Blog Archives

Q: What is more important to you, the subject of the painting or the way it is executed?

"Sam and Bobo,"soft pastel on sandpaper, 36" x 31", 1989

“Sam and Bobo,”soft pastel on sandpaper, 36″ x 31”, 1989

A:  In a sense my subject matter – folk art, masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, toys – chose me.  With it I have complete freedom to experiment with color, pattern, design, and other formal properties.  In other words, although I am a representational artist, I can do whatever I want since the depicted objects need not look like real things.  Execution is everything now.

This was not always the case.  I started out in the 1980s as a traditional photorealist, except I worked in pastel on sandpaper.  (For example, see the detail in Sam’s sweater above).  As I slowly learned and mastered my craft, depicting three-dimensional people and objects hyper-realistically in two dimensions on a piece of sandpaper was thrilling… until one day it wasn’t.  

My personal brand of photorealism became too easy, too limiting, too repetitive, and SO boring to execute!  In 1989 I had at last extricated myself from a dull career as a Naval officer working in Virginia at the Pentagon.  Then after much planning, in 1997 I was a full-time professional artist working in New York.  

Certainly I was not going to throw away this opportunity by making boring photorealist art.  I wanted to do so much more as an artist:  to experiment with techniques, with composition, to see what I could make pastel do, to let my imagination play a larger role in the paintings I made. I was ready to devote the time and do whatever it took to push my art further.

After spending the early creative years perfecting my technical skills, I built on what I had learned.  I began breaking rules – slowly at first – in order to push myself onward.  And I continue to do so, never knowing what’s next.  Hopefully, in 2018 my art is richer for it.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  “White Star,” 38″ x 58″ is slowly progressing.  The title of this painting alludes to David Bowie’s last album, “Dark Star” and is my somewhat more optimistic take on that phrase.   

The white Guatemalan figure and the Sri Lankan mask on the top right still could use more details.  Over time the “Black Paintings” series is becoming more about what is left out. So how much detail to add is an open question.  

Comments are welcome!  

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am still working on “Charade.”  This pastel painting has given me so many problems!  In particular, I have not resolved the figure in the middle.  l am not happy with the mouth and the entire figure needs more detail.

Comments are welcome!

Q: I just got home from my first painting experience… three hours and I am exhausted! Yet you, Barbara, build up as many as 30 layers of pastel, concentrate on such intricate detail, and work on a single painting for months. How do you do it?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  The short answer is that I absolutely love making art in my studio and on the best days I barely even notice time going by!  

Admittedly, it’s a hard road.  Pursuing life as an artist takes a very special and rare sort of person.  Talent and having innate gifts are a given, merely the starting point.  We must possess a whole cluster of characteristics and be unwavering in displaying them.  We are passionate, hard-working, smart, devoted, sensitive, self-starting, creative, hard-headed, resilient, curious, persistent, disciplined, stubborn, inner-directed, tireless, strong, and on and on.  Into the mix add these facts.  We need to be good business people. Even if we are, we are unlikely to make much money.  We are not respected as a profession.  People often misunderstand us:  at best they ignore us, at worst they insult our work and us, saying we are lazy, crazy, and more.

The odds are stacked against any one individual having the necessary skills and stamina to withstand it all.  So many artists give up, deciding it’s too tough and just not worth it, and who can blame them?  This is why I believe artists who persevere over a lifetime are true heroes.  It’s why I do all I can to help my peers.  Ours is an extremely difficult life – it’s impossible to overstate this – and each of us finds our own intrinsic rewards in the work itself.  Otherwise there is no reason to stick with it.  Art is a calling and for those of us who are called, the work is paramount.  We build our lives around the work until all else becomes secondary and falls away.  We are in this for the duration.

In my younger days everything I tried in the way of a career eventually became boring. Now with nearly thirty years behind me as a working artist, I can still say, “I am never bored in the studio!”  It’s difficult to put into words why this is true, but I know that I would not want to spend my time on this earth doing anything else.  How very fortunate that I do not have to do so!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

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

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

A:  I’m putting in details on “The Ancestors.”  At this stage I am doing very meticulous work and progress is difficult to see in photographs (above).

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Why do you need to use a photograph as a reference source to make a pastel painting?

