Blog Archives

Q: Do you plan your work in advance or is it improvisation?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  My process is somewhere in between those two.  I work from my own set-up or on-site photographs and make a preliminary sketch in charcoal before I start a pastel painting.  Thousands of decisions about composition, color, etc. occur as I go along. 

Although it starts out somewhat planned, I have no idea what a pastel painting will look like when it’s finished.  Each piece takes about three months, not counting foreign travel, research, and a gestation period of several months to determine what the next pastel painting will even be.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you work with a particular audience in mind?

"Shamanic," 26" x 20," finished

“Shamanic,” 26″ x 20,” finished

A:  In general I would answer no, I have no ‘specific’ audience in mind.  But I DO consider the audience in this sense.  As I put finishing touches on a pastel painting, I pay attention to how all of my decisions up to that point lead  the viewer’s eyes around.  I fine tune – brightening some areas, heightening the contrast with what’s next to it, blurring, fading, and pushing back others – all to keep the viewer’s gaze moving around the painting.  Once I am satisfied that it’s as visually exciting as I can make it, I consider the pastel painting finished, ready to be photographed, and driven to Virginia for framing.

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 210

Lima bootery (with self-portrait)

Lima, Peru (with self-portrait)

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

Much that is said about beauty and its importance in our lives ignores the minimal beauty of an unpretentious street, a nice pair of shoes or a tasteful piece of wrapping paper, as though these things belonged to a different order of value from a church by Bramante or a Shakespeare sonnet.  Yet these minimal beauties are far more important to our daily lives, and far more intricately involved in our own rational decisions, than the great works which (if we are lucky) occupy our leisure hours.  They are part of the context in which we live our lives, and our desire for harmony, fittingness and civility expressed and confirmed in them.  Moreover, the great works of architecture often depend for their beauty on the humble context that these lesser beauties provide.  Longhena’s church on the Grand Canal would lose its confident and invocatory presence, were the modest buildings which nestle in its shadow to be replaced with cast-concrete office blocks, of the kind that ruin the aspect of St.  Paul’s.

Beauty:  A Very Short Introduction, by Roger Scruton

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!  

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!

Pearls from artists* # 102

New York, NY

New York, NY

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

That a photograph is unlikely to be a laboratory record is evident when we think about how it is made.  Most photographers are people of immense enthusiasms whose work involves many choices – to brake the car, grab the yellow instead of the green filter, wait out the cloud, and at the second everything looks inexplicably right, to release the shutter.  Behind these decisions stands the photographer’s individual framework of recollections and meditations about the way he perceived that place or places like it before.  Without such a background there would be no knowing whether the scene on the ground glass was characteristic of the geography and of his experience of it and intuition of it – in short, whether it was true.

Making photographs has to be, then, a personal matter; when it is not, the results are not persuasive.  Only the artist’s presence in the work can convince us that its affirmation resulted from and has been tested by human experience.  Without the photographer in the photograph the view is no more compelling than the product of some annoying record camera, a machine perhaps capable of happy accident but not response to form.

Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams

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: 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!   

Pearls from artists* # 48

"Big Deal," with double portrait of the author

“Big Deal,” with double portrait of the author

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

Until the invention of photography, the painted (or sculptural) portrait was the only means of recording and presenting the likeness of a person.  Photography took over this role from painting and at the same time raised our standards for judging how much an informative likeness should include.

This is not to say that photographs are in all ways superior to painted portraits.  They are more informative, more psychologically revealing, and in general more accurate.  But they are less tensely unified.  Unity in a work of art is achieved as a result of the limitations of the medium.  Every element has to be transformed in order to have its proper place within these limitations.  In photography the transformation is to a considerable extent mechanical.  In a painting each transformation is largely the result of a conscious decision by the artist.  Thus the unity of a painting is permeated by a far higher degree of intention.  The total effect of a painting (as distinct from its truthfulness) is less arbitrary than that of a photograph; its construction is more intensely socialized because it is dependent on a greater number of human decisions.  A photographic portrait may be more revealing and accurate about the likeness and character of the sitter; but it is likely to be less persuasive, less (in the very strict sense of the word) conclusive.  For example, if the portraitist’s intention is to flatter or idealize, he will be able to do so far more convincingly in a painting than with a photograph. 

Geoff Dyer, editor, Selected Essays:  John Berger

Comments are welcome!

Q: Does your work look different to you on days when you are sad, happy, etc.?

Recent work

Recent work

A: I’m more critical on days when I am sad so that the faults, imperfections, and things I wish I had done better stand out.  Fortunately, all of my work is framed behind plexiglas so I can’t easily go back in to touch up newly-perceived faults.  It reminds me of the expression, “Always strive to improve, whenever possible.  It is ALWAYS possible!”  However, I’ve learned that re-working a painting is a bad idea.  You are no longer deeply involved in making it and the zeitgeist has changed.  The things you were concerned with are gone: some are forgotten, others are less urgent.  For most artists the work is autobiography.  Everything is personal.  When I look at a completed pastel painting, I usually remember exactly what was happening in my life as I worked on it.  Each piece is a snapshot – maybe even a time capsule, if anyone could decode it – that reflects and records a particular moment.  When I finally pronounce a piece finished and sign it, that’s it, THE END.  It’s as good as I can make it at that point in time.  I’ve incorporated everything I was thinking about, what I was reading, how I was feeling, what I valued, art exhibitions I visited, programs  that I heard on the radio or watched on television, music that I listened to, what was going on in New york, in the country, in the world, and so on.   It is still  a mystery how this heady mix finds its way into the work.  During the time that I spend on it, each particular painting teaches me everything it has to teach.  A painting requires months of looking, reacting, correcting, searching, thinking, re-thinking, revising.  Each choice is made for a reason and as an aggregate these decisions dictate what the final piece looks like.  On days when I’m sad I tend to forget that.   On happier days I remember that the framed pastel paintings that you see have an inevitability to them.  If all art is the result of one’s having gone through an experience to the end, as I believe it is, then the paintings could not, and should not, look any differently.

Comments are welcome.