Category Archives: Pastel Painting

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! 

Start/Finish of “Motley,” 38″ x 58″ image, 50″ x 70″ framed

Beginning

Beginning

Completed

Completed

Comments are welcome!

Q: Pastel painting is the cornerstone of your practice. What attracted you to this medium?

Barbara's studio with "White Star" in progress

Barbara’s studio with “White Star” in progress

A:  For starters soft pastel is the medium that I fell in love with many years ago.  I am fond of this article, “What is Pastel?” by Mike Mahon, and quote it here because it neatly sums up what I love about working with pastel.

Pastel is the most permanent of all media when applied to conservation ground and properly framed. Pastel has no liquid binder that may cause it to oxidize with the passage of time as oftentimes happens with other media.

In this instance, Pastel does not refer to pale colors, as the word is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion terminology. The pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste with a minimum amount of gum binder, rolled into sticks and dried. The infinite variety of colors in the Pastel palette range from soft and subtle to hard and brilliant.

An artwork is created by stroking the stick of dry pigment across an abrasive ground, embedding the color in the “tooth” of the ground. If the ground is completely covered with Pastel, the work is considered a Pastel painting; whereas, leaving much of the ground exposed produces a Pastel sketch. Techniques vary with individual artists. The Pastel medium is favored by many artists because it allows a spontaneous approach. There is no drying time, therefore, no change in color occurs after drying as it does in other media.

Did you know that a particle of Pastel pigment seen under a microscope looks like a diamond with many facets? It does! Therefore, Pastel paintings reflect light like a prism. No other medium has the same power of color or stability.

Historically, Pastel can be traced back to the 16th century. Its invention is attributed to the German painter, Johann Thiele. A Venetian woman, Rosalba Camera, was the first to make consistent use of Pastel. Chardin did portraits with an open stroke, while La Tour preferred the blended finish. Thereafter, a galaxy of famous artists—Watteau, Copley, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Glackens, Whistler, Hassam, William Merritt Chase—used Pastel for a finished work rather than for preliminary sketches.

Pastels from the 16th century exist today, as fresh as the day they were painted. Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of Pastel and its champion. His protégé, Mary Cassat, introduced Pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and thus to the United States. In the Spring of 1983, Sotheby Parke Bernet sold at auction, two Degas Pastels for more than $3,000,000 each! Both Pastels were painted about 1880.

Note: Do not confuse Pastel with “colored chalk.” Chalk is a porous, limestone substance impregnated with dyes, whereas, Pastel is pure pigment—the same as is used in other permanent painting media. Today, Pastel paintings have the stature of oil and watercolor as a major fine art medium. Many of our most renowned, living artists have distinguished themselves in Pastel and have enriched the art world with this beautiful medium.

So knowing all this, I often wonder, why don’t more artists use pastel?  Is it because framing is a big expense? 

Works on paper need to be framed and pastel paintings do have some unique problems.  Third after the cost of maintaining a studio in New York City and marketing, frames are my single largest business expense.  Sometimes I am grateful that pastel is a very slow medium.  I typically finish 4 or 5 paintings in a year, which means I only have to pay for 4 or 5 frames.

Comments are welcome!

 

Start/Finish of “The Storyteller,” 20″ x 26″ image, 28 1/2″ x 35″ framed

Charcoal underdrawing

Charcoal underdrawing

Completed

Completed and signed

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am working on a small 20″ x 26″ pastel painting that doesn’t have a title yet.

Comments are welcome!   

Q: One can’t help but make connections between the devastating effects of 9/11 and your series, “Domestic Threats.” Would they be right?

“No Cure for Insomnia,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  Well, not exactly, since I began this work in 1991.  

All of the paintings in this series are set in places where I reside or used to live, either a Virginia house or two New York apartments, i.e., my personal domestic environments. Each painting typically contains a conflict of some sort, at least one figure that is being menaced or threatened by a group of figures.  For example, in “No Cure for Insomnia (above) the threatened figure is me.  So it was an easy decision to name the series “Domestic Threats.”  My idea was that these paintings were psychological dramas: surrealistic, metaphoric depictions of human fears, anxieties, inner conflicts, demons, etc.  

But depending on what is/was going on in the country at a particular moment, people make other associations. Since my husband was killed on 9/11, people think the title, “Domestic Threats,” was prescient and ascribed all kinds of domestic terrorism associations to the work. For a time viewers thought I was hinting at scenes of domestic violence, but that also is not what I intended.  The title “Domestic Threats” has proven to be fraught with associations that I never considered.

However, I am fine with any interpretations that are elicited because it means my paintings are getting a response.  That’s important.  I have been working, studying, and thinking about art for thirty years and hopefully, that’s reflected in the work I create.  It’s natural that it takes time for people to ponder all the complexities in a work of art.

Maybe this comment by the late Gerrit Henry, a New York critic, is more true now than when he wrote it sixteen years ago:  “What we bring to a Rachko, in other words, we get back, bountifully.”

Comments are welcome!

Q: What do you dislike most about being an artist?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I am not the only artist who would say this, certainly, but the low pay is a continual frustration.  

The expenses of doing business continually increase and most other professionals get to pass these on to their clients.  But for artists it’s different:  it’s just tough to pass along costs to collectors.  One of the reasons I spend so much time educating people about the process involved in making my pastel paintings, is to provide some understanding of the serious amounts of time, effort, travel, thought, education, money, etc. that are essential to creating them.  

It always surprises me when non-artists don’t appreciate the unswerving devotion and plain hard work that are required of professional artists.  It makes me wonder what people imagine artists do all day.          

Comments are welcome!

What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am in the very early stages of a large pastel painting.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you consider your finished pastel works to be drawings or paintings?

"The Sovereign," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Sovereign,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″ image, 70″ x 50″ framed

A:  Among artists who work in pastel, these two words, ‘drawings’ and ‘paintings,’ have very specific meanings, somewhat unrelated to the usual distinctions made by art historians and others.  For a pastel artist, a ‘drawing’ refers to a work in which the paper or other substrate is allowed to show through.  In a pastel ‘painting’ you do not see the substrate at all, i.e. pastel is used much more heavily in a painting than in a drawing.  Since I have always spent months creating each piece, covering the entire sandpaper ground with up to 30 layers of pigment, I have considered my work to be pastel painting.

Comments are welcome!

      

Pearls from artists* # 224

"Poker Face," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58" image, 50" x70" framed

“Poker Face,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″ image, 50″ x 70″ framed

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

… wise writers decline to engage in debates over the right way to read their words.  T.S. Eliot was once approached with a question about a cryptic line from his poem “Ash-Wednesday”: “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.”  What did the line mean?  The poet replied:  “I mean, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree .”  Creating a text, Eliot  seems to be saying, like having a child, only means bringing something into the world.  It doesn’t include the power to control it’s destiny.

Adam Kirsch in “Can You Read a Book the Wrong Way?”, The New York Times Book Review, Sept. 27, 2016.    

Comments are welcome!