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.
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* 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
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Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?
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!
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!
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.
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