Blog Archives

Q: Please speak a little about the history of pastel.

Some of Barbara's soft pastels

Some of Barbara’s soft pastels

A:  Pastel has been in use for five hundred years.  Its invention is attributed to the German painter, Johann Thiele, in the 16th century, followed by Venetian artist, Rosalba Carriera, who was the first to use it consistently.  Edgar Degas, the most prolific user of pastel and its great champion, was followed by many artists who used varying techniques.

Degas’ subject matter included ballet dancers, laundresses, milliners, and denizens of the Parisian demimonde.  The pure hues of pastel, plus its direct application, made it his preferred medium.  Rosalba Carriera, a much-admired portrait artist, revolutionized the world of pastel by developing a wider range of colors, expanding pastel’s availability and usefulness.  Mary Cassatt’s pastel portraits of children and family life provided her with a steady income while living in Paris.  American painter William Merritt Chase used pastel to explore plein air painting.  Pastel’s portability and rich colors made it ideal for outdoor landscapes and for capturing light.

Comments are welcome!

Q: You use an impressive assortment of soft pastels to create your pastel paintings. Which are your favorite?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  My favorite brand of soft pastels is Henri Roché.  They offer subtle variations in color and hue since they make more colors than any other company.

As a birthday present a few years ago, I treated myself to a full 750-color set.  I mainly use them for finishing touches, rather than letting them get buried under pastel.  At nearly $20 a stick, I also don’t want see them reduced to colored dust on the floor beneath my easel.  One of my peers calls them, “the Maserati of pastels!”

Isobel Roché told me that her goal is to reach 1000 colors in time for the company’s 300th anniversary in 2020!  I hope she makes it.  

These pastels have been around so long that Degas and other artists of the era used them.  It’s humbling to know that I am working with the same materials and following a long and prestigious art tradition of using soft pastel.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Have any artists influenced you technically?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  I’d have to say no one, because my technique of using soft pastel on sandpaper is largely self-invented and it continues to slowly evolve.  I apply up to thirty layers of pigment, blending it with my fingers, and creating new colors directly on the sandpaper.  It is a rather meticulous process that suits my personality.

My unique way of applying and mixing pastel is a richly complex science of color.  This intricate technique is one of the reasons that my pastel paintings cannot be forged by anyone.

Every great artist throughout history has invented their own techniques and created a world that is uniquely theirs, with its own iconography, its own laws, and its own specific concerns.  Artists who are most worthy of the name create their own tasks and make and break their own rules.  

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* # 109

A few of Barbara's pastels

A few of Barbara’s pastels

* 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 BOX OF PASTELS

I once held on my knees a simple wooden box

in which a rainbow lay dusty and broken.

It was a set of pastels that had years before

belonged to the painter Mary Cassatt,

and all of the colors she’d used in her work

lay open before me.  Those hues she’d most used,

the peaches and pinks, were worn down to stubs,

while the cool colors – violet, ultramarine –

had been set, scarcely touched, to one side.

She’d had little patience with darkness, and her heart

held only a measure of shadow.  I touched

the warm dust of those colors, her tools,

and left there with light on the tips of my fingers.

Ted Kooser in Art and Artists:  Poems, edited by Emily Fragos

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* # 89

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

On a drifty Manhattan stroll
The kind that unearths magical treasures
I made a right turn off of Houston
Onto Bowery
And as it became Third Avenue
I came upon this old art store
That creaked hello
Its warped wooden shelves
Held new paints
A little dusty from the old building
But whose colors were deeper
Than I’d ever seen before

And at the back of the store
Up a narrow stairway
Was a tiny room
And behind a long table stood three people
(Probably artists)
Who could get me any paper I desired
Paper with designs
To collage with
Hot press, cold press
100 gram, 600 gram paper
To draw and paint on
Any kind of paper I’d ever want
Templates from heaven

And over my right shoulder
Was a tall window
Overlooking the glorious city
That has held this little room
Tenderly in its arms
All these years

And as I hugged
My rolled up package of paper
And went back downstairs
The old stairs seemed to gently whisper
“Come back soon,
We’ll keep each other alive”

And stepping outside
Third Avenue seemed more spacious
And I took a deep breath
As the world
Kaleidoscoped
With possibilities
Lovingly wrapped up
By three kind artists
At the top of the world.

Art Supplies From Heaven, by Judith Ellen Sanders, published in “Metropolitan Diary,” NY Times, April 6, 2014

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: Your “Gods and Monsters” series consists of tableaux of Mexican and Guatemalan figures that are photographed in a way that blurs certain elements to abstraction while others are in clear focus. Can you please speak more about this work?

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

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

A:  When I depict the Mexican and, more recently, Guatemalan figures in my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, they are hard-edged, vibrant, and in-your-face. That’s a result of the way I work in pastel. I slowly and meticulously build up layers of pigment, blend them with my fingers, continually refine and try to find the best, most eye-popping colors. It’s a very slow process that takes months of hard work.  An aside…  One frustration I have as an artist – I am hardly unique in this – is that my audience only sees the finished piece and they look at it for perhaps ten seconds.  They rarely think about how their ten-second experience took me months to create! 

In 2002 when I began photographing these figures, I wanted to take the same subject matter and give it an entirely different treatment.  So these images are deliberately soft focus, dreamy, and mysterious. I use a medium format camera and shoot film.  I choose a narrow depth of field.  I hold gels in front of the scene to blur it and to provide unexpected areas of color.  Even as a photographer I am a colorist.

I want this work to surprise me and it does, since I don’t usually know what images I will get.  Often I don’t even look through the viewfinder as I position the camera and the gels and click the shutter.  I only know what I’ve shot after I’ve seen a contact sheet, usually the next day. 

The “Gods and Monsters” series began entirely as a reaction to my pastel paintings.  The latter are extremely meticulous and labor intensive.  At a certain point in the process I know more or less what the finished painting will look like, but there are still weeks of slow, laborious detail work ahead.  So my photographic work is spontaneous, serendipitous, and provides me with much-needed instant gratification. I find it endlessly intriguing to have two diametrically opposed ways of working with the same subject.

Comments are welcome!