Category Archives: Pastel Painting

Q: Would you describe how you are taking soft pastel in new directions as a fine art medium?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  I have been devoted to soft pastel for more than thirty years.  In this blog and in countless interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close.

I have developed my own original methods for working with soft pastel, pushing this venerable 500-year-old medium to its limits and using it in ways that no one has done before.  I have created a unique science of color in which I layer and blend pigments.  When viewers (including fellow artists) see my work in person for the first time, they often ask, “What medium is this?”  

My self-invented techniques for using soft pastel achieve rich velvety textures and exceptionally vibrant color.  Blending with my fingers, I painstakingly apply dozens of layers of pastel onto acid-free sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I blend new colors directly on the paper.  Each pastel painting takes about three months and hundreds of hours to complete. 

My subject matter is singular.  I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys.  On trips to these places and elsewhere I frequent local mask shops, markets, and bazaars searching for the figures that will populate my pastel paintings.  How, why, when, and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the creative process.  Each pastel painting is a highly personal blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

Comments are welcome!  

Start/Finish of “Stalemate,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

Start

Start

Finished and signed, lower right

Finished and signed, lower right

Comments are welcome!

 

 

 

Q: Please speak a little about the history of pastel.

Some of Barbara's soft pastels

Some of Barbara’s soft pastels

A:  Pastel has been in use for five hundred years.  Its invention is attributed to the German painter, Johann Thiele, in the 16th century, followed by Venetian artist, Rosalba Carriera, who was the first to use it consistently.  Edgar Degas, the most prolific user of pastel and its great champion, was followed by many artists who used varying techniques.

Degas’ subject matter included ballet dancers, laundresses, milliners, and denizens of the Parisian demimonde.  The pure hues of pastel, plus its direct application, made it his preferred medium.  Rosalba Carriera, a much-admired portrait artist, revolutionized the world of pastel by developing a wider range of colors, expanding pastel’s availability and usefulness.  Mary Cassatt’s pastel portraits of children and family life provided her with a steady income while living in Paris.  American painter William Merritt Chase used pastel to explore plein air painting.  Pastel’s portability and rich colors made it ideal for outdoor landscapes and for capturing light.

Comments are welcome!

Q: On an average day in the studio, how much of your time is spent in the physical act of making art?

Working

Working

A:  My typical studio day is from 10:00 to 5:00.  When I arrive, I often read for half an hour.  Reading helps me relax and focus and get into the mindset I need to do my work.   While I read, I look at the painting on my easel, assess it’s current state, and decide where to begin working.

Then I work until lunch time, generally around 1:00.  After lunch I work for another five hours or so, taking a break whenever I want.

This has been more or less my schedule for five days a week for years.  At an earlier point as I was developing my craft, I would work 9- or 10-hour days and six days a week.

My creative process is relatively slow.  In a typical year I create five  new pastel paintings.  This year I am right on schedule.  I have completed four and am working on a fifth.

Comments are welcome!    

Start/finish of “The Orator,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

Start

Start

Finish

Finish

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

“The Orator,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38” x 58”

“The Orator,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38” x 58”

A:  Having finally finished “The Orator” (bottom), I continue working on a small pastel painting that does not have a title yet (top).  The latter is the third piece in my “Bolivianos” series.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: When you are in your studio working on a pastel painting and pause to consider what you have done, do you ask yourself, “Is it good?”

"The Champ," soft pastel on sandpaper, 26" x 20" image, 35" x 28 1/2" framed

“The Champ,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″ image, 35″ x 28 1/2″ framed

A:  Certainly, I do.  In addition, I ask myself some other important questions:  

Is it the best I can do?

Is it exciting?

Is it surprising?

Is it idiosyncratic and unique to me?

Is there anything I can do to improve it?

Does it meet (or hopefully exceed) the exacting technical and formal standards I have set for my work?  

Will I be proud to finally see my signature on it?

Comments are welcome!

Start/Finish of “The Champ,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″

Start

Start

Finish

Finish

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I’m working on the third pastel painting in my new “Bolivianos” series.  This one is only a few days old and has no title yet.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Is your work fast or is it slow?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I work extremely slowly.  I’m a full-time artist and I spend three or four months on each pastel painting, sometimes longer if it’s an especially difficult piece.  

I generally have two pastel paintings in progress and switch off when one is causing problems.  The paintings tend to interact and influence each other.  Having two in progress helps me resolve difficult areas quicker, plus when one is finished, I still have something to work on.  So there’s rarely any dead time in my studio.

Comments are welcome!