Category Archives: Working methods

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Preliminary charcoal drawing
“Schemer,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 26” x 20,” packed up for transport to the framer
“Schemer,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 26” x 20,” Unframed

A: Here is a preliminary charcoal drawing in preparation for my next ”Bolivianos” pastel painting. With the most recent works I have been experimenting with scale. This will be a 58” x 38” version of ”Schemer,” 2019, 26” x 20.”

Comments are welcome!

Start/Finish of ”Impresario,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58” x 38” image, 70” x 50” framed

Start
Finish

Note: the second photo was taken hundreds of hours and nearly five months later!

Comments are welcome!

Q: You wear gloves and a mask when you are working in your studio, right? Can you tell me what kinds? (Question from Britta Konau)

Barbara at work

A: I wear a paper surgical mask – the type that has become ubiquitous since COVID – bought from a local medical supply store. I thoroughly coat my hands with barrier cream – Art Guard – to prevent pastel getting into my skin. The cream has an added benefit of making it easy to wash pastel off my hands. (Neither gloves nor individual finger cots ever worked for me. They made my fingers sweat and did not allow for the fine touch needed to blend new colors directly on sandpaper. Plus, they shredded from being rubbed against the paper’s grit). Also, it is very important that you work with your hand below your face so pastel dust falls below your nose, where you are less likely to breathe it in.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 494

Shamans, Tiwanaku, Bolivia

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

Emile Cartailhac was a man who could admit when he was wrong. This was fortunate, because in 1902 the French prehistorian found himself writing an article for L’Anthropolgie in which he did just that. In “Mea culpa d’un sceptique” he recanted the views he had spent the previous 20 years forcefully and scornfully maintaining: that prehistoric man was incapable of fine artistic expression and that the cave paintings found in Altmira, northern Spain, were forgeries.

The Paleothithic paintings at Altamira, which were produced around 14,000 B.C., were the first examples of prehistoric cave art to be officially discovered. It happened by chance in 1879, when a local landowner and amateur archaeologist was busily brushing away at the floor of the caves, searching for prehistoric tools. His nine-year-old daughter, Maria Sanz de Sautuola – a grave little thing with cropped hair and lace-up booties – was exploring farther on when she suddenly looked up, exclaiming, “Look, Papa, bison!” She was quite right: a veritable herd, subtly colored with black charcoal and ocher, ranged over the ceiling. When her father published the finding in 1880, he was met with ridicule. The experts scoffed at the very idea that prehistoric man – savages really – could have produced sophisticated polychrome paintings. The esteemed Monsieur Cartailhac and the majority of his fellow experts, without troubling to go and see the cave for themselves, dismissed the whole thing as a fraud. Maria’s father died, a broken and dishonored man, in 1888, four years before Cartailhac admitted his error.

After the discovery of many more caves and hundreds of lions, handprints, horses, women, hyenas, and bison, the artistic abilities of prehistoric man are no longer in doubt. It is thought that these caves were painted by shamans trying to charm a steady supply of food for their tribes. Many were painted using the pigment most readily available in the caves at the time: the charred stick remnants of their fires. At its simplest, charcoal is the carbon-rich by-product of organic matter – usually wood – and fire. It is purest and least ashy when oxygen has been restricted during it’s heating.

In The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

A: I’m working on a 58” x 38” pastel painting that is number 20 in the ”Bolivianos” series. It does not yet have a title. The mask depicted is a Supay. From Wikipedia:

In the Quechua, Aymara, and Inca mythologies, Supay was both the god of death and ruler of the Ukha, Pacha, and the Incan underworld, as well as a race of demons. Supay is associated with miners’ rituals.

With the Spanish colonization of the Americas, Christian priests used the name “Supay” to refer to the Christian Devil. However, unlike Europeans in relation to the Christian Devil, the indigenous people did not repudiate Supay but, being scared of him, they invoked him and begged him not to harm them.

Supay acquired a syncretic symbolism, becoming a main character of the diabladas of Bolivia (seen in the Carnival of Oruro), Peru and other Andean countries. The name Supay is now roughly translated into diablo (Spanish for devil) in most Southern American countries. In some of them, for example the northern region of Argentina, the underworld where Supay rules, is called “Salamanca”.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 484

Behind the scenes of our documentary. Photo: David De Hannay

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

[Walter] Murch: We hope we become better editors with experience! Yet you have to have an intuition about the craft to begin with: for me, it begins with, Where is the audience looking? What are they thinking? As much as possible, you try to be the audience. At the point of transition from one shot to another, you have to be pretty sure where the audience’s eye is looking, where the focus of attention is. That will either make the cut work or not.

[Michael] Ondaatje: So before you make the cut, if you feel the audience is looking towards point X, then you cut to another angle where the focus of attention is somewhere around that point X.

The Conversation: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

This passage in Ondaatje’s book resonates because I work similarly to refine and construct each pastel painting. My goal is to move the viewer’s eye around in an engaging and interesting way. This part of my process is subtle so I suspect that most of my audience neither appreciates nor even suspects that I have done it.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

A: “Impresario,” 58” x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper is close to being finished… at last!

Comments are welcome!

Q: When did you start using the sandpaper technique and why (Question from “Arte Realizzata”)

The start of a new pastel-on-sandpaper painting

A: In the late 1980s when I was studying at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, I enrolled in  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 and was experimenting with paper.  Handel suggested I try Ersta fine sandpaper.  I did and nearly three decades later, I’ve never used anything else. 

This paper is acid-free and accepts dry media, mainly pastel and charcoal.   It allows me to build up layer upon layer of pigment and blend, without having to use a fixative.  The tooth of the paper almost never gets filled up so it continues to hold pastel.  (On the rare occasion when 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, making countless corrections and adjustments, rendering minute details, looking for the best and/or most vivid colors – 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 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 would lay 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!

Q: Why do you make a preliminary drawing before you begin a pastel painting?

Preliminary charcoal drawing for “Enigma,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26” x 20”

A: I make a preliminary charcoal drawing because that’s how I like to begin thinking about and planning a new pastel painting. I always make preliminary drawings the same size as the upcoming pastel painting. While I draw, I make decisions about the overall composition, decide where the major light and dark shapes will be, and envision the likely problem areas that lie ahead. These drawings are done quickly. I spend perhaps an hour on them.

Once the drawing is in my head I no longer need it. So I put it away and when it’s time to begin a subsequent pastel painting, I erase it. I wipe it out with a paper towel and make the next preliminary charcoal drawing directly on top. These are ephemeral tools, existing only for as long as I need them.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

A: I’m continuing to work on a large (58” x 38”) pastel painting. I haven’t decided on an exact title yet, but it will be either “Impresario” or “Lost Cause.” The latter is the name of a new Billie Eilish song.

Comments are welcome!

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