One of Barbara's reference photos

One of Barbara’s reference photos

A:  When I was about 4 or 5 years old I discovered that I had a natural ability to draw anything that I could see.  It’s the way my brain is wired and it is a gift!  One of my earliest memories as an artist is of copying the Sunday comics.  Always it has been much more difficult to draw what I CANNOT see, i.e., to recall how things look solely from memory or to invent them outright.

The evolution of my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings has been the opposite of what one might expect.  I started out making extremely photo-realistic portraits.  I remember feeling highly unflattered when after months of hard work, someone would look at my completed painting and say, “It looks just like a photograph!”  I know this was meant as a compliment, but to me it meant that I had failed as an artist.   Art is so much more than copying physical appearances.

So I resolved to move away from photo-realism.  It has been slow going and part of me still feels like a slacker if I don’t put in all the details.  But after nearly three decades I have arrived at my present way of working, which although still highly representational, contains much that is made up, simplified, and/or stylized.  As I have always done, I continue to work from life and from photographs, but at a certain point I put everything aside and work solely from memory.

Comments are welcome!

Q: To be a professional visual artist is to have two full-time jobs because an artist must continually balance the creative and the business sides of things. How do you manage to be so productive?

No computer in sight

No computer in sight

A:  With social media and other new ways of doing business, managing it all is getting more difficult every day.  Bear in mind that I say this as someone who does not have the extra time commitment of a day job, nor do I have children or other family members to care for.  I have no idea how other visual artists, who may have these responsibilities and more, keep up with all the tasks that need to be done.  In The Artist’s Guide:  How to Make A Living Doing What You Love, Jackie Battenfield lists a few of them (believe me, there are others):

…being an artist isn’t just about making art.  You have many other responsibilities –  managing a studio, looking for opportunities, identifying an audience for your work, caring for and protecting what you have created, and securing money, time, and space – in addition to whatever is  happening in your personal life.

To begin with I try to maintain regular studio hours.  I generally work on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and once I’m at the studio I stay there for a minimum of 7 hours.  To paint I need daylight so in the spring and summer my work day tends to be longer.  My pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are extremely labor-intensive.  I need to put in sufficient hours in order to accomplish anything.  When I was younger I used to work in my studio 6 days a week, 9 hours or more a day.  I have more commitments now, and can no longer work 60+ hours a  week, but I still try to stick to a schedule.  And once I’m at the studio I concentrate on doing the creative work, period.

I am productive when I keep the business and creative sides physically separate., ie., no computers, iPads, etc. are allowed into the studio.  Recently I tried an experiment.  I brought my iPad to the studio, thinking, “Surely I am disciplined enough to use it only during my lunch break.”  But no, I wasted so much time checking email, responding to messages on Facebook, etc., when I should have been focusing on solving problems with the painting that was on my easel.  I learned a good lesson that day and won’t bring my iPad to the studio again.

As has long  been my practice, I concentrate on business tasks when I get home in the evening and on my, so called, days off.  After a day spent working in the studio, I generally spend a minimum of two to three hours more to answer email, apply for exhibitions, work on my blog, email images to people who need them, etc.  At present I  have part-time help with social media – the talented Barbra Drizin, of Start from Scratch Social Media – although my time commitment there is growing, too, as more details need my attention.

No one ever said it would be easy being a professional artist, but then again, I would not choose to spend my days any other way.  As I often say, “Being an artist is a calling.  Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT a life for wimps… or slackers.”

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you speak in more detail about how losing your husband, Dr. Bryan C. Jack, on 9/11 affected your artistic practice?

"She Embraced It and Grew Stronger," 2003, 58" x 38", first large pastel-on-sandpaper painting completed after Bryan was killed

“She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” 2003, 58″ x 38″, first large pastel-on-sandpaper painting completed after Bryan was killed

A:  On September 11, 2001, Bryan, who was a high-ranking, career, federal government employee, a brilliant economist (with an IQ of 180 he is still the smartest man I’ve ever met) and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterrey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College there.  He had the horrible misfortune of flying out of Dulles airport and boarding the plane that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.  

