Unpack This Arizona Painter’s Mysterious Work


With their heavy-lidded eyes and Mona Lisa smiles, the faces in Michael Carson’s figurative paintings withhold more than they reveal. His lounging model-like subjects seem lost in their own thoughts; their allure lying in their inscrutability.

man sitting in chair surrounded by artwork and art supplies

“I find the vagueness of a painting to be more interesting than if I’m telling a story,” artist Michael Carson says of his fashion- and architecture-inspired work.

A self-confessed people watcher, the Phoenix-based artist gravitates most to incremental human expressions that defy easy interpretation. “It’s much more interesting to have mystery,” he explains. “I like to hear what people experience when they see my paintings. No two viewers give me the same story.” 

two partially torn, back-facing photographs of women

As his jumping-off point, Carson looks to a reference images that he's collected over the past 20 years.

two partially torn vintage photographs of women

While the women in his paintings often look similar, Carson looks to multiple images as inspiration. "I've used 10 to 15 different pieces of reference for two figures," he notes.

painting of a brunette woman leaning against a wall in front of a black door

While it may be subtle, architecture often plays a role in the paintings, even if at's simple as capturing a door in the background.

painting of a brunette woman with a green background

"I can change an eyebrow by a 16th of an inch, and it changes the personality of the piece completely," Carson muses.

art supplies on a table in front of a painting of a brunette woman in a red dress

"When you put your reference aside and just look at the painting by itself, there's some freedom to that.," Carson says. "I ask myself what I want to achieve in this painting."

painting of six women in black dresses sitting on white bleachers

"I'm never bored painting people," Carson says. "There's always something to explore there."

To convey these subtle emotions, Carson turns to classical oils—a world away from his past as a corporate product designer. In his hands, the paint becomes as slippery as the expressions he captures, shifting from delicate layers that harness sunlight on bare skin to loose brushstrokes that swish across the surface. “I love to have a duality, this weird push and pull between depth and flatness,” he explains. 

His impressionistic backdrops feel atmospheric, many of his long-limbed figures draped against simple horizons of color or lush nightclub scenes. A muted palette of warm grays, reds and yellows deepens this moody quality, almost resembling an “old, faded Polaroid from years ago,” the artist observes. The stylized glamour of these compositions is no accident, inspired by his extensive library of fashion and architecture photography.

For Carson, the painting process often starts by sorting through dozens of these printed images. He plucks elements from each to form a rough sketch—the dramatic shadows of a room, a face’s arched brow or a model’s angular pose. As he paints, eventually “I like to put the references away,” Carson says. “I need a certain amount of freedom in my work, to not be constrained by realism.” Yet his portraits of real people retain this looseness, embodying the charisma of rock stars like Matt Berninger of The National and Britt Daniel of Spoon.

For his upcoming show at Bonner David Gallery in New York City, Carson expanded into sculpture, carving his signature figures in bronze and wood. Though moving into three-dimensional work, his preoccupation remains the same—to capture all the unsaid thoughts written across our faces. “I’m just never bored with people,” the artist muses. “There’s always something to explore.”