Blog Archives

Q: As an artist what would you say is your particular ‘superpower’?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I have been told that it is my unique way of composing images or, in other words, how I deliberately move the viewer’s eye around the picture.  More exactly, it’s the way I combine flat shapes, patterns, angles, forms, modeling, decoration, details, lights, and darks in surprising ways when I make pastel paintings or pick up a camera.   

But I think there’s a secondary, more subtle element:  my understanding of and sensitivity to using color for psychological effect.  The way I use color in pastel paintings is intuitive.  This is something I haven’t reflected on very much yet, but will examine in a future post.

Comments are welcome!    

 

Q: Do you use a sketchbook?

Hudson Yards, NYC

Hudson Yards, NYC

A:  I used to use a sketchbook early on, when I was just beginning to find my way as an artist.   Sketching on location helped to crystalize my ideas about art, about technique, and about what I hoped to accomplish in the near term.  These days I spend so many hours in the studio – it’s my day job – that I often need a mental and physical break from using my eyes and from looking at and composing images. 

What I do instead is to walk around New York (and elsewhere) with a camera.  Photography for me sometimes serves as an alternative to sketching.  It’s a way to continue to think about art, to experiment, and to contemplate what makes an arresting image without actually having to be working in the studio. 

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!    

Q: How did you happen to have a photograph published in The Wall Street Journal?

Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt

Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt

   A.  That is a long story.  To get far away from New York for the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, my friend, Donna Tang, and I planned a two-week road trip to see land art sites in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. (Donna did excellent research).                                                      

We hoped for a private tour of Roden Crater with James Turrell, which is not easy to arrange.  I had also invited my friend Ann Landi, an art critic and arts writer, to join us, hoping she might get an interview with Turrell and write an article for Artnews.  Turrell has been working on Roden Crater for 30+ years so Ann was interested in seeing it too!  Ann contacted Turrell’s gallery – Gagosian – but they later relayed Turrell’s refusal.  

We were planning to see other land art sites.  As an alternative to Roden Crater and Turrell, Ann pitched a story to The Wall Street Journal about Sun Tunnels and Nancy Holt (Robert Smithson’s wife, who as the only woman in the land art movement, has never been given her due).   The Journal said yes, so Ann made plans to join Donna and me in Salt Lake City.  

The three of us visited Sun Tunnels, Spiral Getty, and other sites together.  Ann had a brand new point-and-shoot camera that she hadn’t yet learned how to use.  I always take lots of photos whenever I travel.  After we returned home, I sent Ann a few images and she asked permission to submit them with her article.  I was thrilled when The Wall Street Journal requested JPEGs.  It was the first time I’ve had a photograph published in a major newspaper.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 102

New York, NY

New York, NY

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

That a photograph is unlikely to be a laboratory record is evident when we think about how it is made.  Most photographers are people of immense enthusiasms whose work involves many choices – to brake the car, grab the yellow instead of the green filter, wait out the cloud, and at the second everything looks inexplicably right, to release the shutter.  Behind these decisions stands the photographer’s individual framework of recollections and meditations about the way he perceived that place or places like it before.  Without such a background there would be no knowing whether the scene on the ground glass was characteristic of the geography and of his experience of it and intuition of it – in short, whether it was true.

Making photographs has to be, then, a personal matter; when it is not, the results are not persuasive.  Only the artist’s presence in the work can convince us that its affirmation resulted from and has been tested by human experience.  Without the photographer in the photograph the view is no more compelling than the product of some annoying record camera, a machine perhaps capable of happy accident but not response to form.

Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams

Comments are welcome!

Q: How long does it take you to complete a pastel-on-sandpaper painting?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Mine is a slow and labor-intensive process.  First, there is foreign travel to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  If they are heavy I ship them home.  

Next comes planning exactly how to photograph them, lighting and setting everything up, and shooting a roll of 220 film with my Mamiya 6 camera.  I still like to use an analog camera for my fine art work, although I am rethinking this.  I have the film developed, decide which image to use, and order a 20” x 24” reference photograph from Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street.  

Then I am ready to start.  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I am in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week.  During that time I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have 8 tables-worth 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.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 96

 

Diane Arbus Revelations

Diane Arbus Revelations

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

My final day at the magic shop [in Disneyland, where he worked as a teenager], I stood behind the counter where I had pitched Svengali decks and the Incredible Shrinking Die, and I felt an emotional contradiction: nostalgia for the present. Somehow, even though I had stopped working only minutes earlier, my future fondness for the store was clear, and I experienced a sadness like that of looking at a photo of an old, favorite pooch. It was dusk by the time I left the shop, and I was redirected by a security guard who explained that a photographer was taking a picture and would I please use the side exit.

I did, and saw a small, thin woman with hacked brown hair aim her large-format camera directly at the dramatically lit castle, where white swans floated in the moat underneath the functioning drawbridge. Almost forty years later, when I was in my early fifties, I purchased that photo as a collectible, and it still hangs in my house. The photographer, it turned out, was Diane Arbus. I try to square the photo’s breathtaking romantic image with the rest of her extreme subject matter, and I assume she saw this facsimile of a castle as though it were a kitsch roadside statue of Paul Bunyan. Or perhaps she saw it as I did: beautiful.

Quoted by A.D. Coleman in Photocritical, May 28, 2014, from Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

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!

Pearls from artists* # 70

New York, NY

New York, NY

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

Ultimately, whether you like a photograph or not, it has a history behind it.  When people look at a photograph, they want to believe in its authenticity, that they’re looking at something special that can’t be repeated.  The artist’s eye, the photographer’s eye, has created a moment of truth by pushing the button on the camera.  The issue is not that the moment is separate from the rest of the photograph; it is the element that links what’s happening to the  rest of the image, and the photographer creates a higher meaning, a higher sensibility, in that instant.  That’s difficult to achieve for most people who are involved in photography as artists.  It’s an essential part of basic photography that’s learned on the street and in traditional ways that people used to do photography.

Roger Ballen in Lines, Marks, and Drawings:  Through the Lens of Roger Ballen

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 34

On the High Line

On the High Line

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

To collect photographs is to collect the world.  Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store.

In Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963), two sluggish lumpen-peasants are lured into joining the king’s army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do whatever else they please to the enemy, and get rich.  But the suitcase of booty that Michel-Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of monuments, department stores, mammals, wonders of nature, methods of transport, works of art, and other classified treasures from around the globe.

Godard’s gag vividly parodies the equivocal magic of the photographic image.  Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern.

Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

Susan Sontag in On Photography

Comments are welcome!