Anyone who has been a child at any point in the past four decades has, knowingly or not, appreciated the work of Michael Humphries. From small-screen stalwarts like “The Jetsons,” “SuperFriends,” “Scooby-Doo” and “Smurfs” to big-screen beauties like “The Lion King” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” the handiwork of Humphries has always been in the background — literally.
“I'm basically a landscape painter,” he says. “That's what I’ve done since I was a kid of probably 11 years old.” This weekend, he'll be showing off his skills in a more traditional fashion in “Heart and Soul,” an exhibition of paintings at his La Cañada gallery — where his work hangs alongside those of local artist Trish Kertes. (“She's more of an impressionist,” he says.)
It doesn't come as a surprise that many of his originals look like backdrops just waiting for characters to walk through, be they trees in winter or wooden houses bathed in early sunshine. Though they're considerably more realistic than, say, the Smurf village, the artist likes to use his imagination to enhance the imagery: “[Joseph Mallord William] Turner, the great landscape painter in the 19th century, somebody said to him, 'I've never seen a sky like that,' and his response was, 'But don't you wish you could?' So a lot of it is what you can make up, and people can imagine themselves in.”
He believes it's different “in most respects” to paint for fun rather than film, but “there are some things that you bring with you. I mean, the fact that I've been painting for film for so long means that I have a tendency to create a lot of my own lighting situations and things. If I'm working with oils, I might light it the way I would a film, or I might use a color scheme that I'm familiar with, unless I'm doing plein air on location, in which case I'll paint pretty much what's in front of me.”
As to whether he sees the film training as a blessing or hindrance to more personal things, he says, “Most of the time I think it's an asset, although sometimes I wish I could just put away some of it, because it does influence the way you look at things and the way you paint them; you just can't get away from it. It's bringing commercial art into fine art.”
But, he hastens to add, “most commercial artists end up becoming fine artists anyway at some point. That's kind of where I'm at now — that's why I reopened the gallery.”
Another animation background artist, 15-year Disney employee Miguel Gil, also had an opening of his paintings, drawings and photographs this week — at DisneyToons Studios in Glendale. Humphries, who now teaches full time at Art Center College of Design, says it's rare for someone in their field to have a long-term studio contract like that these days, which is why he doesn't do as much of it anymore.
“The whole industry now is much different than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Humphries says, “so you might work on a movie for 2-3 years, and then you're out the door and have to find another studio to work for. I'm not really interested in doing that anymore, so I just kind of freelance.” His current side project, with Disney once again, is creating projected images for a “Fantasmic”-style show at Euro Disney.
As for the younger generation who are up for the freelance life, he tells them it's all about the portfolio. “The bottom line is that [the studios] want to see potential that they can nurture, and get to work for them,” he advises, “and it doesn't necessarily mean they need portfolios with film kinds of things in them. They don't even want to see that. They want to see more traditional kinds of landscape painting, so that you can really look at the light, or the color and the environment. That's really what gets you in the door.”
Through March 24, stepping through the door of the Michael Humphries Gallery may offer the best example of how that’s done.
What: “Heart and Soul,” paintings by Michael Humphries and Trish Kertes
Where: The Michael Humphries Gallery, 829 Foothill Blvd., La Canada.
When: Through March 24. Hours are Tuesday -Friday noon-5 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Sunday-Monday
Contact: (818) 790-7611 and michaelhumphries.net