Blog Archives

Q: How can you tell with certainty when a pastel painting is finished?

“Poker Face,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

A:  For me a work is finished when to add or subtract some element causes the composition to diminish or somehow weaken.  It’s mostly a matter of where I want viewers to look and how I decide to lead their eyes around a painting.

I work on each piece for several months so that by the time it’s nearly done, I can no longer see flaws.  I put it aside for a week or two.  Then I pull it out again, turn it upside down, and any details that need improving become obvious.  Once I fix them, I know the painting is finally finished and ready to be signed, photographed, and delivered to my framer.

Comments are welcome!

         

Pearls from artists* # 226

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

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

Technique is the test of sincerity.  If a thing isn’t worth getting the technique to say, it is of inferior value.  All that must be regarded as exercise.  Richter in his Treatise on Harmony, you see, says, “These are the principles of harmony and counterpoint; they have nothing whatever to do with composition, which is quite a separate activity.”  

Ezra Pound in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews Second Series, edited by George Plimpton

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 113

Studio corner

Studio corner

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

In Amsterdam I saw a striking still life painted by Rembrandt van Rijn suspended above a glass case that contained the same objects that he used as a model for the picture.  The contrast between what felt like a drab collection of random objects in the case and the stunning luminescent painting that seemed imbued with nothing less than intense energy and life gave me pause and clarified something I had been thinking about.  I had been thinking about the power of art to transform the frustrations and irritations of daily life into a realm of grace and to embody, through arrangement, composition, light, color and shade, nothing less than the secret elixir of life itself.

We encounter daily frustrations, irritations, and obstacles.  Perhaps we feel hampered and limited by our hit-and-miss upbringing, our apparent limitations and our imperfect ongoing circumstances.  And yet Rembrandt’s still life painting demonstrates that it is within our power to transform the random, the everyday, the frustrating and the prosaic into an arrangement instilled with grace and poetry.  Is it the arrangement of these objects that lends such a spiritual quality to the painting?  Is it the sensation of light captured upon canvas?  How did Rembrandt transform the quotidian into an uplifting vision of life?

Anne Bogart in What’s the Story:  Essays about art, theater, and storytelling  

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 107

 

"The Ancestors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

If the proper goal of art is, as I now believe, Beauty, the Beauty that concerns me is that of Form.  Beauty is, in my view, a synonym of the coherence and structure underlying life (not for nothing does Aristotle list plot first in his enumeration of the components of  tragedy, a genre of literature that, at least in its classical form, affirms order in life).  Beauty is the overriding demonstration of pattern that one observes, for example, in the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare, the fiction of Joyce, the films of Ozu, the paintings of Cezanne and Matisse and Hopper, and the photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Dorothea Lange.

Why is Form beautiful?  Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.  James Dickey was right when he asked rhetorically, “What is heaven anyway, but the power of dwelling among objects and actions of consequence.”  “Objects of consequence” cannot be created by man alone, nor can “actions of consequence’ happen in a void; they can only be found within a framework that is larger than we are, an encompassing totality invulnerable to our worst behavior and most corrosive anxieties.

… How, more specifically, does art reveal Beauty, or Form?  Like philosophy it abstracts.  Art simplifies.  It is never exactly equal to life.  In the visual arts, this careful sorting out in favor of order is called composition, and most artists know its primacy.

Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do people need art in their daily lives?

 

With Ida Bagus Anom, Mas, Bali; Photo:  Donna Tang

With Ida Bagus Anom, Mas, Bali; Photo: Donna Tang

A:  That is for each person to decide, but as someone who devotes every waking moment to my work and to becoming a better artist, I cannot imagine my life without art.  

I will tell you a little about what art has done for me.  In my younger days boredom was a strong motivator.  I left the active duty Navy out of boredom.  I couldn’t bear not being intellectually challenged (most of my jobs consisted of paper-pushing), not using my flying skills (at 27 I was a licensed commercial pilot and Boeing-727 flight engineer), and not developing my artistic talents.  In what surely must be a first, the Navy turned me into a hard-working and disciplined artist.  And once I left the Navy there was no plan B.  There was no time to waste.  It was “full speed ahead.” 