Losing him was the biggest shock of my life, devastating in every possible way.  I think about him every day and I continually think about how easily I, too, could have been killed on 9/11.  I had decided not to travel with Bryan to California, a place I absolutely love visiting, only because the planned trip was too short.  His plane crashed directly into my (Navy Reserve) office on the fifth floor, e-ring of the Pentagon.  I still imagine how close we came to Bryan having been killed on the plane and me perishing in the building.  To this  day I believe that I was spared for a reason and I strive to make every day count.

The six months after 9/11 passed by in a blur, except that I vividly remember an October 2001 awards  ceremony at the DAR Hall in Washington, DC.  I was picked up by a big black limousine, sent by the Department of  Defense.  At the ceremony I sat with members of the president’s cabinet.  I accepted the Defense Exceptional Civilian Service Medal for Bryan, an award he would have accepted himself had he been alive, and was addressed face-to-face by George Bush, Jr., not someone I particularly liked (to put it nicely).  Later Bryan was given more awards –  a Presidential Rank Award, a Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, and the Defense of Freedom Medal.  Many other honors came in and I’ll mention two.  Bryan’s hometown of Tyler, Texas named a magnet school after him – Dr. Bryan C. Jack Elementary School (the principal and I cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony) – and Stanford University set up the “Bryan Jack Memorial Scholarship,” which annually helps two deserving students attend Stanford Business School.     

The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work so my first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera. In July 2002 I enrolled in a one-week view camera workshop at the International Center of Photography in New York.  Much to my surprise I already knew quite a lot from watching Bryan.  Thankfully, I was soon on my way to working again.  After the initial workshop, I decided to begin with the basics since I had never formally studied photography before. I threw myself into learning this new (to me) medium.  Over the next few years I enrolled in a series of classes at ICP, starting with Photography I.  Along the way I learned to use Bryan’s extensive camera collection (old Leicas, Nikons, Mamiyas, and more) and to make my own large chromogenic prints in the darkroom.  In October 2009 it was extremely gratifying to have my first solo photography exhibition with HP Garcia in New York (please see the exhibition catalogue on the sidebar).  I remember tearing up at the opening as I imagined Bryan looking down at me with his beautiful smile, beaming as he surely would have, so proud of me for having become a photographer.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your relationship with photography has changed considerably over the years. How did you make use of photography in your first series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, “Domestic Threats”?

"Truth Betrayed by Innocence," 2001, 58" x 38", the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed my setup

“Truth Betrayed by Innocence,” 2001, 58″ x 38″,  the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed the setup

A:  When my husband, Bryan, was alive I barely picked up a camera, except to photograph sights encountered during our travels. Throughout the 1990s and beyond (ending in 2007), I worked on my series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings called, “Domestic Threats.”  These were realistic depictions of elaborate scenes that I staged in our 1932 Sears house in Alexandria, Virginia, and later, in a New York sixth floor walk-up apartment, using the Mexican masks, carved wooden animals, and other folk art figures that I found on our trips to Mexico. I staged and lit these setups, while Bryan photographed them using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera.  We had been collaborating this way almost from the beginning (we met on February 21, 1986).  Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer. He would shoot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I would select one, generally the one that showed the most detail in the shadows, to make into a 20 x 24 photograph. The photograph would be my starting point for making the pastel painting. Although I work from life, too, I could not make a painting without mostly looking at a reference photo.  After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I had no choice but to study photography.  Over time, I turned myself into a skilled photographer.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 26

Borobudur, Java

Borobudur, Java

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

Beauty is made up of relationships.  It derives its prestige from a specific metaphysical truth, expressed through a host of balances, imbalances, waverings, surges, halts, meanderings, and straight lines, the peculiar quality of which, as a whole, add up to a marvelous number, apparently born without pain.  Its distinguishing mark is that it judges those who judge it, or imagine that they possess power to do so.  Critics have no hold over it.  They would have to know the minutest details of how it works, and this they cannot do, because the mechanics of beauty are secret.  Hence the soil of an age is strewn with a litter of cogs that criticism dismantles in the same way as Charlie Chaplin dismantles an alarm clock after opening it like a tin can.  Criticism dismantles the cogs.  Unable to put them back together or understand the relationships that give them life, it discards them and goes on to something else.  And beauty ticks on.  Critics cannot hear it because the roar of current events clogs the ears of their souls.

Jean Cocteau in Andre Bernard and Claude Gauteur, editors, Jean Cocteau:  The Art of Cinema

Comments are welcome!