Michael Story, Michel McNinch, and Rob Shaw each tend to gravitate toward the natural beauty of South Carolina’s landscapes and waterways, yet their painting styles vary widely. The common ground for these accomplished Columbia artists has more to do with how they relate to aspiring artists. Each of them enjoys sharing what they know about the process and techniques of making fine art, and the benefits are mutual for teacher and student. Working as an artist often requires isolation, and Michael, Michel, and Rob agree that the social aspect of teaching is refreshing.
When Michael Story first thought about teaching art classes, he remembered fellow artists saying, “Are you sure you want to give away all your trade secrets?” Michael shares his techniques with students across the country, even posting detailed pictorials of his process on his website.
Moving to Charleston from Pennsylvania with his family in 1968, Michael, a Wisconsin native, initially felt he had arrived in a foreign country. “I didn’t understand the South and had no idea what pluff mud was,” Michael says. “I thought, ‘I guess this is swamp land.’ I didn’t realize that a significant part of my future career would be painting landscapes of the Lowcountry.”
As a teen, Michael took a job as a sign painter for Turner Advertising in Charleston. His maternal grandfather owned a sign painting company in Wisconsin, and Michael was always encouraged to make art, in part because of his grandfather’s success.
Michael’s mentor at Turner Advertising was Tad Lisicki, a Polish artist and Holocaust survivor, who taught Michael how to paint large images that the eye can correctly perceive at a distance. That training was invaluable. Later while attending the University of South Carolina, Michael was drawn toward professors Boyd Saunders and Philip Mullen.
“I’ve thought about it at times,” Michael says. “Is there anything I’ve learned from these professors and other valuable teachers I’ve had that I can pass along to my art students?” As a teacher, Michael is not trying to encourage people to mimic his work. “I show you a process that works for me, and if you want to apply some of it or all of it to your work, that’s up to you.”
Part of the challenge with painting is the intimidation factor when beginning artists see a blank canvas and wonder how to arrive at a finished piece. Michael distills his painting process to a series of defined steps, first sketching the image with tonal variation in charcoal, then applying a wash, usually red, over the entire canvas. Shadows get painted first and dark colors before light ones.
“I think that’s the process that anyone should follow to paint, to set those little goals in between — or maybe in life in general, to set those little goals instead of having this huge goal that you don’t even know how to meet,” Michael says.
While teaching a recent workshop in Huntsville, Alabama, Michael visited an exhibition of Charleston artist Mary Whyte’s watercolor paintings, We the People: Portraits of Veterans in America. Michael finds Mary Whyte’s watercolors to be unmatched in their quality, and he points out that she threw away failed attempts at painting, considering it part of the learning process.
Michael says, “I think anyone can learn the fundamentals of painting.” The important point is to have the discipline to work past those failed efforts.
Michael loves to travel out west and has painted scenes of Arizona and Colorado to vary his subject matter. Michael’s daughter, Aidan, is a veterinarian serving in the military with her husband, Casey. They are stationed in Colorado with their two young children. He also has painted scenes of the Grand Canyon. When the pandemic hindered his ability to teach or travel, he produced a series of exquisite water lilies and another of bright tropical birds, both in pastel. Even though the medium is different from oil, many of the same design principles apply.
“Sometimes what I recognize in my teachings is that everyone wants to apply radiant color to their paintings. Successfully achieving that depends not only on the color that you mix, but the colors you surround it with. If you surround it with darks, it can become more radiant.” Michael recently gave a talk to the Crooked Creek Art League, titled “Don’t Be Afraid of the Darks,” using his haunting water lily series as a visual aid.
A beginning artist might try to highlight reds to make them brighter, resulting in dull pinks. Citing his painting of a macaw, which was exhibited at the S.C. State Fair last fall, Michael said, “I added black to his head to accentuate the reds. I included complementary colors such as cool greens and turquoises behind his head to make that red as brilliant a hue as possible.” Techniques like this, which took years to learn, are what Michael strives to share.
Rob Shaw knew he wanted to be a professional artist when he was 15 years old and taking David Vandiver’s art class at Dreher High School. That was when he first started painting daily. An art studio major at the University of South Carolina, he studied painting and also took as many of Boyd Saunders’ printmaking classes as he could.
After college graduation, Rob worked at Havens Art Gallery, managing it until he opened his own business in 2018, Rob Shaw Gallery in West Columbia. Rob spends a lot of time framing other artists’ work and organizing art shows. December’s show featured Stephen Chesley, Russell Jeffcoat, and Boyd Saunders.
Rob makes time to create significant pieces. His sister, Jill, minds the store when Rob needs to be away; she also sells her original jewelry in the gallery. When he became a father — his daughter, Olivia, is 17, and his son, Gray, is 9 — Rob primarily began using a palette knife to paint.
“Before that I was painting kind of realistic brush paintings that I was spending months on,” Rob says. “They were kind of slow to sell, and it was kind of a tedious chore for me … So, I decided, I’m going to get loose, paint faster, and try to basically paint a painting a day. I started using the palette knife. It was great for doing fast paintings. It was amazing. I was painting faster, I was enjoying it more, and all of a sudden, they were selling better.”
Rob’s method involves sketching lightly and quickly with charcoal. Then, he says, “I just start slinging paint and fix it as I go.” He uses a big palette knife and paints back to front. For his colorful landscapes, that usually means the sky, then the tree line.
