Blog Archives

Pearls from artists* # 272

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

One important distinction that can be made between physicists and novelists, and between the scientific and artistic communities in general, is what I shall call “naming.”  Roughly speaking, the scientist tries to name things and the artist tries to avoid naming things.

To name a thing, one needs to have gathered it, distilled and purified it, attempted to identify it with clarity and precision.  One puts a box around the thing and says what’s in the box is the thing and what’s not is not…

… The objects and concepts of the novelist cannot be named.  The novelist might use the words love and fear, but these names do not summarize or convey much to the reader.  For one thing, there are a thousand different kinds of love…

… Every electron is identical, but every love is different.

The novelist doesn’t want to eliminate these differences, doesn’t want to clarify and distill the meaning of love so that there is only a single meaning… because no such distillation exists.  And any attempt at such a distillation would undermine the authenticity of readers’ reactions, destroying the delicate, participatory creative experience of a good reader reading a good book.  In  sense, a novel is not complete until it is read.  And each reader completes the novel in a different way.     

Alan Lightman in A Sense of the Mysterious:  Science and the Human Spirit

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 269

"White Star," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“White Star,” 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 an artistic sense, cool came to refer to someone with a signature artistic style so integral as to exude an authentic mode-of-being in the world:  Miles, Bogart, Brando, Eastwood, Greco, Elvis, Lady Day, Sinatra.  Such a person created something from nothing and gave the world some new artistic or psychological “equipment for living,” to use a phrase of Kenneth Burke’s.  A signature style is yours and can only be carried by you:  it cannot be abstracted except through dilution and commodification since it reflects an individual’s complex personal experience.

Joel Dinerstein in The Origins of Cool in Postwar America    

Comments are welcome

Q: What qualities do you think mark the highest artistic achievement?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  If I may speak in the most general terms, several qualities come to mind that, for me, mark real artistic achievement: 

  • firm artistic control that allows the artist to create works that simultaneously demonstrate formal coherence while responding to inner necessity
  • the creation of new forms and techniques that are adapted to expressing the artist’s highly personal vision
  • an authentic and balanced fusion of form, method, and idea
  • using material from one’s own idiosyncratic experiences and subtly transforming it in a personal inimitable way during the creative process
  • the meaning of the thing created is rigorously subordinated to its design, which once established, generates its own internal principles of harmony and coherence  

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Can you speak about a book (or books) that deeply influenced you as an artist?

Barbara's well-worn copy of "Camille Pissarro:  Letters to His Son Lucien"

Barbara’s well-worn copy of “Camille Pissarro: Letters to His Son Lucien”

A:  One such book that stands out is “Camille Pissaro:  Letters to His Son Lucien.”  The book is comprised of weekly letters from a father conveying wisdom about his craft, art, and life, over roughly twenty years, to a beloved son, who is just beginning his artistic journey.  I discovered this gem about thirty years ago when I was just starting to find my way as an artist, too.  Pissarro’s words are beautiful, poignant, and deeply felt.   He has much to say to artists because, sadly, we still contend with the same problems, such as how to remain authentic and earn a living, how to deal with galleries and collectors, how to stay focused on the work, etc.  I often enjoy rereading favorite passages simply because it makes me feel less alone as an artist.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What is the one painting that you never want to sell?

"No Cure for Insomnia," pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

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

A:  There are two:  “Myth Meets Dream” and “No Cure for Insomnia.”  Both are part of my “Domestic Threats” series and were breakthroughs at the time I made them.  They are relatively early works – the first from 1993, the latter from 1999 – and were important in my artistic development. 

“Myth Meets Dream” is the earliest pastel painting in which I depict Mexican figures.  It includes two brightly painted, carved wooden animals from Oaxaca sent to me in 1992 by my sister-in-law.  I have spoken about them before.  These figures were the beginning of my ongoing fascination with Mexico. 

“No Cure for Insomnia” includes a rare self-portrait and is set in my late aunt’s sixth-floor walkup on West 13th Street, where I lived when I moved to New York in 1997.  My four years there were very productive.  

