Michael Dotson is a Brooklyn-based painter who sources his images from various screenshots of Disney franchise stills. By abstracting the imagery and taking it out of its context he presents an often darker perspective of the characters and scenes. We met him at his Greenpoint studio and discussed our favorite Disney tracks and princesses, Catholic choirs, and Ron Perlman. He has exhibited with Zieher Smith & Horton, New York, Galerie Zurcher, Paris, The Hole, NY, and more. We are so excited that he will be showing work in our No Vacancy II exhibition opening March 31st at Squat Gallery.
Do you layer your drawings in Photoshop before you paint?
Yeah, I would say Photoshop is my sketch book.
Have you watched all the Disney movies that you source your images from?
I've watched Frozen, but I've never seen Mulan. I feel like I've seen them all though. I go to this one website that has reels of animation image stills.
Does the website contain images from the entire movie scene by scene?
Yeah, the keyframes. I started looking at the website just for fun. I thought these people were cool artists, and then I found this one image of Jasmine that I wanted to paint.
What was your favorite animation growing up?
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Was it because of Jessica?
She's cool. I like the character she is based off.
Who was she based off?
A character called Red. She was in Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood. This painting is from a scene where she is dancing, and there is a wolf in the crowd. His eyes pop out when he sees her. That's the only image I painted that is not actually from Disney (though the animator worked with Disney).
If you never saw Mulan, why did you choose that frame?
It was perfect. It's a painting of a painting. It was so minimal and compositionally interesting. In the actual movie the background is blank. For a while I wondered what could work there. I messed with Photoshop, repeating images and placing shadows. One night, when I was walking home, I thought I should add a Lichtenstein brush stroke. I did, and it seemed like it was supposed to be there.
Do you often duplicate the same image in different paintings?
Sometimes. I like to. I have done a couple that are from a frame after. I've done a couple from Pocahontas. I've never seen that movie either, but I had to sing the songs in school.
What songs did you sing?
Colors of the Wind. I always had to sing Disney songs in school. We had to sing Aladdin songs. I went to Catholic school, and we would have to sing for the priest's birthday, which seems creepy to me now... That school was shut down eventually. This one is from the actual pencil drawing.
Where online do you find the pencil drawings?
I follow a lot of Disney Tumblrs.
Do you ever think about going into animation?
No, that is too much work.
How long did it take you to perfect the gradient?
Not long. It's super easy. My step dad gave me his airbrush, and the first time I used it I was amazed. It's like Photoshop in real life.
Are there any consistent themes in the stills that you choose?
Most of them have dark undertones.
What do you mean dark undertones?
Here's one of Ariel drowning. This one is from Lilo and Stitch, and the character is outside looking in. This one is from Bambi. I picked it because people think it is the Illuminati symbol.
Are these paintings suppose to be nostalgic?
It is reaction to images that are still a part of popular culture and keep getting thrown back at us.
Who is your favorite Disney princess?
I like Cinderella. She keeps a positive attitude. She's a hard worker.
Were your older works more abstract and less potrait based?
I made up scenes. Usually I would have a vague idea of what it would be, and then I would figure the image out through perspective.
They look super computer generated.
That's the funny thing. I didn't use a computer at all. I put pegs on the wall and connected them with strings, and that's how I configured the perspectives.
I see pointillism in there.
Yeah, I use to think it was funny to paint dots a lot because my last name is Dotson.
This was the first one I did with a figure. I wasn't sure if it would be weird to paint a figure, so I tried to hide it a lot. Some people can't even see it.
Why were you afraid to paint the figure?
It was just something I hadn't done. Before I wasn't even using reference material. I decided to make a couple of paintings based from Magarit. That got me into using source material again.
What made you paint your first Disney character?
It was kind of a joke at first. I was like maybe I'll just do a small thing where I will paint all the Disney princesses from behind. That didn't really happen, but it made me look deeper into that site. I was hooked.
Have you had a solo show with these works?
I had a solo show in the spring at Zieher Smith & Horton in New York. I had a show, the spring before that, in France.
Did you see they are coming out with a remake of Beauty and the Beast?
I'm not really into those live action remakes. I don't know why they do that.
Easy to market? I'll see it.
I would watch The Little Mermaid if they did that one. Have you seen the Beauty and the Beast that was on TV in 1987. It was a soap opera...
That was the shit. It was a contemporary drama of Beauty and the Beast that took place in the city.
Is that Ron Perlman? If I tamed the beast and he turned into Ron Perlman that would be a bummer... Do you think it is important that people pick up on the movies you are referencing? Some images are more abstract than others.
I don't think it is super important. I think they should tell their own narratives. Some people see them, and they know the exact point in the movie where the image was extracted more so than I do.
Have you been to Disney World?
I’ve never been. I'm trying to get there one day.