Michelle Vella is a contemporary artist whose work bridges fine arts and fashion. After leaving a ten-year career as a graphic designer to pursue painting, she looked to celebrities and fashion icons as her subjects, depicting them with what has now become her signature style: large, pronounced eyes. Vella’s work has been featured on CNN Style, in ELLE Canada and W Magazine, and more.
We recently spoke with the artist about her career and some of the high profile meetings and partnerships that have stemmed from it.
When did you first become interested in the arts?
As a child and student I was always “the artist,” but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I became an artist.
You ran your own graphic design business for a decade. What made you decide to eventually shift your focus towards illustrating and art?
I was looking for a change, turning 50, and I started to sketch again, enjoying holding a pencil or brush, not confined to my computer. I started posting on Instagram and was eventually being influenced by fashion and fashion illustrators, who are enjoying a big comeback.
Where did learn your craft and what was the most influential part of your training that helped shape your unique style?
I could draw as long as I can remember and studied Fine Arts at university, but almost 30 years passed until I started painting again. In 2015, I started sketching and then painting again, influenced by today’s fashion illustrators on Instagram. I painted [and posted] a portrait everyday, looking for my own personal style. I started to see big eyes come to fruition quite naturally, and that was it!
You often feature prominent celebrities and people known for their own contribution to popular culture and style. Who has been your favorite person so far? (Living or deceased.)
I have a few favourites, I do enjoy painting Iris Apfel, and I especially enjoy pop culture icons like Jackie O and Audrey Hepburn.
How do you choose the subjects for your portraits?
At first I was choosing famous faces in fashion magazines and posting on Instagram, and often they would repost my work. It also led to opportunities in NYC with W Magazine and Harper’s BAZAAR. Last year I started painting on canvas, painting for art shows to sell my work, and being a fan of the movies I started painting pop icons like Audrey Hepburn, Jackie O, even Iris Apfel. That portrait was published in ELLE Canada and will be in a HarperCollins coffee table book on Iris.
Once you’ve chosen a subject, what is your general process in establishing a vision for how that person will be represented? How long does each portrait take?
To get the effect of my Big Eyes, I paint my subjects looking forward, often at the viewer. I take into account how they are most remembered from fashion and accessories, but I like to crop them just below the shoulders and use a square canvas format. The time it takes largely depends on the size and amount of hours I paint in a day. For instance, the “JACKIE” painting is 48”x48” and it took about a week to paint; the detail in her jacket took almost the day. These days I am so busy doing custom commissions that I have not had time to paint for shows.
Your portraits are well known for their unique, large eyes. What is it about the human eye that sparks your interest and imagination?
I always enjoy portraits; even when I was a photographer, it was always about the portrait. My big eyes evolved by accident [as] I was searching for my style. I was painting a portrait a day to post on Instagram, and as I looked at my previous portraits, I noticed that the eyes started to protrude from the face… there it was! I was influenced by Francesco Clemente and Alex Katz, but I have yet to see eyes painted like my BIG EYES.
Diane von Furstenberg discovered your work on Instagram and your custom portrait of her is now a part of the DVF collection in NYC. How was the experience of meeting her and sharing your work?
New York Fashion Week 2015 — meeting Diane was a ‘pinch me’ moment; she made me feel so comfortable and welcome. There I was, waiting in the lobby of the DVF Fashion House in NYC, surrounded by famous artists’ portraits of DVF, ironically sitting under Francesco Clemente’s portrait of her. I couldn’t believe that she wanted my portrait of her to add to her collection. She embraced me and presented me with a gift, and then, taking my hand, led me around the office introducing me to everyone, showing my portrait and hanging it on a wall. Diane even invited me to the DVF Fashion Show, which was her last big show as creative director.
I was fortunate enough to meet Diane again this past May 2017 at Suzanne Rogers Presents DVF in Toronto. We had a lovely chat and she invited me to come to NYC to do portrait sketches at her DVF store. She told me that her creative director loves my work and has my marker drawing of her hanging in his office. (This was a second portrait that I gave her after hearing how much she loved the sketch.)
You now have a bag collection with Bidinis. What was the process of collaboration with Caterina Bidini — did you create original works for the collection?
Caterina Bidini [designs] handbags under her name Bidinis, [and they are] all made in Italy. She and I met on Instagram in late 2014, before I was painting portraits, and I told her that I would love to paint on bags. Well, two years later she made it happen and we have a collaboration. She has designed a capsule collection of environmentally friendly leather clutch and tote bags that are completely made in Italy by Florentine artisans. I then hand paint custom portraits right on the bags using special paint from Bidinis in Italy. They are then sprayed with a protective seal.
We have become great friends; I visit Caterina in Florence each year and she was here in Toronto this past summer, joining me at my art and trunk show in Muskoka. Bidinis is planning a collection of bags that will be printed with my BIG EYE portraits so that more people can have a Bidinis by Michelle Vella piece of art. Currently our one of a kind collection is available at bidinis.com
How has Instagram shaped your practice?
In the beginning, Instagram was responsible for my early success as an artist and fashion illustrator. It allowed me to connect with people that were otherwise unreachable. I had more connections in NYC than Toronto at the start. The reach of Instagram was incredible — not only the exposure, but I was getting hired for fashion events in NYC, collaborating with designers, and because of this success I started to build a following in Toronto and make even more connections.
Your work has been widely commissioned and published. Is there one publication in particular in which you would love to one day see your work?
Well, I’m delighted to be interviewed for KHACHILIFE, so second and third on my list would have to be in Harper’s BAZAAR and Vogue. For me, it would be incredible to be in the ARTS column of Vanity Fair and The New York Times. “Write it down, make it happen” — so I guess I just wrote it down. Anything is possible.
Fashion is clearly a big part of your life, both professionally and personally. Who are some of your favorite fashion designers?
That’s a tough one; there are so many artistic designers whose clothes I would love to wear. Can you imagine a day of shopping without a budget? D&G, Chrome Hearts, Marc Jacobs, Alice & Olivia by Stacey Bendet, the list goes on. I love shopping for unique pieces, especially at REWIND Couture Revisited (@rewind_cr) on Mt. Pleasant Ave. I recently bought a dress by ELIZABETH and JAMES, and THEORY — I always find something great.
What’s on the near horizon for you?
On my latest trip to NYC, I saw Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer (“Woman in Gold”) and was so inspired with this masterpiece. It gave me a vision of a portrait that I hope to paint for a particular client and it will be my “Woman in Gold”.
I am always painting in my studio. This summer I have painted many custom portraits of people in their boats, with their cottage in the background, and next I have portraits to paint for clients here and in New York, plus something special for Harper’s BAZAAR China. I will be doing more live illustrating, with a few charity galas and more corporate and fashion events. I will also have a space at the Artist Project 2018 in late February, and a possible group show at a gallery on Queen Street West in November.
All images courtesy of the artist.