Monthly Archives: July 2013

Pearls from artists* # 51

Road to Roden Crater in Arizona

Road to Roden Crater in Arizona

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

The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadily along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.  As in any profession, facility develops.  In most this is a decided advantage, and so it is with the actual facture of art; I notice with interest that my hand is more deft, lighter, as I grow more experienced.  But I find that I have to resist the temptation to fall into the same kind of pleasurable relaxation I once enjoyed with clay.  I have in some subtle sense to fight my hand if I am to grow along the reaches of my nerve.

And here I find myself faced with two fears.  The first is simply that of the unknown – I cannot know where my nerve is going until I venture along it.  The second is less sharp but more permeating:  the logical knowledge that the nerve of any given individual is as limited as the individual.  Under its own law, it may just naturally run out.  If this happens, the artist does best, it seems to me, to fall silent.  But by now the habit of work is so ingrained in me that I do not know if I could bear the silence.

Anne Truitt in Daybook:  The Journal of an Artist  

    

Q: You have sometimes spoken about your early work as a portrait artist. When and why did you start making portraits? Do you still do them?

"Bryan," soft pastel on sandpaper, 22" x 28", 1988

“Bryan,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 22″ x 28″, 1988

A:  In 1989 I was a Naval officer working at the Pentagon and I hated my job as a computer analyst.  Although it was terrifying to leave the security of a paycheck for the uncertainty of an artist’s existence, I made the leap.  In retrospect it was one of the best decisions of my life.  When I resigned from active duty (I remained in the Navy Reserve, which provided a part-time job and a small income; in 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander), I needed a way to make a living.  

Prior to this career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills.  I volunteered to run a life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal and pastel.  I spent a semester commuting between Washington, DC and New York to study artistic anatomy at the New York Academy of Art.  I spent another semester studying gross anatomy with medical students at Georgetown University Medical School.  So I was well prepared to devote myself to making portraits.

For a time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper.  However, after about two years I became bored.  I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!”  Furthermore, I had no interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted.   I completed my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back.  To this day I remain loathe to do a commission of any kind.  

Comments are welcome!   

Pearls from artists* # 50

The Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The important thing is the intersection between intuition and discipline, because you have to be alert and at the same time invisible.  The eye has to be alert and capture very quickly everything you have inside you – I don’t know how to explain it.  What the eye sees is the synthesis of what you are or what you’ve learned to do, this is the language of photography…

Graciela Iturbide in Eyes to Fly With

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are very labor intensive. Do you typically have just one in progress at any given time?

Works in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

Works in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  For many years I always worked on one at a time because I have only one or two ideas – never more than that – about what I will make next.  Also, I believe that “all art is the result of one’s having gone through an experience to the end.”  (It’s on a note taped to the wall near my easel).  So I would work on one painting at a time until all of the problems in it were resolved.  Each piece that I undertake represents an investment of several months of my life and after nearly three decades as an artist, I know that once I start a piece I will not abandon it for any reason.  When it is the best painting that I can make – when adding or subtracting anything would be a diminishment – I pronounce it “finished.”  In the past I would start the next one only when the completed piece was out of my sight and at the frame shop.

But a few years ago I began working on two pastel paintings at a time.  When I get stuck – or just need a break from looking at the same image day after day (I am in my studio 5 days a week) – I switch to the other one.  This helps me work more efficiently.  The two paintings interact with each other; they play off of each other and one suggests solutions that help me to resolve problem areas in the other.  I’m not sure exactly how this happens – maybe putting a piece aside for awhile alerts my unconscious to begin working deeply on it – but having two in progress at the same time is my preferred way of working now.

A note about the painting on the left above, which was previously called, “Judas.”  I happen to be reading “Cloud Atlas,” by David Mitchell and came across the word “judasing” used as a verb meaning, “doing some evil to a person who profoundly trusted you.”  I’d never heard the word before, but it resonated with an event in my personal life.  So the new title of my painting is “Judasing.”  This is a good reminder that work and life are inextricably (and inexplicably) woven together and that titles can come from anywhere!  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 49

Untitled, 24" x 24" chromogenic print, edition of 5

Untitled, 24″ x 24″ chromogenic print, edition of 5

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

The beauty of art is better, “higher,” according to Hegel, than the beauty of nature because it is made by human beings and is the work of the spirit.  But the discerning of beauty in nature is also the result of traditions of consciousness, and of culture – in Hegel’s language, of spirit.

The responses to beauty in art and to beauty in nature are interdependent.  As Wilde pointed out, art does more than school us on how and what to appreciate in nature.  (He was thinking of poetry and painting.  Today the standards of beauty in nature are largely set by photography.)  What is beautiful reminds us of nature as such – of what lies beyond the human and the made – and thereby stimulates and deepens our sense of the sheer spread and fullness of reality, inanimate as well as pulsing, that surrounds us all.

