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Pearls from artists* # 345

Barbara working on an interview. Photo:  Maria Cox

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

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

You begin your journey as an artist from sacred motives, with dreams and high hopes, and also, perhaps, from a place of painful turmoil or other inner necessity.  From these powerful drives comes your conscious decision to pursue a life in art, your resolve to call yourself an artist whatever the consequences.  You are the one nodding in agreement when the painter John Baldessari says, “Art is about bloody-mindedness.  It’s not about living the good life.  In the end, it’s just you and the art.”

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

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Last week you spoke about what happens before you begin a pastel painting. Would you talk about how you actually make the work?

Beginning a new pastel painting

Beginning a new pastel painting

A:  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I try to be in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week. 

I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have thousands to choose from), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper.   A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel. 

My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?”  I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done before.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?

Barbara in Bali (far right)

Barbara in Bali (far right)

A:  My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive. 

First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice. 

My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work.  As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next.  Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material. 

In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows.  Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.

In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera.  In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.   

Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  Now I go to Duggal.  Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.

Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper.  The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead. 

Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting. 

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 86

"Broken," 38" x 58," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Broken,” 38″ x 58,” soft pastel on sandpaper

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

When I’m working from a photograph, a transparency, or direct observation, I am always amazed at how much more I see as the painting progresses.  After I think I have completely perceived a particular area, something else reveals itself.  As the work continues, the level of awareness deepens.  The process takes it’s own time.  I have come to accept that time and not fight it.  I know that when I begin my work, no matter how hard I try, I’ll never observe as much on the first day as I will on the last.  Like life, the development will not be rushed, nor will there be full realization before completion.

Dr. Leopold Caligor, a prominent New York psychiatrist, says that he listens to tapes of recorded sessions with patients, he hears new things and gains deeper insights.  Each time he listens, more information is uncovered.  This process is repeated until understanding is complete.

Audrey Flack in Art & Soul:  Notes on Creating

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 69

Masks from Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Bali

Masks from Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Bali

*

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

The mission is to stay hungry.  Once you need to know, you can proceed and draw distinctions.  From the heat of this necessity, you reach out to content – the play, the theme, or question – and begin to listen closely, read, taste, and experience it.  You learn to differentiate and interpret the sensations received while engaged with content.  The perception forms the  basis for expression.   

Have you ever been so curious about something that the hunger to find out nearly drives you to distraction?  The hunger is necessity.  As an artist, your entire artistic abilities are shaped by how  necessity has entered your life and then how you sustain it.  It is imperative to maintain artistic curiosity and necessity.  It is our job to maintain in this state of feedforward as long as humanly possible.  Without necessity as the fuel for expression, the content remains theoretical.  The drive to taste, discover, and express what thrills and chills the soul is the point.  Creation must begin with personal necessity rather than conjecture about audience taste or fashion.

Anne Bogart in and then, you act:  making art in an unpredictable world 

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 68

Hudson Rail Yards, NYC

Hudson Rail Yards, NYC

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

Get to know what you really want.  Hold on and treasure your vision.  Acknowledge that your life is a work in progress and that your goals will change and develop over time. Knowing deeply what you want to accomplish shores up doubt, builds fortitude, and pushes you to take more action.  This awareness changes how you hear and use information.  Your senses will be sharpened.  You begin to listen to everything differently; you interpret what you read, what you do, and whom you meet with your goals in mind.  You will ask better questions of those around you and seek more meaningful help.  All of this will produce a subtle yet profound shift in how you proceed and the actions you take.  It will reshape your life and have major consequences for your career.

Jackie Battenfield in The Artist’s Guide:  How to Make a Living Doing What You Love 

Comments are welcome! 

Q: How do you begin a photograph?