Art is a calling.  You do not need to be told this if you are among those who are called.  It’s all about “the work,” that all-consuming focus of an artist’s life.  If a particular activity doesn’t seem likely to make me a better artist, I tend to avoid it.  I work hard to nourish and protect my  gifts.  As artists we invent our own tasks, learn whatever we need in order to progress, and complete projects in our own time.  It is life lived at its freest. 

My art-making has led me to fascinating places:  Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, France, England, Italy, Bali, Java, Sri Lanka, and more; and to in-depth studies of intriguing subjects:  drawing, color, composition, art and art history, the art business, film and film history, photography, mythology, literature, music, jazz and jazz history, and archaeology, particularly that of ancient Mesoamerica (Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, Maya, etc.).  And this rich mixture continually grows!  For anyone wanting to spend their time on earth learning and meeting new challenges, there is no better life! 

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you feel about accepting commissions?

"Reunion," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58", 1990

“Reunion,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″, 1990

A:  By the time I left the Navy in 1989 to devote myself to making art, I had begun a career as a portrait painter.  I needed to make money, this was the only way I could think of to do so, and I had perfected the craft of creating photo-realistic portraits in pastel.  It worked for a little while. 

A year later I found myself feeling bored and frustrated for many reasons.  I didn’t like having to please a client because their concerns generally had little to do with art.  Once I ensured that the portrait was a good (and usually flattering) likeness, there was no more room for experimentation, growth, or creativity.  I believed (and still do) that I could never learn all there was to know about soft pastel.  I wanted to explore color and composition and take this under-appreciated medium as far as possible.  It seemed likely that painting portraits would not allow me to accomplish this.  Also, I tended to underestimate the amount of time needed to make a portrait  and charged too small a fee.

So I decided commissioned portraits were not for me and made the last one in 1990 (above).  I feel fortunate to have the freedom to create work that does not answer to external concerns.  

Comments are welcome!        

Pearls from artists* # 23

LACMA

LACMA

* 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 composition arises out of asking questions.  I am reminded of a story early on about a class with Schoenberg.  He had us go to the blackboard to solve a particular problem in counterpoint (though it was a class in harmony).  He said, “When you have a solution, turn around and let me see it.”  I did that.  He then said, “Now another solution, please.”  I gave another and another until finally, having made seven or eight, I reflected a moment and then said with some certainty, “There aren’t any more solutions.”  He said, “OK.  What is the principle underlying all the solutions?”  I couldn’t answer his question; but I had always worshiped the man, and at that point I did even more.  He ascended, so to speak.  I spent the rest of my life, until recently, hearing him ask that question over and over.  And then it occurred to me through the direction that my work has taken, which is renunciation of choices and the substitution of asking questions, that the principle underlying all of the solutions that I had given him was the question that he had asked, because they certainly didn’t come from any other point.  He would have accepted that answer, I think.  The answers have the questions in common.  Therefore the question underlies the answers.              

John Cage quoted in Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats:  John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists 

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

"Stalemate" in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper

“Stalemate” in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  A large pastel painting with the working title, “Stalemate.”  For this one I went back and looked at some of my older 35 mm negatives.  I selected one from 2002 and made the photographic print you see above, clipped to the left side of my easel.  This piece is unusual because I’m painting the figures much larger than life size.  I like what’s happening, but it’s slow going.

The title, “Stalemate,” is one I thought of some twenty-odd years ago, when I worked on a very different pastel painting – a table top still life – by that name.  Somehow I couldn’t resolve some problems in the composition so I never finished it.  I haven’t seen it in years, but it’s probably sitting in my Alexandria basement someplace. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: How has photography changed your approach to painting?

Untitled chromogenic print

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x 24″ on 30″ x 40″ Fujicolor crystal archives paper, edition of 5

A: From the beginning in the 1980s I used photographs as reference material and my late husband, Bryan, would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate setups using his Toyo-Omega view camera. In those days I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and I wanted to learn how to use them. Starting in 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom. Along the way I discovered that the sense of composition and color I had developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was just another medium with which to express my ideas. Astonishingly, in 2009 I had my first solo photography exhibition in New York. It’s wonderful to be both a painter and a photographer. Pastel painting will always be my first love, but photography lets me explore ideas much faster than I ever could as a painter. Paintings take months of work. Photographs – from the initial impulse to create a setup to hanging a framed chromogenic print on the wall – can be made in weeks.