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Q: What’s on the easel today?

Preliminary charcoal drawing
“Schemer,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 26” x 20,” packed up for transport to the framer
“Schemer,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 26” x 20,” Unframed

A: Here is a preliminary charcoal drawing in preparation for my next ”Bolivianos” pastel painting. With the most recent works I have been experimenting with scale. This will be a 58” x 38” version of ”Schemer,” 2019, 26” x 20.”

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 494

Shamans, Tiwanaku, Bolivia

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

Emile Cartailhac was a man who could admit when he was wrong. This was fortunate, because in 1902 the French prehistorian found himself writing an article for L’Anthropolgie in which he did just that. In “Mea culpa d’un sceptique” he recanted the views he had spent the previous 20 years forcefully and scornfully maintaining: that prehistoric man was incapable of fine artistic expression and that the cave paintings found in Altmira, northern Spain, were forgeries.

The Paleothithic paintings at Altamira, which were produced around 14,000 B.C., were the first examples of prehistoric cave art to be officially discovered. It happened by chance in 1879, when a local landowner and amateur archaeologist was busily brushing away at the floor of the caves, searching for prehistoric tools. His nine-year-old daughter, Maria Sanz de Sautuola – a grave little thing with cropped hair and lace-up booties – was exploring farther on when she suddenly looked up, exclaiming, “Look, Papa, bison!” She was quite right: a veritable herd, subtly colored with black charcoal and ocher, ranged over the ceiling. When her father published the finding in 1880, he was met with ridicule. The experts scoffed at the very idea that prehistoric man – savages really – could have produced sophisticated polychrome paintings. The esteemed Monsieur Cartailhac and the majority of his fellow experts, without troubling to go and see the cave for themselves, dismissed the whole thing as a fraud. Maria’s father died, a broken and dishonored man, in 1888, four years before Cartailhac admitted his error.

After the discovery of many more caves and hundreds of lions, handprints, horses, women, hyenas, and bison, the artistic abilities of prehistoric man are no longer in doubt. It is thought that these caves were painted by shamans trying to charm a steady supply of food for their tribes. Many were painted using the pigment most readily available in the caves at the time: the charred stick remnants of their fires. At its simplest, charcoal is the carbon-rich by-product of organic matter – usually wood – and fire. It is purest and least ashy when oxygen has been restricted during it’s heating.

In The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

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!

Q: Why do you make a preliminary drawing before you begin a pastel painting?

Preliminary charcoal drawing for “Enigma,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26” x 20”

A: I make a preliminary charcoal drawing because that’s how I like to begin thinking about and planning a new pastel painting. I always make preliminary drawings the same size as the upcoming pastel painting. While I draw, I make decisions about the overall composition, decide where the major light and dark shapes will be, and envision the likely problem areas that lie ahead. These drawings are done quickly. I spend perhaps an hour on them.

Once the drawing is in my head I no longer need it. So I put it away and when it’s time to begin a subsequent pastel painting, I erase it. I wipe it out with a paper towel and make the next preliminary charcoal drawing directly on top. These are ephemeral tools, existing only for as long as I need them.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

On the easel

A: I’m working on a preliminary charcoal sketch for my next “Bolivianos”pastel painting. This will be number 17 in the series.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Reference photo, preliminary charcoal drawing, pastel painting

A: (Foreground) “The Enigma,” soft pastel on sandpaper, “26” x 20” is awaiting finishing touches.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How long did it take you to discover the properties of pastel? (Liliana Mileo via facebook.com/BarbaraRachko/)

A charcoal self-portrait from 1988

A charcoal self-portrait from 1988

A:  After I moved to Alexandria, Virginia in the mid-1980s, I began taking classes at The Art League School.  I was extremely unhappy with my career as a Navy Lieutenant.  I worked as a computer analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and was searching for something more meaningful to do with my life.

I began with a basic drawing class and liked it.  I enrolled in more classes and decided to spend two years working exclusively in black and white media, such as charcoal and graphite, before advancing to color.  Fortunately, early on I found an excellent teacher in Lisa Semerad.  I remain deeply grateful for the strong foundational drawing skills she imparted to me during this period.

After two years I tried water color and soon discovered it was not for me, a perfectionist who needs to refine my work.  Then I tried etching and found it extremely tedious, the antithesis of instant gratification.

Finally I began studying soft pastel with Diane Tesler, another gifted teacher, and fell in love with this medium!  At The Art League School I also completed a one-week workshop with Albert Handell, who introduced me to the archival sandpaper that I have been using ever since.

While I fell in love with pastel three decades ago, I continue to learn about its unique properties.  I am pushing pastel to new heights as my techniques continually evolve.  This is a lifetime journey of learning.  I hope to never know all there is to know.

Comments are welcome!  Ask anything and I may answer in a future blog post, as you’ve seen here with Liliana’s question.

 

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Preliminary sketch

Preliminary sketch

A:  This is a preliminary charcoal sketch for my next large (58” x 38”) pastel painting.  I loved seeing “The Champ,” 26” x 20,” blown-up as a poster in the London Underground so I decided to create a larger original.  Now I can’t wait to tackle all that hair!  So far the sketch resembles a Rastafarian, but who knows if that will carry over to the pastel painting!  Stay tuned.

Comments are welcome! 

Start/Finish of “Viceroy,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 26” x 20”

Start: erased charcoal drawing

Start: erased charcoal drawing

Finished

Finished

Comments are welcome!

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