, mostly horses and dogs, and sometimes people," Warner said. "At the shows, they have gone through all that work to get the animals clean and in show condition, which is nice for getting good shots of them while they are looking so good – and the people are cleaned up too."

When she is not traveling, Warner spends almost all of her time shooting or painting, but she still makes time to go for a trail ride on one of her horses and spend time with her animals. She also teaches private art lessons and currently has five students studying under her.

Warner and her husband have raised two children, Lauren and Daniel, who have both, in their own way, followed in their parents' footsteps. Daniel is currently a student at Savannah College of Art and Design, and daughter Lauren has her mother's love of animals – Warner says Lauren was always bringing home orphaned wildlife. However, Warner notes, her daughter did not seem to get the horse lover gene.

"You're just born that way to be a horseperson," Warner said. "I love the way they smell, their personalities ... everything about them."

Perhaps that love is what makes her portraits so real and so alive.

"Michele is able to capture not only her subject's likeness, but also their spirit," said Carter. "She is able to bring them to life with the tip of her paintbrush. Her paintings are dances with light."

Warner attributes her success and her clients' satisfaction to the fact that she is very picky about her work and has great support from her husband and son, who are also artists. With the combination of having some very talented "extra eyes" on her work at home and her own pursuit of perfection, Warner is able to produce paintings that will be treasured for a lifetime.

"My work is geared toward the connection that people have with their animals," said Warner. "I feel that if you are going to love a piece of art on your walls, it might as well be something that you love."

ON THE NET: Michele Warner's website is http://www.michelewarner.com.