Blog Archives

Pearls from artists* # 204

Barbara's studio with work in progress

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

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

It has been said that science helps us understand what we can do; the arts and humanities – our culture and values – help us decide what to do.  Studying the arts and humanities develops critical-thinking skills and nimble habits of mind, provides historical and cultural perspective and fosters the ability to analyze, synthesize and communicate.

As author Daniel Pink observed, “The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind – computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers…  The future belongs to a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.  These people – artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big-picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

David J. Skorton, Director of the Smithsonian Institution in “What Do We Value?” Museum, May/June 2016

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you decide how much realism and how much imagination to put into a pastel painting?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  I wouldn’t say “decide” is the right word because creating a painting is not strictly the result of conscious decisions.  I think of my reference photograph, my preliminary sketch, and the actual folk art objects I depict as starting points.  Over the months that it takes to make a pastel painting, the resulting interpretive development pushes the painting far beyond this source material.  When all goes well, the original material disappears and characters that belong to the painting and nowhere else emerge.  

It is a mysterious process that I am still struggling to understand.  This is the best way I can describe what it feels like from the inside, as the maker.  

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 136

 

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

Francis Bacon interview with David Sylvester

DS:  What do you think are the essential things that go to make an artist, especially now?

FB:  Well, I think there are lots of things.  I think that one of the things is that, if you are going to decide to be a painter, you have got to decide that you are not going to be afraid to make a fool of yourself.  I think another thing is to be able to find subjects which really absorb you to try and do.  I feel without a subject you automatically go back into decoration because you haven’t got the subject which is always eating into you to bring it back – and the greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation.

The Art Life:  On Creativity and Career by Stuart Horodner

Comments are welcome!

Q: So much of the art one sees in New York is ugly, but your art is consistently beautiful. Is beauty important to you?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Yes, beauty is extremely important.  In some art circles it is not fashionable to say so, but I completely agree with the photographer, Robert Adams, who writes,  “… the goal of art is Beauty.”  I’ll leave it to others to decide if this quality is reached in my pastel paintings, but I certainly strive towards it. 

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 124

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

You give yourself a creative life – pursuing those questions and aesthetic conditions that mean the most to you.  What are you interested in?  Landscape and gender and nuclear power are each worthy subjects and there are plenty more.  Do you aspire to exhibit in museums or public spaces or virtual realms?  Your job is to figure out how to best engage these distinct contexts.  Your studio may be a large industrial space or a second bedroom or the kitchen table, where you can work days or nights while wearing your favorite sweatpants and drinking tea as music blasts or silence is maintained.  You might produce five or fifty objects a year, using bronze or oil paint or folded paper, and these can be large or tiny, made to last for centuries or a few weeks.  Maybe you’ve been a printmaker for several years and all of a sudden you decide to make videos.  OK.  You might be influenced by Pop Art or Minimalism or Feminism or Fluxus.  How are you using these various histories to your advantage?  Does Edward Hopper or Gordon Matta-Clark or Agnes Martin or David Hammons inspire you?  If not, who does?  Try to understand the reasons for your choices, and if you feel the need to shift gears, indulge that impulse.  Grant yourself the permission to acquire new skills, travel to biennials, buy a new computer, start a reading group.  Risk not knowing what will happen when you do.

Stephen Horodner in THE ART LIFE:  On Creativity and Career

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 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!

Q: What does your creative process look like when you are ready to begin a new painting?

 

Preliminary sketch

Preliminary sketch

A:  My working methods have changed dramatically over the years with my current process being a much-simplified version of how I used to work.  In other words as I pared down my imagery in the “Black Paintings,” my process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite logically to the next.  Another is that I always have set up a scene, lit and photographed it, and worked with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material.  In the “Domestic Threats” series I shot with a 4″ x 5″ view camera.  Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of images to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images and uses film) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  I get the print made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  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.  For example, in the photograph above I had originally thought about creating a vertical painting, but changed to horizontal format after discovering spatial problems in my sketch.  

Also, I decided to make a small painting now because it has been two years since I last worked in a smaller (than my usual 38″ x 58″) size.  I am re-using the photograph on which “Epiphany” is based.  Using a photograph a second time lets me see how my working methods have evolved over time.     

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!