Musical Offerings: Michael Alford On Why He Loves to Paint Musicians

baroque 1 painting by Michael Alford

Image: Baroque I, One of a series of new musician paintings by Michael Alford

Adapted from an interview with Michael Alford

From the very beginning of your career, you’ve always been drawn to painting musicians. Why is that?
My paintings of musicians are essentially figure paintings. That’s how I think of them.

For anyone who’s interested in painting the human figure, the subject of musicians is a gift because it provides a natural grouping for a variety of figures—male and female, different ages, engaged in playing different instruments, but involved in a coordinated group enterprise, namely performing music. There aren’t many subjects that naturally lend themselves to including this figurative variety within the same picture.

Another of the attractions of painting musicians is how un-selfconscious they are, how concentrated and purely focussed on the music. They aren’t posing. There’s an authenticity about their attitudes, expressions, and postures that I find compelling.

Is music important to you personally?
Music is very important to me, and I’m interested in the subject of music as a shared human experience. Music is one of the things people everywhere have deep feelings about. I can’t paint the sound of it, obviously. But I can try to evoke a mood and suggest the emotional connections that people have with it, including myself and the musicians I paint.

Do you work directly with musicians to create these paintings?
I frequently use archival material, such as quick sketches I do at performances, to create these paintings. The final image is often constructed, not simply a reproduction of a particular moment.

But I have worked collaboratively with groups of musicians, sitting in on rehearsals and watching performances from backstage. I’ve established relationships with string quartets, big bands and jazz bands.

It’s great when I can do this. It gives me a totally different visual perspective and, I think, lends a greater sense of intimacy to the work. I feel closer to the musicians, more in touch with their repertoire and their experience of playing.

You employ a more restricted palette in the musician paintings than you usually use in your paintings. Why?
In a picture of something like an orchestra, a large group of people, there’s a lot going on visually without introducing the distraction of too broad a palette. The restricted palette simplifies a complicated picture. It allows the eye to concentrate on the figures and what they’re doing rather than be distracted by too many patches of colour and intense tones.

Do you listen to music while you paint?
Yes, I do. I usually listen to CDs—I still have a big collection of them, which I keep in the studio. But I also listen to Spotify, which is kind of miraculous.

What are your musical tastes?
I have eclectic musical tastes. I listen to classical music more than anything else, particularly chamber music and works for the voice. I also listen to jazz, country and western and lots of world music.

If you could paint any group of musicians, which would it be?
Oh, that’s a tricky one! I am a big fan of the Austrian theorbo player Christina Pluhar and her ensemble, L’Arpeggiata. I’ve never painted any early music groups, but I’d love to give it a try. The early instruments have wonderful, varied shapes.

I’d also jump at the chance to paint Orchestra Baobab. They are a fantastic Senegalese dance band that uses an intriguing mix of instruments and delivers a rip-roaring set. I’d love to have an opportunity to paint them, or just hang around while they play!

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