Blog Archives

Pearls from artists* # 208

View from One World Trade Center

View from One World Trade Center

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

PC:  In your painting, you’ve always kept this speed of movement.  One senses that you work something out slowly, deep down, that it’s hard work, but there’s always something fresh about its expression.

HM:  That’s because I revise my notion several times over.  People often add or superpose – completing things without changing their plan, whereas I rework my plan every time.  I never get tired.  I always start again, working from the previous state.  I try to work in a contemplative state, which is very difficult:  contemplation is inaction, and I act in contemplation.

In all the studies I’ve made from my own ideas, there’s never been a faux pas because I’ve always unconsciously had a feeling for the goal; I’ve made my way toward it the way one heads north, following the compass.  What I’ve done, I’ve done by instinct, always with my sights on a goal I still hope to reach today.  I’ve completed my apprenticeship now.  All I ask is four or five years to realize that goal.

PC:  Delacroix said that too.  Great artists never look back.

HM:  Delacroix also said – ten years after he’d left the place – “I’m just beginning to see Morocco.”  Rodin said to an artist, “You need to stand back a long way for sculpture.”  To which the student replied,  “Master, my studio is only ten meters wide.”

Chatting with Henri Matisse:  The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, translated by Chris Miller

Comments are welcome! 


Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am in the very early stages of a large pastel painting.  I have never painted any of these figures before and they originated in different parts of the world.  The bird (left) is from the Brooklyn Museum’s store, although it was hand carved in Guatemala.  The standing figure is carved wood with beautiful painted details.  It was a lucky find on a trip to Panajachel, Guatemala.  The armadillo (red and grey) was made by one of my favorite Mexican folk artists (now deceased) and I believe it’s one of the last pieces he completed.  It is a papier mâché figure that I found in a small shop in Mexico City.  The figure on the upper right is a wooden mask bought from a talkative and talented artist at a hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka.  It depicts nagas (cobras), although you can’t tell that yet in the painting.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you store your pastel paintings?

Storage closet

Storage closet

A:  Well, I wish I could say that every pastel painting has sold as soon as it was completed, but that is a rarity that has only happened twice.  As soon as possible after I finish a painting, I bring it to the framer.  Pastel paintings are susceptible to smudging and other odd dangers (even a sneeze!) until they are under Plexiglas.  

Framed work can easily and safely be stored by hanging it on a wall in my studio or standing it upright and face up, and leaning against a wall.  When I put paintings in my storage closet for the longer term, I wrap them in bubble wrap.

The downside of having to frame everything is that it is a considerable expense.  However, the upside is that I am always ready for a solo exhibition.  Gallerists have called at the last minute when one of their exhibitions ran into unexpected problems.  Usually, I am able to step right in.     

Comments are welcome!        

Q: When you left the Navy you worked on commission as a portrait artist. Why don’t you accept commissions now?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  As I have often said, I left the active duty Navy in 1989, but stayed in the Reserves. The Reserves provided a small part-time income and the only requirement was that I work one weekend a month and two weeks each year.  Plus, I could retire after 13 more years and receive a pension.  (In 2003 I retired from the Navy Reserve as a Commander).  The rest of the time I was free to pursue my studio practice. 

For a short time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper.  However, after a year I became very restless.  I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!”  I lost interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish personally as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted.  I finished my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back. 

To this day I remain reluctant to accept a commission of any kind.  So I am completely free to paint whatever I want, which is the only way to evolve as a serious, deeply committed artist.      

Comments are welcome!

Q: You have spoken about learning to fly at the age of 25. What airplanes did you fly?

Cessna 150

Cessna 150

A:  I learned to fly at a small airport in Caldwell, NJ.  Flying is expensive and since I didn’t have much money, I sought a job at Liberty Aviation, the local flight school, in exchange for flying lessons.  For every three hours I worked, I earned a flying lesson.  At the time it cost $25/hour to rent a plane, plus $10/hour for an instructor, and I was fortunate to find an excellent flight instructor who offered to teach me for free. 

After I completed ground school at Clifton High School, I took my first flying lesson.  It was on April 1, 1978 in a (two-seat) Cessna 150.  During the following months I flew every chance I could, in Cessna 150s and newer Cessna 152s, and also occasionally in Piper Cherokees.  On September 24, 1978 I received my private pilot’s license. 

Then I got checked-out in a larger (four-seat) Cessna 172.  For my instrument training I flew Cessna 150s and 172s.  I received my instrument rating in April 1979. 

Next I trained for a commercial pilot’s license and a multi-engine rating.  I flew Cessna 172s and a twin-engine Piper Seminole and obtained my license and rating in May 1980. 

In December 1980 I began Boeing 727 flight engineer training at Flight International in Atlanta, GA.  Most of this was in Boeing-727 flight simulators with Delta airline pilots as instructors.  My check-ride was in a Boeing-727 owned by FedEx.  I received my flight engineer’s certificate in February 1981.  At the time I was the only woman in the entire school!

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: You have sometimes spoken about your early work as a portrait artist. When and why did you start making portraits? Do you still do them?

"Bryan," soft pastel on sandpaper, 22" x 28", 1988

“Bryan,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 22″ x 28″, 1988

A:  In 1989 I was a Naval officer working at the Pentagon and I hated my job as a computer analyst.  Although it was terrifying to leave the security of a paycheck for the uncertainty of an artist’s existence, I made the leap.  In retrospect it was one of the best decisions of my life.  When I resigned from active duty (I remained in the Navy Reserve, which provided a part-time job and a small income; in 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander), I needed a way to make a living.  

Prior to this career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills.  I volunteered to run a life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal and pastel.  I spent a semester commuting between Washington, DC and New York to study artistic anatomy at the New York Academy of Art.  I spent another semester studying gross anatomy with medical students at Georgetown University Medical School.  So I was well prepared to devote myself to making portraits.

For a time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper.  However, after about two years I became bored.  I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!”  Furthermore, I had no interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted.   I completed my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back.  To this day I remain loathe to do a commission of any kind.  

Comments are welcome!