Category Archives: Working methods

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.

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Q: What would you say is your underlying motivation as a contemporary artist?

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

A:  What motivates me is the desire to make great art, to develop my innate talents to their fullest, to share the hard-won knowledge I have gained along the way, and to bring as much beauty into this life as possible.  It’s never been easy, but I’m trying to spend my short time on this earth as an artist, doing the work I was always meant to do!

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!

Q: Would you talk about a few of the technical properties that made pastel your medium of choice?

Barbara'a pastels

Barbara’a pastels

A:  Pastel is a time-tested medium that has been in use for five hundred years.  I fell in love with it nearly thirty years ago and it has been my primary medium ever since.

Pastel is known to be the most permanent of all media. It has no liquid binder that might cause oxidizing with the passage of time as often happens with other painting media.  Pastel colors are intense because they are the closest artists get to working with pure pigment.  Artists throughout history have generally favored pastel because it allows a spontaneous approach with no drying time and no change of color.

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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!

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.

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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! 

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

Beginning

Beginning

Completed

Completed

Comments are welcome!

Q: How has your use of photography changed over the years?

Untitled, 24" x 24" c-print

Untitled, 24″ x 24″ c-print

A:  When my husband, Bryan, was alive I barely picked up a camera, except to photograph sights encountered during our travels.

Throughout the 1990s and ending in 2007, I worked on my series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings called, “Domestic Threats.”  These were realistic depictions of elaborate scenes that I staged first in our 1932 Sears house in Alexandria, Virginia, next in a New York sixth floor walk-up apartment, and finally in my current New York apartment.

I use Mexican masks, carved wooden animals, and other folk art figures that I discovered on trips to Mexico. I staged and lit these setups, while Bryan photographed them using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera.  We had been collaborating this way almost from the beginning (circa 1991).  Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer.

Bryan would shoot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I would select one, generally the one that showed the most detail in the shadows, to make into a 20 x 24 photograph. The photograph would be my starting point for making the pastel painting. Although I work from life, too, I could not make a painting without mostly looking at a reference photo. 

After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I had no choice but to study photography.  I completed a series of photography classes at the International Center of Photography in New York, turned myself into a skilled photographer, and presented my first solo photography exhibition at HP Garcia in New York in 2009.

Comments are welcome!