Shaping the Visions of our Past – Interview with Artist Michael Haynes


The Journal, Sgt. John Ordway, 1804

All the personal stories that make up history are endlessly interesting to me.”

Riggs Ward interviewed artist Michael Haynes to learn more about the process of interpreting the past through art. Haynes lives and works in Colorado where he has built a career illustrating scenes of U.S. national significance, such as the expedition of Lewis and Clark, the Civil War, and Westward expansion.

Haynes is currently collaborating with us to create thirteen custom paintings for interpretive panels along the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444-mile National Park Service scenic byway.


How did you begin your career as a watercolor artist?

I’ve been painting in watercolor from an early age. I also paint in oils but mostly for landscape work. The approach to creating a scene in watercolor is different in that you allow the white of the board to be highlights where in oils you often go from the darkest values and add to paint to achieve the highlights. Very different ways to plan a painting.


Did you originally intend for your paintings to be used in an interpretive setting?

Yes, because these were commissioned specifically for the project and I was on the site visit trip these paintings adhere very closely to the existing landscape.


A typical commissioned piece requires a multi-stage process that includes research, initial sketches, client review, refined drawings, and a final painting. Is there a specific part of the process that is more difficult than another?

Any artwork that is created with the purpose of describing or defining an event or historic person had better be well researched. By research I don’t mean looking at what other artists have painted and then merely copying the same clothing, weapons, etc. and putting them in a different scene. True research involves first having a working knowledge of the period that’s to be depicted. Historic events don’t happen in a vacuum and that context within the larger view is important. Once that’s established the next step is to study primary source material such as journals, period manuscripts, original artifacts and visiting the location that’s to be depicted. Having a broad range of true historians to refer to who are willing to share their work is an absolute necessity. It’s physically impossible to do all the primary research that is often required.

Going to a local reenactment, taking pictures and then painting directly from the photos isn’t research. In fact that often perpetuates the myths that good historic art should attempt to break down. I’ve found that accuracy rings true to people, even if this goes against our much cherished and long held mental images.

The second part of the equation revolves around the word “art”. Historic art defines a particular scene and therefore is usually a fairly literal interpretation of a moment. Given that, it’s important that an artist can draw and paint with precision and a lifelike feel. We owe it to the people who we are trying to depict to breathe life into them as individuals, not create figures that look like mannequins with historic clothing propped on them. The ability to draw well, particularly the human figure is critical. And when it’s all said and done my name is on the painting so it’s personally very important to me.


What is your studio like?

I live in the mountains of Colorado and my studio is one separate wing of my home. The studio itself is about 1,200 square feet of open space set up so I can work in three distinct areas. My watercolor work and most of my drawing is done on a large drafting table so I can work flat or slightly tilted and is flanked by two large banks of enclosed bookshelves that house my research books. On the other end of my studio is a large wall-mounted easel where I do my oil painting. I have several tabourets that are on wheels so I can move them around when necessary. My computer is centrally located between the two painting stations. I have computers and large color corrected monitors at each painting station and use Dropbox to hold my current projects so I can immediately access them wherever I am in the studio. There’s a large bank of east facing windows and my easel area has great northern light. I look out on the Sangre de Christo range to the south and east and am at the base of the Sawatch range with 14,000 foot Mt. Shavano as my backyard.


What inspires you?

All the personal stories that make up history are endlessly interesting to me. Distilling a story that is important to my client into one defining moment to paint is intellectually challenging. I also draw a lot of inspiration from the landscapes that I paint into the scenes and often try to let the light or time of day set a particular mood for the painting.


Do you have a favorite project or piece that you have done?

Whatever piece I’m currently researching or painting seems to be my favorite because the process of shaping that scene in my imagination is the creative process at it’s most basic level.


For the Natchez Trace Project, your work has included depictions of Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez American Indian tribes. Were any of these subjects new to you?

Yes, I’d done a painting of a Chickasaw stickball player but much of this project has been a learning experience for me. It’s been a privilege to have my work reviewed by the various tribes and exciting to try and express their views on the scenes we’re creating.


What messages do you hope viewers take away from your artwork along the Natchez Trace?

There seems to be a new movement in art for authenticity. We see it in our movies and books. The demand for seeing the past with some of the varnish cleaned away is a challenge. It’s exciting to attempt to put a new, more accurate face to our past and try and recreate worlds that no longer exist. It can be a bit daunting to know that the decisions you make regarding the information in a painting and the story and emotion it conveys can define that moment, grand or small for future generations. As new information comes to light the work I do today will be challenged but that’s what makes this process so interesting as it’s constantly evolving and being shaped while we shape the visions of our past.

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