New Art in an Old City

An America Painter in the Land of Michelangelo

by Sarah Bielanski ©2005

A young man sits in his anatomy-for-the-artist-class listening to his
teacher telling him "You have to go to Florence."
Flash forward.
The same man now works in Florence and rushes home during his lunch break
to paint. One day an older man tells him in order to become a good painter
he is going to have to quit his job.
These words follow him.
This is Matthew Bates, 35. A man who listened to his art teacher and that
older man years ago and is now an up and coming artist in Florence.
It took a lot to get him where he is and where he is, is really just the
Following his teachers advice he came to Florence on an exchange program
his third year in art school. His life was changed the moment he arrived
in Florence.
" I took one look. that was it," Bates says.
Within a year he returned to stay, and has been here 14 years now.
Being in the birthplace of the Renaissance, surrounded by the works of the
masters is both empowering and humbling. The memories of these artistic
geniuses speak to him, taunting and pushing him to succeed.
" Hey you know what, you're an artist get to work," he says they tell him.
These men have indeed impacted the art he creates. The streets they
walked, the statues they sculpted, and even the pictures they painted
become subjects of Bates' paintings. Bates' style, of course, is quite
different from these men who went before him. Yet he captures the city
they too called home.
Bates paints in a style called Magic Realism, though he has his own
variation on the style. In fact he didn't really know what Magic Realism
was until someone listed his artworks under this category on a website
directory. For him the contrast between magic and realism is what makes
art interesting. His style is based in reality but tweaked to his
preference and point of view. "You can change the color. You can change
the attitude," he says.
It's not, he makes clear, an easy job recreating reality.
The process requires several steps, which have been simplified by modern
technology. Bates creates a situation or develops an idea of what his
next subject will be. He paints a variety of subjects: people, flowers
Once he has an idea of what he wants to paint, he goes in search of his
subject. Several hundred digital photos, later he returns to his studio
to download and meditate.
The time spent examining the photos and meditating on the subject is a
significant step toward the final product. It can take days for the
inspiration for the composition to come to him.
" You gotta get to know things in order to reproduce them," Bates says.
He will invent a story about each person in his piece and evaluate all of
the elements (people, setting, etc.) that will go into his piece.
In the coming weeks, he will be spending a lot of time with these. It is
easier for him to paint them if they have a story.
Decisions are made about the overall composition. What doesn't show up in
the photograph is created in Bates' mind. Spaces are lightened, details
are brought out and colors are changed to his preference.
The idea is clear, the brush dips into the paint and slides across the
canvas, the painting has begun.
Of course there are days when he just can't paint. He is too preoccupied,
or there isn't enough time. These distractions keep him from
getting into the mindset required to create his art.
He is lucky to have been able to create so much art despite the craziness
of life. It means I have had a pretty chill life, he says.
Things have been going very well for him. This past year was a successful
one. A large part of his success came from his show at the Figaro Gallery
in Annandale, Va.
" Before my show last year, my house was getting pretty crowded," Bates, says.
He sold 16 paintings in Annandale. But this is really just the beginning.
It isn't enough to do the work and hope it sells Bates says. To help his
career, he has established a marketing plan that involves the Internet,
personal connections with art galleries, and a lot of luck.
Recently, he signed a contract to begin selling prints of his paintings.
The idea here is that the image has value. While an original can sell for
thousands of dollars, selling many prints at a lower cost can earn just as
He owns the image, but his patrons own the tangible painting.
After spending everyday for months working on a painting, Bates says, it
is hard to imagine having to part with that piece. So as not to become
attached, he says, he approaches a painting as if it is already sold.
His art is being viewed and sold worldwide. In one week people from 40
countries visited his website and saw his works.
Being from American he is thrilled that his artwork is beginning to sell
in the states. Viewing his paintings on a wall in a city like New York has
a completely different impact. In Florence the images are ones you could
walk out your front door and see, in New York it's a whole world away.
Though he began his career in Florence, Bates feels like he could be an
artist anywhere. In Florence he learned how to look at the world. In
Florence he found the character his previous art lacked. In Florence he
found the heart required to create his art.
This city has born a new artist, with an unusual style. And for now Bates
will continue to paint pictures that "look so real. You can touch them."


Visit Matthew Bates Galleries: Flowers - Still Life - Cityscapes - Landscapes - Statues - Email