Comments are welcome!  

Q: What one piece of artistic “equipment” could you not live without?

Untouched sandpaper

Untouched sandpaper

A:  Undoubtedly, I could not make my work without UART sandpaper.  Over the many months I spend creating a painting, I build layer upon layer of soft pastel.  Because this paper is so “toothy,” it accepts all of the pastel the painting needs.  

As many people know, I own and use a lot of soft pastel!  My entire technique evolved around this sandpaper, which allows me to add and blend as many as thirty layers.

Comments are welcome!           

Pearls from artists* # 161

Whitney Museum

Whitney Museum

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

It is the artist’s innate sensitivity that makes him special and different from other professionals.  Society expects the artist to be more compassionate and understanding in order to bring out that which will enlighten, inspire and encourage life in his work.  His vocation should not just be for art’s sake.

Where the average person sees an old beat-up shark, the artist sees a symbol of beauty in aging and imagines bringing out those qualities that the shark has sheltered over the ages, by means of artistic creation.  To the intelligent and sensitive artist, the homeless man lying on the street corner is a symbol that reminds us of what we, as a society, should be doing to better our living. 

Sensitivity comes into play when leaves that appear to the general viewer to be uniformly green are seen by the sensitive artist to be different shades, tones, and subtle nuances of green.  Without sensitivity, special and important characteristics of nature will be out of our sight and out of reach to the viewing layman.  Only the obvious, the average and the common will reveal themselves to the insensitive artist.  The endurance of certain works will depend on what the artist has captured with the help of his sensitivity and because of the ideas behind the work.

Samuel Adoquei in Origin of Inspiration:  Seven Short Essays for Creative People

Comments are welcome!        

Q: Would you talk about your use of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art as a convenient way to study formal properties such as color, shape, pattern, composition, etc. in your pastel paintings?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  For me an interesting visual property of these objects is that they readily present themselves as a vehicle for exploring formal artistic properties, like color, pattern, shape, etc. especially compared to my earlier subject matter:  hyper-realistic portraits and still-lifes.  Intent as I was on creating verisimilitude in the earlier work, there was little room for experimentation.  

Many Mexican and Guatemalan folk art objects are wildly painted and being a lover of color, their brilliant colors and patterns are  what initially attracted me.  As a painter I am free to use their actual appearance as my starting point.  I photograph them out-of-focus and through colored gels in order to change their appearance and make them strange, enacting my own particular version of “rendering the familiar strange.”  Admittedly these objects are not so familiar to begin with. 

When I make a pastel painting I look at my reference photograph and I also look at the objects, positioning them within eye-shot of my easel.  There is no need whatsoever to be faithful to their actual appearance so my imagination takes over.  As I experiment with thousands of soft pastels, with shape, with pattern, with composition, and all the rest, I have one goal in mind – to create the best pastel-on-sandpaper painting I am capable of making. 

Comments are welcome!         

Q: Do you have a daily artistic practice?

Studio entrance

Studio entrance

A:  In one way or another I suppose I do.  Of course, I don’t go to the studio six days a week like I used to, but I generally work five days, about seven to eight hours per day.  When I am not actually in the studio working at my easel, I try to make use of my time in ways that, hopefully, will make me a better artist.  I am usually reading, studying, looking at art, talking to friends who are artists, thinking about my creative practice, etc.  Art and everything related to it are naturally the focus of my life.

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 116

Preliminary sketch

Preliminary sketch

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

What is the point of all the discipline, hard work, and training?  What does the training and preparation have to do with rehearsing a play and with performance?  The training and the discipline and the sweating and the study and the memorizing are not the end point, but rather the entry.  The preparation is what gives one the permission to take up space and make wild, surprising, and untamed choices.  In the quest for artistic freedom and agency it is impossible to walk into a rehearsal room uninhibited, unburdened.  We are generally chained down by habits and assumptions and by fear of the new.  Permission is what we earn by the sweat, training, preparatory work and dedication.

Anne Bogart in What’s the Story:  Essays in art, theater, and storytelling

Comments are welcome!