A happy by-product of this insight, if insight it is:  beauty regains its solidity, its inevitability, as a judgment needed to make sense of a large portion of one’s energies, affinities, and admirations; and the usurping notions appear ludicrous.

Imagine saying, “That sunset is interesting.”    

Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump, editors, Susan Sontag At the Same Time:  Essays and Speeches  

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you remove pastel dust from your clothing, fingers, etc.?

Pastel dust

Pastel dust

A:  Pastel usually comes out of my clothes easily in the laundry, unless I have had an intense studio session where I let it make a total mess.  I try not to wear good clothes to the studio.  Getting it off my hands is easy with Artguard, a barrier cream I always apply before working.  A good scrub with soap and water washes the pastel right off.

The worst occupational hazard, believe it or not, is what happens to the tops of my shoes!  As I work, the dust falls onto my feet and I usually don’t notice until the end of the day.  Whether made of canvas, leather, or whatever, shoes can be a problem when it comes to removing the dust.      

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 48

"Big Deal," with double portrait of the author

“Big Deal,” with double portrait of the author

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

Until the invention of photography, the painted (or sculptural) portrait was the only means of recording and presenting the likeness of a person.  Photography took over this role from painting and at the same time raised our standards for judging how much an informative likeness should include.

This is not to say that photographs are in all ways superior to painted portraits.  They are more informative, more psychologically revealing, and in general more accurate.  But they are less tensely unified.  Unity in a work of art is achieved as a result of the limitations of the medium.  Every element has to be transformed in order to have its proper place within these limitations.  In photography the transformation is to a considerable extent mechanical.  In a painting each transformation is largely the result of a conscious decision by the artist.  Thus the unity of a painting is permeated by a far higher degree of intention.  The total effect of a painting (as distinct from its truthfulness) is less arbitrary than that of a photograph; its construction is more intensely socialized because it is dependent on a greater number of human decisions.  A photographic portrait may be more revealing and accurate about the likeness and character of the sitter; but it is likely to be less persuasive, less (in the very strict sense of the word) conclusive.  For example, if the portraitist’s intention is to flatter or idealize, he will be able to do so far more convincingly in a painting than with a photograph. 

Geoff Dyer, editor, Selected Essays:  John Berger

Comments are welcome!

Q: Have you ever worked outside?

Reproductions of "Cardinal Rule" (top) and "Blue Ego," originals are soft pastel on sandpaper, 30" x 38"

Reproductions of “Cardinal Rule” (top) and “Blue Ego,” originals are soft pastel on sandpaper, 30″ x 38″

A:  As a pastel artist I’ve never worked outside – with so many pastels, it’s just not practical – but early on in the “Domestic Threats” series, I created two outdoor setups.  Works in the series derived from elaborate scenes that I arranged and then photographed.  

I used to take long walks along the Potomac River in Alexandria, VA, and there was a tree stump that was fascinating.  It was mostly twisted roots, knotty branches, dark hidden spaces, etc. (top painting in photo).  One morning I took several hand puppets and stuffed animals (my subject matter at the time) and carefully arranged them on the tree.  Around me people were busy exercising their dogs.  Soon I attracted quite a bit of attention – a tall blonde woman playing with puppets on a tree stump!  Dogs came over to sniff.  Their owners came over, too, and I was pressed into explaining, again and again, that I was an artist, that I was photographing this scene so I could paint it, etc.  The interruptions were very annoying.

The second time I tried an outdoor setup was again along the Potomac River, but this time I selected a secluded strip of beach where I was undisturbed.  I had forgotten to consider the light and inadvertently chose a cloudy day.  I remember being disappointed that the light was flat and lacking shadows.  The painting (bottom in photo) turned out to be one of my least favorites. 

I resolved from then on to focus on interiors.  Alfred Hitchcock famously used rear projection so that he could work in a studio rather than on location.  One reason, he said, was that in a studio he had total control.  I know what he meant.  When I set up an interior scene and position the lights to make interesting shadows, indeed, I have control over the whole look.  No aspect is left to chance.   The accidents – improvements! – happen later when I work on the painting.  

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 47

Grand Falls, AZ

Grand Falls, AZ

* 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 artist can expect no help from his peers.  Any art form which is not his own must be intolerable to him and upsets him to the highest degree.  I have seen Claude Debussy ill at the orchestral rehearsals of Le Sacre.  His soul was discovering its splendour.  The form that he had given to his soul was suffering from another that did not accord with its own contours.  Therefore no help.  Neither from our peers nor from a mob incapable of consenting without revolt to a violent break with the habits it had begun to form.  Whence will help come?  From no one.  And it is then that art begins to use the obscure stratagems of nature in a kingdom which resists it, which even seems to fight it or turn its back upon it. 

Jean Cocteau in The Difficulty of Being

Comments are welcome!