Untitled chromogenic print, 24" x 24", edition of 5

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x 24″, edition of 5

A:  It always begins in my mind long before I actually start making it.  By the time I take the photograph, I’ve already thought deeply about the possibilities, the formal arrangements, meanings, etc. so that setting up the objects, lighting them, and clicking the shutter feels like a reward after a long thought process.  My fine art photographs are  finished works in themselves.  However, when I select one to use as reference for a pastel painting, a different but related process of working out my ideas and translating them into pastel occurs over the next several months spent in the studio.  Of course, in that case the photo becomes only the starting point for an entirely new artwork.  

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 61

White Sands, NM

White Sands, NM

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

I can only shudder when I think of life without our handiwork.  The sheer paucity of living only for the sake of survival and empty diversion would be that of an empty vessel.  My own life as an artist helps me to fill that vessel, and on occasion I am able to share that with another.  Is there meaning in my struggle, my endless solitude?  Yes, I believe there is, for at the very least I have found greater meaning for myself in that search.  And as those artists who have come before me have perhaps more clearly expressed, our ability to ponder the questions that denote our humanness are worthy of a life of solitude.  That is where I find my solace and my courage.  In the final analysis, it is the art that I make that allows me to pause and briefly see.  Only now do I begin to understand and accept both the burden and joy of my life.  

Dianne Albin quoted in Eric Maisel’s The Van Gogh Blues

Comments are welcome!

Q: You recently spent several weeks in Sri Lanka. After experiencing so many new sights and sounds, is it difficult to get back to work in your studio?

Cave temple at Natha Devale, Sri Lanka

Cave temple at Natha Devale, Sri Lanka

A:  It definitely requires some readjustment and a period –  maybe a day or two – during which I feel removed from the painting on my easel and need time to become reacquainted with it.  It’s a time to refocus, stay put, and reflect.  For weeks I’ve led an action-packed life, exploring a fascinating country on the other side of the world.  Over time, all of the experiences I’ve had will stay with me, or not, and in some ways begin to influence my work. 

It’s funny.  I often think of my studio as a cave.  It’s a rather dark place and sometimes I have to force myself to go.  In Sri Lanka I saw many ancient Buddhist cave temples, wild and vibrant, with colorful paintings on the walls and ceilings, chock full of statues of Buddha and other deities.  My travels have given me a new appreciation of the riches to be found in caves of all sorts, including (especially) my own studio!    

Comments are welcome!         

Q: Would you speak about the practical realities – time and expenses – involved in making your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings? What might people be surprised to learn about this aspect of art-making?

Studio

Studio

A:  I have often said that this work is labor-intensive.  In a good year I can complete five or six large (38″ x 58″) pastel paintings.  In 2013 I am on track to make four, or, on average, one completed painting every three months.  I try to spend between thirty-five and forty hours a week in the studio.  Of course, I don’t work continuously all day long.  I work for awhile, step back, look, make changes and additions, think, make more changes, step back, etc.  Still, hundreds of hours go into making each piece in the “Black Paintings” series, if we count only the actual execution.  There is also much thinking and preparation – there is no way to measure this – that happen before I ever get to stand before an empty piece of sandpaper and begin.

As far as current expenses, they are upwards of $12,000 per painting.  Here is a partial breakdown:

$4500    New York studio, rent and utilities ($1350/month) for three months                                         

$2500    Supplies, including frames (between $1500 – $1700), photographs, pastels (pro-rated), paper                  

$2000    Foreign travel to find the cultural objects, masks, etc. depicted in my work (approximate, pro-rated)                                                   

$3000    Business expenses, such as computer-related expenses, website, marketing, advertising, etc.                                                                      

This list leaves out many items, most notably compensation for my time, shipping and exhibition expenses, costs of training (i.e. ongoing photography classes), photography equipment, etc.  Given my overhead, the paintings are always priced at the bare minimum that will allow me to continue making art. 

I wonder:  ARE people surprised by these numbers?  Anyone who has ever tried it knows that art is a tough road.  Long ago I stopped thinking about the cost and began doing whatever is necessary to make the best paintings.  The quality of the work and my evolution as an artist are paramount now.  This is my life’s work, after all.  

Comments are welcome!

    

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