Artist Michele Combs: Painting in the moment

“Stone Arch Bridge, Minneapolis” (top, left), Michele Combs (top, right), and “Lake Harriet, Minneapolis” (below)

Emerging into an artist has been a learning, growing and maturing process. I am a lifelong student.
– Michele Combs

It’s easy to imagine yourself in one of Michele Combs’ landscapes. She paints scenes that are familiar to Twin Cities’ audiences such as the Stone Arch Bridge with a backdrop of the Minneapolis skyline, Lake Harriet, Minnehaha Falls or a restaurant’s outdoor patio on a perfect summer day.

“People have connections to the landscape,” Combs says. She creates settings that one can “be both lost and found in.” When people view her paintings at art fairs or in her gallery they often share their own experiences of a special place pictured in her paintings. “A woman picked up a print of Minnehaha Falls and you could see the emotion,” Combs says. The woman told her that after her daughter had died, she had brought her ashes to the Falls.

“Landscapes make connections. You realize how the familiar is important to people,” Combs says. Some tell her they are celebrating their own experiences through her paintings. “That makes me feel good,” she says.

Catching the light

Combs didn’t set out to be an artist. She didn’t think it was an option, she says now. Although she took one art class while she was a student at the University of Minnesota, her practical side won out, and she became an occupational therapist, working primarily with adults. She married, had a son and a daughter and worked part-time. “My life was full,” she says.

And then, at age 38, while recovering from a major surgery, she signed up for a painting class at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts. “I surprised myself,” she said of the creative adventure. “I just kept at it. Emerging into an artist has been a learning, growing and maturing process. I am a lifelong student.”

Along the way she left occupational therapy behind and started a mural business. As her skills developed, she continued to take art classes and workshops, including instruction in traditional realism at the Minnesota River School of Fine Art. It was there, about 10 years ago, that she first tried plein-air painting, the French term meaning “open air.”

At first, she found painting outdoors extremely difficult. “It wasn’t like looking at a still life or a photograph,” she remembers, which felt more controlled. She had to narrow down what she was going to paint out of the large expanse before her. And then there was the speed.

“My goodness, you have to do it fast because the light changes – you have less than three hours and you’re done. You have to respond quickly.”

After years of practice, Combs began to love working outdoors. “My artwork turned around,” she says.

By being in the landscape, Combs says she learned more about color and light, as compared to painting the same scene from a photograph. “A photograph is distorted,” she says. “Usually the darks are too dark, the lights too light, the colors are affected. When you’re right out there looking at it you can see the difference between the cool greens and the warm greens. You can see the differences between the lights and the shadows.”

Combs likes to paint outdoors on bright sunny days, as well as in early morning and late afternoon, which she says are more colorful and moody, with their longer, intense shadows. She’s attracted to colorful gardens, fields of flowers, lakes, oceans, the sunrise and cafe umbrellas – “little cafe settings bring memories of things you’ve done with friends, sharing good foods and conversations. I like the natural world that has things touched by [humans], people walking on a bridge or even the bridge itself,” she says.

As a plein-air painter, Combs has become really good at blocking out what’s going on around her. She goes into her own creative zone, she says. “The only way to focus is to block everything out,” she says. “I only have a little bit of time, and then the light is going to change.”

A different palette

It’s not just the familiar settings like Minnesota lakes and rivers that Combs is drawn to; she also likes the adventure and exploration of places that are new to her. She has done plein-air painting in France and Italy.

“What I find is that when I go to different places the colors change. My husband says ‘Your palette’s all different.’ It’s because the light and colors of the landscape are different.”

Now the woman who couldn’t imagine a life as an artist paints and teaches painting full-time. She has a gallery space in the Northrup King building in Northeast Minneapolis and a studio space in her home in Plymouth. She teaches private and group classes through her gallery space and also at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, where she got her start years ago. “I’ve come full circle,” she says.