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Q: What was the first painting you ever sold?

“Bryan’s Ph.D.”, 11″ x 13 1/2″, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.”  I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel.  I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist.  Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands. 

In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland.  In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research.  He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA.  I still own the chair and the house.  I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting.  I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2.  Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.

“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria.  I have not seen it since 1990.  (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).

Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband.  She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce.  Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now.  She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.

I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan.  He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty.  At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.  

My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation.  In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others.  This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally.  I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.  

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 133

 

"Broken," soft pastel on sandpaper, 50" x 70" framed

“Broken,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 50″ x 70″ framed

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

O writer, with what words will you describe the entire configuration of objects with the perfection that the drawing gives?  If you are unable to draw, you will describe everything confusedly and convey little knowledge of the true form of objects; and you will deceive yourself in imagining that you can satisfy your hearer when you speak of the configuration of any corporeal object bounded by surfaces.

                                                                                                        – Leonardo da Vinci 

Quoted in Leonardo’s Brain:  Understanding da Vinci’s Creative Genius by Leonard Shlain

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 did you prepare yourself to change careers and work as a professional artist?

"Krystyn," charcoal, 22" x 30", 1989

“Krystyn,” charcoal, 22″ x 30″, 1989

A:   At the age of 33 I was a Lieutenant in the Navy, working as  computer analyst at the Pentagon.  I was very unhappy with my job.  I began looking for something else to do and discovered The Art League School in Alexandria, VA.  I enrolled in classes with Lisa Semerad, then spent the next two years developing my drawing skills using black and white media (charcoal, pencils, conte crayon, etc.). 

After that I moved on to color media and began studying soft pastel with Diane Tesler.  During this time I was still in the Navy, working the midnight shift at the Pentagon and taking art classes during the day.  I was a very motivated student.    

After three years or so I was getting quite proficient as an artist, entering local juried shows, winning prizes, garnering press coverage, etc.  Prior to my career change, I worked hard to develop my portrait skills.  I really didn’t know how I could make a living other than by making commissioned portraits.  I volunteered to run a weekly life drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA, where I made hundreds of figure drawings using charcoal. 

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.  Over time I became skilled at making photo-realistic portraits.  In 1989 I resigned from the Navy and have worked full-time as a visual artist ever since.

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!

Pearls from artists* # 87

Studio

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.

One evening, after one false start too many, I just gave up. Sitting at a bar, feeling a bit burned out by work and by life in general, I just started drawing on the backs of business cards for no reason.  I didn’t really need a reason.  I just did it because it was there, because it amused me in a kind of random, arbitrary way.

Of course it was stupid.  Of course it was not commercial.  Of course it wasn’t going to go anywhere.  Of course it was a complete and utter waste of time.  But in retrospect, it was this built-in futility that gave it its edge.  Because it was the exact opposite of all the “Big Plans” my peers and I were used to making.  It was so liberating not to have to think about all of that, for a change.

It was so liberating to be doing something that didn’t have to have some sort of commercial angle, for a change.

It was so liberating to be doing something that didn’t have to impress anybody, for a change.

It was so liberating to be free of ambition, for a change.

It was so liberating to have something that belonged just to me and no one else, for a change.

It was so liberating to feel complete sovereignty, for a change.  To feel complete freedom, for a change.  To have something that didn’t require somebody else’s money, or somebody else’s approval, for a change.

And of course, it was then, and only then, that the outside world started paying attention.

The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the actual content ever will.  How your own sovereignty inspires other people to find their own sovereignty, their own sense of freedom and possibility, will give the work far more power than the work’s objective merits ever will.

Your idea doesn’t have to be big.  It just has to be yours alone.  The more the idea is yours alone, the more freedom you have to do something really amazing.

The more amazing, the more people will click with your idea.  The more people click with your idea, the more this little thing of yours will snowball into a big thing.

That’s what doodling on the backs of business cards taught me. 

Hugh MacLeod in Ignore Everybody:  and 39 Other Keys to Creativity

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!   

Q; When did you start pursuing art as a serious profession?

"Answering the Call," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Answering the Call,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  In the mid-1980s I was in my early 30s, a lieutenant on active duty in the Navy, working a soul-crushing job as a computer analyst on the midnight shift in a Pentagon basement.  It was literally and figuratively the lowest point of my life.  Remembering the joyful Saturdays of my youth when I had studied with a local New Jersey painter, I enrolled in a drawing class at the Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia.  Initially I wasn’t very good, but it was wonderful to be around other women  and a world away from the “warrior mentality” of the Pentagon.  I was having fun!  Soon I enrolled in more classes and became a very motivated full-time art student who worked nights at the Pentagon. As I studied and improved my skills, I discovered my preferred medium – soft pastel on sandpaper.  Although I knew I had found my calling, for more than a year I agonized over whether or not to leave the Navy.  Once I did decide, there was another delay.  The Navy was experiencing a manpower shortage so Congress had enacted a stop-loss order, which prevented officers from resigning.  I could only do what was allowed under the order.  I submitted my resignation effective exactly one year later:  on September 30, 1989.  With Bryan’s (my late husband) support,  I left the Navy that day.  So I think of myself as having  been a professional artist beginning on October 1, 1989.  I should mention that I remained in the Navy Reserve for the next 14 years, working mainly at the Pentagon two days every month and two weeks each year (commuting between New York and Washington, DC after I moved in 1997).  Finally on November 1, 2003, I officially retired as a Navy Commander.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 16

"Big Deal," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Big Deal,” soft pastel on sandpaper

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

For the artist drawing is discovery.  And that is not just a slick phrase, it is quite literally true.  It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations.  It is a platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking.  A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you to see.  Following up its logic in order to check its accuracy, you find confirmation or denial in the object itself or in your memory of it.  Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it:  the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become.  Perhaps that sounds needlessly metaphysical.  Another way of putting it would be to say that each mark you make on the paper is a stepping-stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river, have put it behind you.

Geoff Dyer, editor, Selected Essays:  John Berger

Comments are welcome.

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