Category Archives: Creative Process

Q: How can you tell with certainty when a pastel painting is finished?

“Poker Face,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

A:  For me a work is finished when to add or subtract some element causes the composition to diminish or somehow weaken.  It’s mostly a matter of where I want viewers to look and how I decide to lead their eyes around a painting.

I work on each piece for several months so that by the time it’s nearly done, I can no longer see flaws.  I put it aside for a week or two.  Then I pull it out again, turn it upside down, and any details that need improving become obvious.  Once I fix them, I know the painting is finally finished and ready to be signed, photographed, and delivered to my framer.

Comments are welcome!

         

Start/Finish of “The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″ image, 70″ x 50″ framed

Beginning

Beginning

Finished

Finished

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am putting a few finishing touches on “Conundrum,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″.

Comments  are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 250

Start of "Conundrum," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

Start of “Conundrum,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist.  That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off.  Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy.  Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection suicide.  I’m a failed poet.  Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry.  And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.

William Faulkner in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews First Series, edited, and with an introduction by Malcolm Crowley

Comments are welcome!

Start/Finish of “Provocateur,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″ image, 35″ x 28 1/2″ framed

Beginning

Beginning

Finished and signed

Finished and signed

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 247

A recent charcoal study

A recent charcoal study

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

Studies made in the open air are different from pictures that are destined to be shown in public.  The latter, in my opinion, result from the studies, but they may, or even must, differ a great deal from them.  For in the picture the painter rather gives a personal impression, while in a study his aim is simply to analyze a bit of nature – either to make his idea or conception more correct, or to find a new idea; for example, the studies of Mauve, which I myself like very much, precisely because of their soberness and because they are done so faithfully.  Still they miss a certain charm, which the pictures that result from them possess in such a high degree.

I believe one gets more sound ideas when thoughts arise from direct contact with things than when one looks at them with the set purpose of finding certain facts in them.  It is the same with the question of a colour scheme.  There are colours that harmonize wonderfully, but I try my best to paint a subject as I see it before I set to work to make it as I feel it.  Yet feeling is a great thing, and without it one would not be able to do anything.  Thus, studies belong more to the studio than among the pubic.

Dear Theo:  The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh, edited by Irving Stone

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Q: You use an impressive assortment of soft pastels to create your pastel paintings. Which are your favorite?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  My favorite brand of soft pastels is Henri Roché.  They offer subtle variations in color and hue since they make more colors than any other company.

As a birthday present a few years ago, I treated myself to a full 750-color set.  I mainly use them for finishing touches, rather than letting them get buried under pastel.  At nearly $20 a stick, I also don’t want see them reduced to colored dust on the floor beneath my easel.  One of my peers calls them, “the Maserati of pastels!”

Isobel Roché told me that her goal is to reach 1000 colors in time for the company’s 300th anniversary in 2020!  I hope she makes it.  

These pastels have been around so long that Degas and other artists of the era used them.  It’s humbling to know that I am working with the same materials and following a long and prestigious art tradition of using soft pastel.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What art book are you reading for inspiration now?

Barbara's copy of "Dear Theo"

Barbara’s copy of “Dear Theo”

A:  I am re-reading “Dear Theo,” van Gogh’s autobiography as expressed in letters to his beloved brother, a book I read more than twenty-five years ago when I first started out as an artist.  My copy is beat up and yellowing, but still holding together.

It’s a source of pure solace.  Keeping and growing a studio practice in New York is  fraught with complexity, challenges, increasing demands on one’s time, etc.  So I sometimes need reminding about the joyful aspects of  being an artist, about why I decided to devote my time to this work in the first place, about what I love about this often difficult and frustrating life I chose.  And Van Gogh’s sensitive, soulful words always deliver! 

Comments are welcome!

    

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A: I’m putting finishing touches on a small, 20″ x 26,” pastel painting called, “Survivors.”

Comments are welcome! 

Q: The imagery used throughout your work evoked glimmers of childhood memories, specifically “Punch and Judy” puppet shows. Would you talk about your use of this kind of slightly sinister iconography?

Barbara and Tomas in Panajachel

Barbara and Tomas in Panajachel

A:  I don’t really see my iconography as sinister, although I know some people do.

I search the markets and bazaars of Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere for folk art objects – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, children’s toys – to bring back to New York to photograph and paint.

Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the patterns are on these objects the better – plus they must be unique and have lots of personality. I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for the tourist trade. The objects must have been used or otherwise look like they’ve had a life (i.e., been part of religious festivities) to draw my attention. How and where each one comes into my possession is an important part of the creative process. Making this work is a long, complex undertaking with many facets. Finished paintings are always an idiosyncratic blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

Finding, buying, and getting the objects back to the U.S. is sometimes circuitous, but that, too, is part of the process, an adventure, and often a good story. Here’s an example.

In 2009 I was in a small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, called Panajachel. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we discovered a wonderful mask store. How fortuitous! I spent some time looking around, made my selections, and was ready to buy five exquisitely-made standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no, I’ll have to leave these Panajachelitos behind.”

However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish was much more fluent than mine, the three of us brain-stormed until finally, Tomas had an idea. I could pay for the figures at a nearby hotel and in a few days when the hotel was paid by the credit card company, the hotel would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was made and the first hurdle was overcome.

Working out the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour or two. This was a small village off the beaten track so boxes and packing materials were scarce. As we figured out the details, Tomas and I realized we liked and trusted each other, became friends, and exchanged telephone numbers. The store did not even have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door!

Most wonderfully, the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala. All of the objects were unbroken and in excellent condition.

As I travel I am drawn to each of these figures because it possesses a powerful presence that resonates with me.  It’s a mystery really.  I am not sure exactly how or why, but I know each object has lessons to teach as it assumes various roles in yet-to-be-created paintings.

Coming upon a new find I wonder, who made this thing?  How?  Why?  Where?  When?  I feel connected to each object’s creator and curiosity leads me to become a detective and an archaeologist to find out more about it and to figure out how to most effectively use it in my work.

The best way I can describe it:  after three decades of seeking out, collecting, and using these folk art figures as personal symbols in my work, the process has become an enriching personal journey towards greater knowledge and wisdom. They are a vehicle for learning more about the world and and about myself.  And what artist doesn’t love to learn?

Comments are welcome!