Artist combines his paintbrush, mouse, and surroundings to create a style
all his own
By Elizabeth Gray ©2005
Michelangelo, watch out.
Roll over, Da Vinci.
Matt Bates has a camera, a mouse, and a paintbrush—and he’s
not afraid to use them.
Although he doesn’t do modern art, he is, in every sense of the
word, a modern artist. And he’s succeeding in a city known more
for the art of antiquity than modernity—Florence, Italy.
Being in Florence is like stepping into the past. Every street has
a story from the days of old. But Bates’ story is one of the
present and future: a story based in the virtual world.
Upon first glance, the American-born artist doesn’t look like
someone who would be an art revolutionary. With his clean-cut red hair,
tidy tonal clothing, and cheerful demeanor, he seems more likely to
be your next-door neighbor than the next new thing in art.
But to viewers of his website, who, Bates says, came from 40 different
countries just this week, it’s what he paints and the tools he
uses that make him so unique.
In the past, artist either got commissions or spent their lives painting
in poverty, only to be discovered after their death. But today, anyone
in the world can discover Bates. Just type in mattbates.net and he
and his artwork are only a click away.
You can read about him, contact him, or simply marvel at his unique
style of landscapes, cityscapes, flowers, and still lifes.
To create his art, Bates uses the style of “magic realism.” Created
by New York cityscape artist Richard Estes, magic realism paintings
depict real events, people, or places—altered to enhance the
color, details, or characters of the piece.
His success is very much a product of his environment. The son of two
artists, one a musician, the other a music therapist, he was always
interested in painting and art, not letting a month go by since he
was 14 without painting something. In his hometown of Washington, D.C.,
and also at college in the laid-back atmosphere of San Francisco, California,
he painted abstract watercolors. But when he moved to Florence in 1992,
his style did a 180-degree turn.
You’re here in Florence in this handmade city, and you’re
an artist. You’ve got Michelangelo looking over your shoulder,
saying ‘Get to work.’”
Bates took Michelangelo’s advice. He transitioned from the abstract
to the concrete.
Being in Florence really set my artwork in stone,” he said of
His paintings began to look more and more real, until he finally reached
the style of Holy Water (1995), in which he used a photography-to-canvas
technique for the first time.
While some artists tote their easels from location to location and
paint things as they see them, Bates prefers to capture a moment on
film and then preserve it in paint. This way, he can study people and
places in detail—without having to worry about weather, moving
objects, or other unknowns.
Before he starts on his paintings, Bates goes out on a journey with
his digital camera. Whether he’s painting a still life or a cityscape,
it all starts the same way. He takes photographs of the subject from
all angles, then chooses
either one photo or a combination of several to paint from. He sometimes takes
hundreds before choosing one.
So if he takes photographs, why not just be a photographer? Because, Bates
explained, photography is an “incomplete science.”
“A camera can only focus on one area, either light or dark. When you take
a picture of a light area, the dark one gets so dark that you can’t see
it,” he explained. “I take pictures, then lighten the dark areas
and paint all the detail. A camera just can’t do that.”
He also writes a biography for each of the characters in his artwork. In the
piece Botticelli e Fillipino (2004), the people hold many secrets that Bates
paints just some of. Making up a personality for his subjects helps him better
paint them realistically.
Once he begins a painting, a large work such as Botticelli
e Fillipino takes
him about four months to complete if he works everyday. In his living room
studio, he pins up his photos and works at a corner easel with oil and canvas.
He also has an outdoor studio for airbrushing.
Bates always loved art, but he never thought he could make it his career.
He loved the artistic atmosphere at home, but money was also very tight. Though
he practically lived in the art room during high school, he took a step away
from the artist’s life and spent the first semester of college in majoring
in advertising at San Francisco. He realized he had made a mistake and decided
to attend art school after all, staying for three years before he left California
for Florence. After years of painting for fun, he became a full-time artist
Though Bates is an artist in modern times, he doesn’t rely on modern
art for inspiration. Drawing inspiration from fellow Florentines Michelangelo
and Leonardo Da Vinci, his style is much more classic. His marketing approach,
however, is much more sophisticated than Leonardo could have possibly imagined.
His main marketing tool is his website, www.mattbates.net. On this site, he
has reproductions of all his paintings for anyone to see. He also has just
signed a contract to allow a company to make prints of his work.
His creative and marketing efforts are finally paying off. In 2004, he had
his first gallery show in Washington, D.C., selling approximately $40,000 dollars
worth in paintings. His paintings are in private collections from Alaska to
Venice, as well as several public online galleries.
Even in the city of antiquity, Bates’ art career is finally paying off.
Whether pointing, painting, or clicking, he is an innovator.
Michelangelo would be proud.
Visit Matthew Bates
- Still Life