Monthly Archives: April 2013

Q: The handmade frames on your large pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are quite elaborate. Can you speak more about them?

"Quartet" (left) and "Epiphany," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Quartet” (left) and “Epiphany,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I have been working in soft pastel since 1986, I believe, and within six years the sizes of my paintings increased from 11″ x 14″ to 58″ x 38.”  (I’d like to work even bigger, but the limiting factors continue to be first, the size of mat board that is available and second, the size of my pick-up truck).  My earliest work is framed with pre-cut mats, do-it-yourself Nielsen frames, and glass that was cut-to-order at the local hardware store.  With larger-sized paintings DIY framing became impractical.  In 1989 an artist told me about Underground Industries, a custom framing business in Fairfax, Virginia, run by Rob Plati, his mother, Del, and until last year, Rob’s late brother, Skip.  So Rob and Del have been my framers for 24 years.  When I finish a painting in my New York studio, I drive it to Virginia to be framed.

Pastel paintings have unique problems – for example, a smudge from a finger, a stray drop of water, or a sneeze will ruin months of hard work.  Once a New York pigeon even pooped on a finished painting!  Framing my work is an ongoing learning experience.  Currently, my frames are deep, with five layers of acid-free foam core inserted between the painting and the mat to separate them.  Plexiglas has a static charge so it needs to be kept as far away from the pastel as possible, especially since I do not spray finished pastel paintings with fixative.

Once they are framed, my paintings cannot be laid face down.  There’s a danger that stray pastel could flake off.  If that happens, the whole frame needs to be taken apart and the pastel dust removed.  It’s a time-consuming, labor-intensive process and an inconvenience, since Rob and Del, the only people I trust with my work, are five hours away from New York by truck. 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 37

Self portrait, White Sands, NM

Self portrait, White Sands, NM

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Certainly the most compelling thing in both personal life and art is to be yourself.  When we engage attentively and honestly, pay attention to the insights that come to us, see our denial and faulty thinking, and engage in uncovering the obstacles and blocks to our expression, we realize that art is a wonderful medium for personal growth.

If we realize all this, we do ourselves justice when we claim to be an artist.  We really mean it, and we own it.  Today, as we start working on whatever it is we’re doing, let’s claim our role as artists, being attentive to process as much as finished results.

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What do you do to protect yourself from toxic pastel dust?

Used surgical mask

Used surgical mask

A:  Certain sticks of soft pastel contain toxic lead and cadmium so some precautions are necessary.  Before I begin working, I liberally apply a barrier cream, called Artguard, to my hands and wrists so that pastel will not be absorbed through my skin via small cuts that I might have.  I wear a surgical mask to avoided breathing the dust.  Also, I try to work so that my hand is below my head, to lessen the likelihood of breathing particles of pastel as they fall to the floor.  I ensure there is good air circulation in my studio.  Once the dust has settled onto the floor, I try not to stir it up again until I dispose of it.  I’ve been working with soft pastel for 27 years and have managed to stay healthy so far.

Comments are welcome!   

Q: When and why did you start working on sandpaper?

Raw sandpaper

Raw sandpaper

A:  In the late 1980s when I was studying at the Art League in Alexandria, VA, I took a three-day pastel workshop with Albert Handel, an artist known for his southwest landscapes in pastel and oil paint.  I had just begun working with soft pastel (I’d completed my first class with Diane Tesler) and was still experimenting with paper.  Handel suggested I try Ersta fine sandpaper.  I did and nearly three decades later, I’ve never used anything else. 

The paper (UArt makes it now) is acid-free and accepts dry media, especially pastel and charcoal.   It allows me to build up layer upon layer of pigment, blend, etc. without having to use a fixative.  The tooth of the paper almost never gets filled up so it continues to hold pastel.  If the tooth does fill up, which sometimes happens with problem areas that are difficult to resolve, I take a bristle paintbrush, dust off the unwanted pigment, and start again.  My entire technique – slowly applying soft pastel, blending and creating new colors directly on the paper (occupational hazard:  rubbed-raw fingers, especially at the beginning of a painting as I mentioned in last Saturday’s blog post), making countless corrections and adjustments, looking for the best and/or most vivid colors, etc. – evolved in conjunction with this paper. 

