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Michelle Guerra

My name is Michelle Guerra.  I have always loved drawing and painting.  I took art courses at Brown and RISD while in college but stopped painting for many years while attending law school, practicing law and raising a family.  Once my children were a little older I began taking classes and workshops and began painting portraits on commission in Connecticut.

Michell Guerra's Canandaigua, NY studio
Michell Guerra’s Canandaigua, NY studio

We moved to Canandaigua in 2017 and since setting up my studio here I have been in several juried shows and numerous exhibits.

I primarily do portrait and figure art but I have also been commissioned to paint pets, landscapes and still life.

I prefer to paint from life but it is practically impossible to get people to sit for hours at a time so I do a lot of work from photos.  I prefer to take the photo myself if possible because I can create the pose and I know the amount of exposure I need to create the contrast needed for a good painting.

If I am not painting a commissioned piece I paint from a portfolio of photos I have clipped or downloaded through the years.  These are just people or places that have caught my eye because of the emotion they convey or at least what I perceive them to convey.  My piece in the current show “Urban Jesus” was inspired from such a photo. 

Michelle Guerra’s painting, Urban Jesus at far right in the Figure/Ground exhibition

I clipped it from a story in the New York Times many years ago about the difficulty faced by poor urban gay young men who faced prejudice not only from the larger world but from within their own community.  This particular young man was abandoned by his family and was trying to survive on the streets. I was just struck by the fact that despite all that he had been through, this young man had a certain look of dignity and grace that was almost beatific which is what I tried to convey.

My other piece in the show, “Eli and Frodo on the Copse Road” is from a photo I took myself of my son and his dog while walking in front of a whitewashed barn on a beautiful country road just before sunset in winter.  I just loved the light in the photo and tried to capture that in the painting.

painting by Michelle Guerra
Eli and Frodo (Sundown, Copse Rd.) by Michelle Guerra

When using a photo I will edit it in the computer to get even more contrast.  I usually convert the photo into black and white to make a grey scale image so I can clearly see the planes and shadows of the face and figure.  I then make a free hand drawing the actual size of the painting.  I never use graphing or tracing to draw- it just never worked for me especially with a photo.  I just can’t convey the vitality I achieve with free hand drawing.

Once I have a drawing I am satisfied with, I transfer the drawing on to the paper or canvas.  I really can’t describe a consistent methodology of my work after that point – it varies based upon medium, surface and subject.

People have often asked me how I get that “spark of life” into a 2D painting.  I honestly don’t know but I think it has something to do with really looking at a subject and trying to feel their emotion and somehow getting that feeling to your finger tips.

Michell Guerra's Canandaigua, NY studio
Michell Guerra’s Canandaigua, NY studio

My favorite quote on painting is by Marlene Dumas, who said, “Painting is about the trace of the human touch.”  I’ve always took that to mean that marks left on paper are just marks but art results from vision filtered by human emotion and perception which the artist transfers through marks on a surface.

As an African-American artist I am particularly interested in faces of the those who have previously been underrepresented in art.  There is a great wealth of stories to be told in those faces that the art world is just beginning to recognize.

Michell Guerra's Canandaigua, NY studio
Michell Guerra’s Canandaigua, NY studio

My studio is my pride and joy!  After years of trying to carve out spaces here and there it is such a pleasure to have a dedicated space to create. 

I have separate areas for drawing and pastel, watercolor and oil.  I also have a large table for working on that is “bar” height so I don’t have to stoop if I am standing.  I have a sofa where I can read and my son can hang out and watch his iPad when he is here.


Michele Guerra is one of 19 artists included in Figure/Ground, an exhibition on the second floor at Main Street Arts. Work from the exhibition can be previewed and purchased through the gallery’s online shop. The exhibition runs through October 30, 2020.

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