It’s become second nature, during a lull in conversation at a café or to punctuate a particularly long walk, to reach for our phones and start scrolling. But in all this mindless looking down, we risk forgetting an age-old pastime: people watching. For Michael Carson, a Phoenix-based painter and people watcher who first caught our eye when his portrait of the girls of Girls appeared in The New Yorker, the art of observing passersby is still alive and well — in fact, it helps inform his timeless portraits.
“I just prefer to have a realistic version of people,” Carson tells us. His subjects often share similar expressions, looking a little downtrodden or distracted, and Carson draws these emotions straight from the street: “Look around in public. People usually look a bit bored or tired or sad. It’s whats going on in their heads that I am attracted to, and that can be anything.”
Carson’s women have a distinct look — waif-like bodies that recall the heroin-chic look of the ’90s, or ’40s pin-up girls at home after a long day of work. He’s aware of the subtle twinning of his subjects: “Unconsciously, I end up painting a very similar looking character, as you can see, in many of my paintings. It may be my ideal figure. I don’t know.” It’s unsurprising, then, that many of the women resemble his dream subject, Alexa Chung.
As for the impeccably stylish clothes in which his subjects are outfitted, they are largely his own creations. “I love fashion,” Carson says. “I wish I could design clothes, but never really saw that as a possibility for whatever reason. Even though I am using references, I always end up changing the outfit to suit me and my needs for the painting. So I guess I do design clothing in a manner.”
Browsing Carson’s work, you’ll notice repeated patterns — baroque wallpaper motifs, polka dots, flowers. He has quite a poetic sensibility regarding the use of these patterns, and how they bring his work to life. “The interesting thing to me isn’t necessarily the pattern itself,” he says, “but how it’s applied over the painting, and how the flat pattern can float over a dress that has folds and creases and volume. I just love the push and pull effect that has on the work. It becomes very graphic and designed. And painterly. And it’s this combination that keeps me excited to continue every day in the studio.”
Click through to browse more of Michael Carson’s dreamy work.