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Pearls from artists* # 476

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.

For a great many artists solitude is the time when they feel most real and alive. It is when they have their most intense experiences, when they can vicariously live out any adventure, any dream. Tennessee Williams said, “I’m only really alive when I’m writing.” The painter Robert Motherwell wrote, “I feel most real to myself in the studio.” The young, exuberant Russian painter Marie Bashkirtseff exclaimed at the end of the last century:

In the studio all distinctions disappear. One has neither name nor family; one is no longer the daughter of one’s mother, one is oneself and individual, and one has before one art, and nothing else. One feels so happy, so free, so proud!

We may think of his aliveness as the accumulation of al the above-listed benefits, as the artist working out her life, manifesting her creativity, suiting her personality, playing, avoiding unwanted social interactions, working authentically and integrity, living intensely – as the artist being her grandest self.

Eric Maisel in A Life in the Arts: Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

Comments are welcome!

Q: What makes you drawn to face masks?

“Raconteur,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58” x 38,” in progress

A: For me a mask is so much more than a mask.  It is almost a living thing with its own soul and with a unique history.  I always wonder, who created this mask?  For what purpose?  Where has it been?  What stories would it tell if it could?  In my current “Bolivianos” series I feel as though I am creating portraits of living, or perhaps once living, beings.

In a way the masks are a pretext for a return to my early days as an artist.  When I resigned my Naval commission to pursue art full time, I started out as a photo-realist portrait painter.  The twist is that this time I do not have to satisfy a client’s request to make my subjects look younger or more handsome.  I am joyfully free to respond only to the needs of the pastel painting before me on the easel. 

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!

Pearls from artists* # 442

Working on “Raconteur”
Working on “Raconteur”

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

Alexander Pope identified a central function of poetry as taking thoughts we experience as half-formed and giving them clear expression: ‘what was often thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ In other words, a fugitive part of our own experience, is taken up, edited, and returned to us better than it was before, so that we feel, at last, that we know ourselves more clearly.

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy

Comments are welcome!

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

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  This is a question I like to revisit every so often because life as an artist does not get easier; just the opposite, in fact. Visual artists tend to be “one man bands.” We do it all notwithstanding the fact that everything gets more difficult as we get older. It’s good to be reminded about what makes all the sacrifice and hard work worthwhile.

Even after thirty-four years as an artist, there are so many things to enjoy! I make my own schedule, set my own tasks, and follow new interests wherever they may lead. I am curious about everything and am rarely bored. I continually push my pastel technique as I strive to become a better artist. There is still so much to learn!

My relationship with collectors is another perk. I love to see pastel paintings hanging on collectors’ walls, especially when the work is newly installed and the owners are excited to take possession. This means that the piece has found a good home, that years of hard work have come full circle! And it’s often the start of a long friendship. After living with my pastel paintings for years, collectors tell me they see new details never noticed before and they appreciate the work more than ever. It’s extremely gratifying to have built a network of supportive art-loving friends around the country.  I’m sure most artists would say the same!

Comments are welcome!

Q: Besides your art materials is there something you couldn’t live without in your studio?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I would not want to work without music.  Turning on the radio or the cd player is part of my daily ritual before heading over to the easel.  (Next I apply barrier cream to my hands to prevent pastel being absorbed into my skin, put on a surgical mask, etc.).  I generally listen to WFUV, WBGO, or to my cd collection while I’m working.  

Listening and thinking about song lyrics is integral to my art-making process.  How this works exactly may be a topic to explore in a future blog post.

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 are some of your work habits? Do you sit most of the day?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  No, I never sit while working.  I enjoy the physicality of art-making and prefer to stand at my easel so I can back up to see how a painting looks from a distance.  I like being on my feet all day and getting some exercise.

In order to accomplish anything, artists need to be disciplined.  I work five days a week, taking Wednesdays and Sundays off, and spend seven hours or more in the studio.  Daylight is necessary so I work more hours in summer, fewer in winter.  I deliberately don’t have a clock on the wall – art-making is independent of timetables – but I tend to work in roughly two-hour blocks before taking a break. 

Studio hours are sacrosanct and exclusively for creative work.  I keep my computer and mobile devices out of the studio.  Art business activities – answering email, keeping up with social media, sending jpegs, writing blog posts, doing interviews, etc. – are mostly accomplished at home in the evenings and on days off.

Comments are welcome!         

Q: Do you have any favorites among the Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures that you depict in your work?

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

A:  I suppose it seems that way, since I certainly paint some figures more than others.  My favorite characters change, depending on what is happening in my work.  My current favorites are a figure I have never painted before (the Balinese dragon above) and several Mexican and Guatemalan figures last painted years ago.  All will make an appearance in a pastel painting for which I am still developing preliminary ideas (above).

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 168

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.

How strange the human mind is!  When I first began, I think I should have been willing to work at it from the tops of a church steeple, whereas now, even to think of finishing requires a real effort.  And all this, simply because I have been away from it for so long.  It is the same with my picture and with everything else I do.  There is always a thick crust to be broken before I can give my whole heart to anything; a stubborn piece of ground, as it were, that resists the attacks of plough and hoe.  But with a little perseverance the hardness suddenly gives and it becomes so rich in fruit and flowers that I am quite unable to gather them all.

The Journal of Eugene Delacroix edited by Hubert Wellington

Comments are welcome!     

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