Michelle Usebelli painting en plein air
Michele Usibelli splits her time evenly between plein air and studio painting. “Spending time at both is the only way to fine-tune your art,” she says.

Forcing herself outside the familiar is what keeps Michele Usibelli’s artwork fresh and fulfilling to make.

Breaking New Ground


Michele Usibelli is no stranger to shaking things up. At the time of this interview, she was setting up a new studio in Whitefish, Montana, with plans to split her time between there and her studio in Woodway, Washington, just north of Seattle. “I’m looking forward to completely immersing myself in the Western art scene,” she says. “A lot of my business is in Montana. When I’m able to be there and establish relationships, collectors love that. They like knowing who they’re collecting.”

Much of her art celebrates the West Coast she grew up on, but her love of the landscape was also nurtured by a dream job she landed after studying and practicing architecture, a field that fell flat for her creatively. “I happened into a marketing position, and my job was to take travel writers to the national parks,” Usibelli says. That led her to living in Park City, Utah, and Alaska (near Denali State Park) before returning to her hometown of Seattle.

Michele Usibelli, "Slow Drift," 2018, oil, 36 x 36 in. Collection the artist, Studio
Michele Usibelli, “Slow Drift,” 2018, oil, 36 x 36 in. Collection the artist, Studio


Usibelli didn’t take up painting until after the birth of her second child 19 years ago, when she was 38. “Painting was something I always wanted to do, but I never had the time,” she says. “So the kids could see me doing something that was mine, I carved out some time to do it for me, and it grew from there.” Her three children each had an easel in her studio. “When they were little, I’d let them add a stroke of paint on any painting I did before I shipped it out.”

Now with collectors across the country, Usibelli limits the number of workshops she teaches to four annually and attends only a couple of plein air events per year, saving most of her time for painting solo on location and in her studio.

Usibelli doesn’t like to repeat herself in her work. “People will see a painting that’s sold and they’ll want you to do the same painting again, but I lose my energy and my excitement if I do it twice,” she says. “I’m facing that with a piece I’m working on now, trying to figure out how to mix it up enough so it’s similar to what this collector has seen, but different enough that I’m excited about doing it.”

Michele Usibelli, "Colorful Afternoon," 2018, oil, 11 x 6 in. Private collection, Plein air
Michele Usibelli, “Colorful Afternoon,” 2018, oil, 11 x 6 in. Private collection, Plein air


“My biggest challenge with plein air is figuring out how to limit my palette,” Usibelli says. “I love color so much that I can overdose on it in my paintings.” Living where it rains regularly has made her seek to understand the subtleties of color. “Being in Seattle, a lot of times when you go out, it’s gray, or layer upon layer of green. I love tonal paintings, but I have a hard time feeling satisfied when I do them,” she says. “So I’m trying to push myself to search for the beautiful grays, to find that softer atmospheric painting that has a pop of color.”

When shadows or areas of lackluster color need a lift, Usibelli pushes temperature shifts to give them a boost. She reserves show-stopping color for her focal point. “As you move out toward the perimeter of my paintings, everything starts to gray down so that the eye stays in the center of interest,” she says. “Color shifts and harmony are a constant dialogue with me when I’m painting.”

Inspired by the copper panel paintings of Kent Lovelace, a Pacific Northwest artist who died in 2017, Usibelli tones her panels with a golden acrylic, then scratches into applied layers of paint with a brush handle to reveal what lies beneath. “I leave a lot of little areas and edges of that warm gold shining through, enough to seem like it’s glowing from the inside,” she says.

Michele Usibelli, "Cattle Drive," 2018, oil, 8 x 10 in. Collection the artist, Studio
Michele Usibelli, “Cattle Drive,” 2018, oil, 8 x 10 in. Collection the artist, Studio


Closer examination of Usibelli’s paintings reveals both the planning and the spontaneity that goes into them. “I like that when you step closer to my work, it’s all abstracted,” she says. “It’s so much more interesting than photorealism, because you keep seeing different things, surprises.”

When soggy weather keeps her indoors, Usibelli experiments with abstraction and paint application. “I started doing these abstract Alaskan braided river paintings, using molding paste and cans of spray paint,” she says. “Lately I’m using a tool similar to a big, thick palette knife to create some more abstracted backgrounds. It’s fun trying out different tools for applying paint, and it’s another way to keep myself loose.”

Michele Usibelli, "Afternoon Glow," 2018, oil, 20 x 10 in. Collection the artist, Studio
Michele Usibelli, “Afternoon Glow,” 2018, oil, 20 x 10 in. Collection the artist, Studio


The drawing Usibelli starts with is essential. “You can have the most beautiful paint application,” she says, “but if your drawing is off, the viewer’s eye will always go to what’s wrong and won’t ever look past it.” The drawing affords Usibelli the freedom to play when it’s time to paint. “Painting is a process of losing and finding, then losing again and finding,” she says. “It’s like a tide coming in and out. Once you’ve composed it right, you can lose a line and get it back easily if you need to.”

It took Usibelli about three years of painting before she broke free of her tightly detailed tendencies and started painting as loosely as she envisioned, inspired by the Russian Impressionists. “I’m always thinking of what I can leave out of a painting, versus trying to include everything. There is a lot that I leave for the viewer to fill in.”

Connect with Michele Usibelli at micheleusibelli.com.

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