Mistakes lend more of a history to the canvas, Rob says. Sometimes he paints new paintings over old ones. He even intentionally alters perfectly good images for the sake of character, like dragging a sheet of Plexiglas across the pieces “Beaufort Oak” and “Moonlight Stroll.”
As his reputation as an impressionistic landscape painter grew, Rob never considered teaching. Then one day at Haven’s Art Gallery, a lady said she had heard he was teaching a class. He was not.
Rob recalls, “I said, ‘If I did, would you take it?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I would sign up for your class,’ so that very day I sent an email about teaching palette knife classes. I think I had four or five people in the first class. One of those ladies is still with me. She’s been doing my class for 15 years. But at first, I didn’t know how to teach people to do it because I just did it. I didn’t know how I was doing it. I didn’t know how I held the knife. I didn’t know the pressure, the angles, or any of that kind of stuff.”
Now, in his classes, in the studio, or online, Rob does a step-by-step demo, guiding artists through the creative process. Sometimes at the end of a studio session, he can tell someone thinks a piece they’ve painted is not worth keeping.
“I’ll get on their palette, and I’ll mix up a little color or something, then I’ll do five strokes on it, and it will look great,” Rob says. “You figure out the major things that are wrong and fix them. It always amazes people because they thought it was gone … When you actually see somebody else do it right in front of you, it unravels a lot of the mystery of it.”
Rob says he is still learning as a teacher. “It took me a while to learn to explain what I did. At first it was a little clunky, trying to figure out how to relay this to them, how they can learn, how to make them feel it. I definitely experienced a learning curve from being a painter to being a teacher.” It has been a rewarding process for Rob, one that now involves traveling to places like San Miguel, Mexico, on painting excursions with a tightknit group of artists. This year, the group stayed closer to home, going to Daufuskie Island.
After people take painting classes, they appreciate art more. “You go into a gallery and you see the subtleties that you might have taken for granted before,” Rob says.
Calmness, Focus, and Intention
One of Michel McNinch’s students calls her an art pollinator. An extrovert, Michel develops strong relationships with her students and pushes them outside their comfort zones. Last fall, she traveled to the beach with a group of women she has taught for years. The ladies painted en plein air at sunrise on the beach.
“We meet at 6 a.m. on the end of the boardwalk with our coffee and paint,” Michel says. “I tell them, ‘I don’t care if you get a good painting. What I want you to do is react to what you’re seeing.’” She times each painting for 15 minutes, and the group attempts several paintings before going inside for a more structured lesson.
“Being an artist is relationship-building between me and my canvas and then me and my viewer,” Michel says. “And sometimes my viewers are my students. They view me differently from how a collector will, but there’s still a relationship I’ve built from being an artist. And the reason I paint what I paint is because it soothes me and I believe it will soothe my viewer.”
One of Michel’s peaceful paintings, “Blazing Autumn,” is based on a photograph she took of her husband, Robert, whom she met when she was 15. A retired electrician, Robert now makes leatherwork; his first piece was an embossed art portfolio case for Michel inscribed with one of her favorite phrases, “Prepare for something amazing.”
Michel says, “It takes a state of grace to paint, like a calmness and a focus and an intention.” The early days of the pandemic in 2020 hindered Michel’s ability to paint well, but she worked through it by taking online classes with Columbia artist Mary Gilkerson.
Spending most of her childhood on Sullivan’s Island, Michel moved to Irmo in sixth grade and found the art department at Irmo Middle School right away. Her art teacher was Bonnie Bouton, then Elizabeth Horton at Irmo High. Michel eventually returned to teach art at Lexington-Richland School District 5’s alternative academy.
“It was the hardest job I ever loved,” she says. “I invented the program, and the person who was the principal was my really good friend in middle school, Marie Waldrop.”
Michel also came full circle at Midlands Technical College’s Harbison campus, first earning a degree in legal secretarial studies and later teaching art. She was once named Adjunct Faculty of the Year.
Michel worked for law firms while earning a degree in business from the University of South Carolina, taking classes at night and on the weekends. She was able to fit in some art classes at the university and to find unexpected inspiration at work — one of the attorneys she worked for had shrewdly accepted payment in kind from the internationally renowned local artist Larry Lebby, who died in 2019. Michael Story remembers watching Larry Lebby create detailed images on stone for lithography in Boyd Saunders’ university studio.
Now Michel’s art is on display at law firms, too, including one where she once worked, Nexsen Pruet. The turning point in her career path came in 1992, Michel says. It was then that she sought out art classes with Ed Crews in Irmo. She also studied in Columbia with William Waithe.
“My mother died when I was 29, and she had always said I’d be an artist. Even when she didn’t have anything, not two nickels to rub together, she would make sure I had a sketchbook in my hand,” Michel says. Pencil on paper is still her favorite medium.
“I think more serious collectors want oil,” Michel concedes, “but that doesn’t mean that’s what I’m always going to do. I have to feed my creativity to be a good painter. So, I might try gold leaf, I might try pen and pencil. I spent 10 years in pastel. It’s a beautiful medium to work with. I love pastel. It’s like painting with butterfly dust.”
Michel is always willing to learn to use different media. Holding up a piece of art in progress, she points out that it is aluminum leaf, a medium she had never used until a student wanted to know how to use it. That sort of give and take sustains Michel.
“It is my creative process. It feeds me,” she says about teaching. “It is essential to my work.”