Blog Archives

Pearls from artists* # 337

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.

I think society did a great disservice to artists when we started saying they were geniuses, instead of saying they had geniuses.  That happened around the Renaissance, with the rise of a more rational and human-centered view of life.  The gods and the mysteries fell away, and suddenly we put all credit and blame for creativity on the artists themselves – making the all-too-fragile humans completely responsible for the vagaries of inspiration.

In the process, we also venerated art and artists beyond their appropriate stations.  The distinction of “being a genius” (and the rewards and status often associated with it) elevated creators into something like a priestly cast – and perhaps even into minor deities – which I think is a bit too much pressure for mere mortals, no matter how talented.  That’s when artists start to really crack, driven mad and broken in half by the weight and weirdness of their gifts.       

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you decide how much realism and how much imagination to put into a pastel painting?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  I wouldn’t say “decide” is the right word because creating a painting is not strictly the result of conscious decisions.  I think of my reference photograph, my preliminary sketch, and the actual folk art objects I depict as starting points.  Over the months that it takes to make a pastel painting, the resulting interpretive development pushes the painting far beyond this source material.  When all goes well, the original material disappears and characters that belong to the painting and nowhere else emerge.  

It is a mysterious process that I am still struggling to understand.  This is the best way I can describe what it feels like from the inside, as the maker.  

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 154

Idea for a painting

Idea for a painting

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

Often the public forms an idea of inspiration that is quite false, almost a religious notion.  Alas!  I do not believe that inspiration falls from heaven.  I think it rather the result of a profound indolence and of our incapacity to put to work certain forces in ourselves.  These unknown forces work deep within us, with the aid of the elements of daily life, its scenes and passions, and, they burden us and oblige us to conquer the kind of somnolence in which we indulge ourselves like invalids who try to prolong dream and dread resuming contact with reality, in short when the work that makes itself in us and in spite of us demands to be born, we can believe that this work comes to us from beyond and is offered by the gods.  The artist is more slumberous in order that he shall  not work.  By a thousand ruses, he prevents his nocturnal work from seeing the light of day.

For it is at the moment that consciousness must take a precedence and that it becomes necessary to find the means which permit the unformed work to take form, to render it visible to all.  To write, to conquer ink and paper, accumulate letters and paragraphs, divide them with periods and commas, is a different matter than carrying the dream of a play or of a book.

Jean Cocteau: The Process of Inspiration in The Creative Process, edited by Brewster Ghiselin

Comments are welcome!  

Q: All artists go through periods when they wonder what it’s all for. What do you do during times like that?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often.  I love and enjoy all the varied facets involved in being an artist, even (usually) the business aspects, which are just another puzzle to be solved.  I have vivid memories of being stuck in a job that I hated, one I couldn’t immediately leave because I was an officer in the US Navy.  Life is so much better as a visual artist!

I appreciate the freedom that comes with being a self-employed artist.  The words of Louise Bourgeois often come to mind:  “It is a PRIVILEGE to be an artist.” 

Still, with very valid reasons, no one ever said that an artist’s life is easy.  It is difficult at every phase.  

Books offer sustenance, especially ones written by artists who have endured all sorts of terrible hardships beyond anything artists today are likely to experience.  I just pick up a favorite book.  My Wednesday blog posts, “Pearls from artists,” give some idea of the sorts of inspiration I find.  I read the wise words of a fellow artist, then I get back to work.  As I quickly become intrigued with the problems at hand in a painting, all doubt usually dissolves. 

I  try to remember:  Artists are extremely fortunate to be doing what we love and what we are meant to do with our short time on earth.  What more could a person ask?  

Comments are welcome!      

Pearls from artists* # 94

Working on "False Friends"  Photo: Diana Feit

Working on “False Friends” Photo: Diana Feit

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

A work of art which inspires us comes from no quibbling or uncertain man.  It is the manifest of a very positive nature in great enjoyment, and at the very moment the work was done.

It is not enough to have thought great things before doing the work.  The brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact state of being of the artist at that exact moment into the work, and there it is, to be seen and read by those who can read such signs, and to be read later by the artist himself, with perhaps some surprise, as a revelation of himself.

For an artist to be interesting to us he must be interesting to himself.  He must have been capable of intense feeling, and capable of profound contemplation.

He who has contemplated has met with himself, is in a state to see into the realities beyond the surfaces of his subject.  Nature reveals to him, and, seeing and feeling intensely, he paints, and whether he wills it or not each brush stroke is an exact record of such as he was at the exact moment the stroke was made.

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you discuss your process, including how you actually use Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures in your art?

A corner of Barbara's studio

A corner of Barbara’s studio

A:  When I set up the figures to photograph for a painting, I work very intuitively, so how I actually cast them in an artwork is difficult to say. Looks count a lot – I select an object and put it in a particular place, look at it, move it or let it stay, and sometimes develop a storyline. I spend time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. With my first “Domestic Threats” series, all of this was done so that Bryan, my late husband, or I could shoot a couple of negatives with his Toyo Omega 4″ x 5″ view camera.  For  my “Black Paintings” series, begun in 2007, I shoot medium format negatives with a Mamiya 6 camera.

I always look at a 20″ x 24″ photograph for reference as I make a pastel-on-sandpaper painting, plus I also work from the ‘live’ objects.  The photograph is mainly a catalyst because finished paintings are always quite different from their associated reference photos.  Also, since I spend months creating them, the paintings’ interpretative development goes way beyond that of the photo.   

I once completed 6 large (58” x 38”) pastel paintings in a single year, but more recently 4 or 5 per year is common.  It takes approximately 3 months to make each one.  During that time I layer and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pastel. Of course, the colors get more intense as the painting progresses and the pigment accumulates on the sandpaper.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you define success as an artist?

Self-portrait at an architect's estate in Sri Lanka

Self-portrait at an architect’s estate in Sri Lanka

A:  This is another question that has many answers depending more or less on how things are progressing in the studio.  I’d say that you are a successful artist if you are able to keep working and evolving, and are mostly living by your own rules, using your time as you see fit to become a better artist.  This means navigating through all the ups and downs, the obstacles – and we know there are many – to art-making and finding joy and on-going discovery in your own particular creative process.  The work is everything, as we always say, but hopefully, you have found an appreciative audience and do sell a piece of art now and then.  

I know that I am more fortunate than many.  Over time I’ve realized that money, i.e., sales, is one of the less important aspects of being an artist.  The richness that being a professional artist brings to my life goes far beyond anything that can be acquired with cash!  

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 49

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

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

* 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 beauty of art is better, “higher,” according to Hegel, than the beauty of nature because it is made by human beings and is the work of the spirit.  But the discerning of beauty in nature is also the result of traditions of consciousness, and of culture – in Hegel’s language, of spirit.

The responses to beauty in art and to beauty in nature are interdependent.  As Wilde pointed out, art does more than school us on how and what to appreciate in nature.  (He was thinking of poetry and painting.  Today the standards of beauty in nature are largely set by photography.)  What is beautiful reminds us of nature as such – of what lies beyond the human and the made – and thereby stimulates and deepens our sense of the sheer spread and fullness of reality, inanimate as well as pulsing, that surrounds us all.

A happy by-product of this insight, if insight it is:  beauty regains its solidity, its inevitability, as a judgment needed to make sense of a large portion of one’s energies, affinities, and admirations; and the usurping notions appear ludicrous.

Imagine saying, “That sunset is interesting.”    

Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump, editors, Susan Sontag At the Same Time:  Essays and Speeches  

Comments are welcome!