I used to say that if Ersta ever went out of business and stopped making sandpaper, my artist days would be over.  Thankfully, when that DID happen, UArt began making a very similar paper.  I buy it from ASW (Art Supply Warehouse) in two sizes – 22″ x 28″ sheets and 56″ wide by 10 yard long rolls.  The newer version of the rolled paper is actually better than the old, because when I unroll it it lays flat immediately.  With Ersta I laid the paper out on the floor for weeks before the curl would give way and it was flat enough to work on.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 35

Westbeth, NYC

Westbeth, NYC

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

An individual who has committed himself to art and now wrestles within it, having given up everything else, has also become strict, you see.  Such a person is more likely to warn off others rather than to beckon them to enter into a realm of the most tremendous demands and indescribable sacrifices.  And for someone sitting at his desk, behind closed doors, matters are still relatively simple:  at least he has to deal only with himself.  But an actor, even when his work originates in the purest experiences of his being, stands in the open and performs his work in the open where he is exposed to all the influences, detractions, disturbances, and even hostilities that originate in his colleagues and his audience and that interrupt, distract, and split him off.  For him things are more difficult than for anyone else; above all, he needs to lure success and to base his actions on it.  And yet what misery results if this new alignment leads him to abandon the inner direction that had driven him into art in the first place.  He seems to have no self; his job consists in letting others dictate selves to him.  And the audience, once it has accepted him, wants to preserve him within the limits where it finds entertainment; and yet his achievement depends entirely upon his capacity to maintain an interior constancy through all kinds of changes, blindly, like a madman.  Any momentary weakness toward success is as sure to doom him as giving in and drawing on applause as a precondition for their creation spells doom for the painter or poet.

Ulrich Baer in The Wisdom of Rilke

Comments are welcome!     

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress, 58" x 38"

Work in progress, 58″ x 38″

A:  Today is a day off to let my fingers heal.  When I start a new painting, I need to rub my fingers against raw sandpaper in order to blend the pastel.  With each layer the tooth of the paper gets filled up and becomes smooth, but until then my fingers suffer.  Here is what I’ve been working on.

This pastel-on-sandpaper painting is an experiment, an attempt to push myself to work with bigger and bolder imagery.  The photograph clipped to the easel is one of my favorites.  It depicts a Judas that Bryan and I found in a dusty shop in Oaxaca.  Among the Mexican and Guatemalan folk art pieces that I’ve collected are five papier mâché Judases.  This particular one is unusual because it has a cat’s head attached at the forehead (the purple shape in the painting).  They are not made to last.  In some Mexican towns large Judases are hung from church steeples, loaded with fireworks, and burned in effigy.  This takes place at 10:00 a.m. on the Saturday morning before Easter.  Mexico is primarily a Catholic nation, of course, so effigy burning is done as symbolic revenge against Judas for his betrayal of Christ.  The Judas in the photo is small and meant for private burning by a family (rather than in public at a church) so by bringing it back to New York I rescued it from a fire-y death!  In sympathy with Mexican tradition, I began this painting last Saturday (the day before Easter) at 10 a.m.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 34

On the High Line

On the High Line

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

To collect photographs is to collect the world.  Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store.

In Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963), two sluggish lumpen-peasants are lured into joining the king’s army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do whatever else they please to the enemy, and get rich.  But the suitcase of booty that Michel-Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of monuments, department stores, mammals, wonders of nature, methods of transport, works of art, and other classified treasures from around the globe.

Godard’s gag vividly parodies the equivocal magic of the photographic image.  Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern.

Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

Susan Sontag in On Photography

Comments are welcome!