IN CONVERSATION: FASHION ILLUSTRATOR MICHELLE VELLA
When did you start making portraits?
I started playing with painting portraits at the end of February; actually Diane was my subject very early on but it wasn’t until this year that I started to discover my personal trademark style. As an artist you need to be your true self and not a recreation of another artist’s style. I worked hard at this, going back and forth with techniques, mediums and styles and eventually it just happened. I was inspired by the portrait work of Francesco Clemente, and fell in love with how he depicted people with such big eyes. Now, fast forward to the moment I am waiting to meet with Diane von Furstenberg and sitting beneath a portrait of her by Francesco himself—I had to pinch myself.
Fashion illustration and portraiture have returned to prominence in the past few years. What do you think accounts for this rise, and what has it meant for your work?
Being so new in this industry, I can’t pretend to know why the rise in popularity of fashion illustration but from personal experience, I attribute it to the power of Instagram. It’s an amazing tool where a totally unknown Toronto artist like myself can find herself live illustrating for W Magazine at New York Fashion Week and meeting Diane von Furstenberg. By painting portraits of people in fashion you are able to get their attention and the attention of their followers.
In January of this year, I was inspired by posting on Instagram at @michellevellart and quickly became obsessed with drawing and posting my work on Instagram everyday. This is how Diane discovered me and started following me. She simply said that she wanted my portrait for her collection; you can imagine my excitement.
Tell us a bit about your technique, and what makes your work distinctive.
My distinctive style, “high art caricature,” is instantly recognizable for the big eyes brushed with long eye lashes extending well beyond the frame of the face. I start with a line drawing in marker, then paint over it with acrylic paint. I usually paint on paper but also paint on canvas and other surfaces including leather and fabrics.
What inspired you to paint Diane?
A friend suggested I read Diane’s book as well as paint her, so I did both. I looked through many photos of her and decided on this portrait. To me it said that she is the woman she wanted to be and empowered me to be just that for myself. I felt empowered as I could connect with Diane’s independent nature while being inspired by her honesty, energy, and love of life.
I was a portrait photographer turned graphic designer for the past 15 years, so finding a new creative outlet as a fashion illustrator and artist at 50 has been life changing.