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FREAK OUT!! Michael Van Zeyl

Michael Van Zeyl Orchid Electrica | oil on panel | 70 x 35 inches | 2016

Tell us about your current series.
My current series combines the human form with botanicals. The imagery has an ethereal mood with soft color harmonies. I’ve also experimented with layers of dimension, both literally and symbolically. The flowers have more distinctive edges and details, while I applied a sensitive touch to the models’ features. Aside from the visual interest this adds, it also represents the temporal aspect of humanity elevated by nature’s eternal and beautiful cycles of regeneration.

Do you remember the 1970’s and if so what are three highlights of that time frame for you?
Although I was far too young to go to discos in the ’70s, I practiced plenty of dance moves in my basement! My own musical tastes were more rock than disco. I remember when a local DJ blew up a crate of disco records at what was then Comiskey Park during a White Sox game. The stunt damaged the field and the Sox had to forfeit! It’s funny that this art exhibit is actually just a few blocks away from where that event took place.

Have you experience a eureka moment while working on the artwork for Freak Out?
My current figure-and-floral series has been so well received, earning placements in both high-profile exhibits and collectors’ homes. It also continues to inspire me personally, so I didn’t want to deviate too far from this theme as I explored concepts for the Freak Out exhibit. While staring at an orchid in my living room, I wondering about using electric light with colored gels to illuminate flowers in addition to my studio’s natural north light, from which I typically work. Dramatic lighting has always been a defining element in my work. To challenge myself for this painting, I not only experimented with multiple, colored light sources but I also created my largest work to date. The figures represent the anticipation and spontaneous excitement of going out to a club. I didn’t experience this kind of nightlife for myself until the ’80s, but I can remember how it felt to head out with a group of friends, aware of the infinite potential that awaited, not knowing who we might meet, what might shake down and when — or whether — the night would end.

Do you listen to music while you work?
Music is with me everywhere. I listen to all kinds of music in the studio, mostly alternative but will also play classical, rockabilly, jazz and blues.

What collections would you like your work to end up in?
Growing up and living in Chicago my whole life, I’ve certainly dreamed of having my artwork at the Art Institute. It would also be gratifying to have my work in Howard Tulman’s collection because of his impeccable eye for representational figurative art. 


For Michael Van Zeyl, portraiture is much more than a one-sided translation of the artist’s point of view taking form in a subject. It’s an engaging visual dialogue that renders a soul in light, shadow and pigment, continuing the conversation for future generations.

While technical skill is only part of Michael’s gift, his experience has honed his craft to the highest standard. His talents were apparent when he was a boy and he spent subsequent decades mastering a wide range of painting techniques. In particular, 17th century Dutch and late 19th century impressionist styles have resonated with him and surfaced in his own works.

His formal training began at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, continuing on at Chicago’s Historic Palette & Chisel Academy and the Art Students League in New York, where he studied with the most accomplished artists who also paint directly from life under natural light. Michael is currently a faculty member at the Palette & Chisel and has been a popular instructor for several years.

Michael’s work is already appreciated in many public and private collections such as the United States District Court, University of Chicago, and DePaul University School of Law. He has received awards from the Portrait Society of America, Art Renewal Center, the Oil Painters of America and was the 2014 recipient of the Dorothy Driehaus Mellin Fellowship for Midwestern Artists.