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Pearls from artists* # 165

"The Space Between," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Space Between,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

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

When I have painted a fine picture I have not given expression to a thought!  That is what they say.  What fools people are!  They would strip painting of all its advantages.  A writer has to say almost everything in order to make himself understood, but in painting it is as if some mysterious bridge were set up between the spirit of the persons in the picture and the beholder.  The beholder sees figures, the external appearance of nature, but inwardly he meditates; the true thinking that is common to all men.  Some give substance to it in writing, but in so doing they lose the subtle essence.  Hence, grosser minds are more easily moved by writers than by painters or musicians.  The art of the painter is all the nearer to man’s heart because it seems to be more material.  In painting, as in external nature, proper justice is done to what is finite and to what is infinite, in other words, to what the soul finds inwardly moving in objects that are known through the senses alone.

The Journal of Eugene Delacroix edited by Hubert Wellington

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am in the very early stages of a large pastel painting.  I have never painted any of these figures before and they originated in different parts of the world.  The bird (left) is from the Brooklyn Museum’s store, although it was hand carved in Guatemala.  The standing figure is carved wood with beautiful painted details.  It was a lucky find on a trip to Panajachel, Guatemala.  The armadillo (red and grey) was made by one of my favorite Mexican folk artists (now deceased) and I believe it’s one of the last pieces he completed.  It is a papier mâché figure that I found in a small shop in Mexico City.  The figure on the upper right is a wooden mask bought from a talkative and talented artist at a hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka.  It depicts nagas (cobras), although you can’t tell that yet in the painting.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you talk about how the Judas figures you depict in your pastel paintings function in Mexico?

Some Judases

Some Judases

A:  Here’s a good explanation from a website called “Mexican Folk Art Guide”:

“La quema de Judas or the Judas burning in Mexico is a celebration held on Sabado de Gloria (Holy Saturday).  Papier mache figures symbolizing Judas Iscariot stuffed with fireworks are exploded in local plazas in front of cheerful spectators. 

The Judases exploded in public spaces can measure up to 5 meters, while 30 cm ones can be found with a firework in their back to explode at home.

In Mexico la quema de Judas dates from the beginning of the Spanish colony when the Judas effigies were made with hay and rags and burned.  Later as paper became available and the fireworks techniques arrived, thanks to the Spanish commerce route from the Philippines, the Judases were made out of cardboard, stuffed with fireworks, and exploded.

After the Independence War the celebration lost its religious character and became a secular activity.  The Judas effigies were stuffed with candies, bread, and cigarettes to attract the crowds into the business [establishment] that sponsored the Judas. 

Judas was then depicted as a devil and identified with a corrupt official, or any character that would harm people.  In 1849 a new law stipulated that it was forbidden to relate a Judas effigy with any person by putting a name on it or dressing it in a certain way to be identified with a particular person.”                                     

This is why whenever I bring home a Judas figure from Mexico, I feel like I have rescued it from a fire-y death!

Comments are welcome!

Q: You often speak about the Mexican and Guatemalan figures in your paintings as serving a function analogous to actors in a repertory company. In other words, a particular figure plays a different role each time it appears in one of your pastel paintings. Would you choose a figure and show how you have painted it through the years?

 

A Chinese-influenced figure Barbara brought home from Mexico City in 1999.

A Chinese-influenced figure Barbara brought home from Mexico City in 1999.

"Answering the Call," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2000

“Answering the Call,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2000

"Scene Fifteen:  Living Room," 26" x 20" soft pastel on sandpaper, 2002

“Scene Fifteen: Living Room,” 26″ x 20″ soft pastel on sandpaper, 2002

 

"Sometimes He Still Tried to Restrain Her," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2005

“Sometimes He Still Tried to Restrain Her,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2005

"Scene Twenty-One:  Living Room," 20" x 26," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2006 (see feet at top)

“Scene Twenty-One: Living Room,” 20″ x 26,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2006 (see feet at top)

"Epiphany," 38" x 58," soft pastel on sandpaper, 2012

“Epiphany,” 38″ x 58,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 2012

"The Ancestors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38," 2013

“The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38,” 2013

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26," 2014

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26,” 2014

And she is in the painting that is on my easel now.  See my February 14 blog post.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How important is the feedback of your audience? Do you ever think about who will enjoy your Art when you conceive it?

Painting, subject, reference photo

Painting, subject, reference photo

A:  I can’t say that I think at all about audience reaction while I’m creating a painting in my studio.  Although, of course I want people to respond favorably to the work.

Generally, I’m thinking about technical problems – making something that is exciting to look at, well-composed, vibrant, up to my exacting standards, etc.  When I finish a painting, it is the best thing I am capable of making at that moment in time. 

I think about a painting and look at it for so long and with such intensity, that it could hardly have turned out any differently.  There is an inevitability to the whole lengthy process that goes all the way back to when I first laid eyes on the folk art figures in a dusty shop in a third world country.  Looking at a newly-finished painting on my easel I often think, “Of course!  I was  drawn to this figure so that it could serve this unique function in this painting.”

Comments are welcome!                

Q: Another interesting series of yours that has impressed me is your recent “Black Paintings.” The pieces in this series are darker than the ones in “Domestic Threats.” You create an effective mix between the dark background and the few bright tones, which establish such a synergy rather than a contrast, and all the dark creates a prelude to light. It seems to reveal such a struggle, a deep tension, and intense emotions. Any comments on your choice of palette and how it has changed over time?

West 29th Street studio

West 29th Street studio

A:  That is a great question!  

You are correct that my palette has darkened. It’s partly from having lived in New York for so long. This is a generally dark city. We famously dress in black and the city in winter is mainly greys and browns.  

Also, the “Black Paintings” are definitely post-9/11 work. My husband, Bryan, was tragically killed onboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Losing Bryan was the biggest shock I ever have had to endure, made even harder because it came just 87 days after we had married. We had been together for 14 ½ years and in September 2001 were happier than we had ever been. He was killed so horribly and so senselessly. Post 9/11 was an extremely difficult, dark, and lonely time.  

In the summer of 2002 I resumed making art, continuing to make “Domestic Threats” paintings. That series ran its course and ended in 2007. Around then I was feeling happier and had come to better terms with losing Bryan (it’s something I will never get over but dealing with loss does get easier with time). When I created the first “Black Paintings” I consciously viewed the background as literally, the very dark place that I was emerging from, exactly like the figures emerging in these paintings. The figures themselves are wildly colorful and full of life, so to speak, but that black background is always there.       

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: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am working on a large pastel-on-sandpaper painting that features two figures found in Mexico City in March – the fish-face mask and the lying dog – and an angel ceramic thing I found last year in Todos Santos, Mexico.  

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!

Pearls from artists* # 81

"Poker Face," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Poker Face,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

The creative process remains as baffling and unpredictable to me today as it did when I began my journey over forty years ago.  On the one hand, it seems entirely logical – insight building on insight; figures from my past, the culture, and everyday life sparking scenes and images on canvas; and all of it – subject, narrative, theme – working together with gesture, form, light to capture deeply felt experience.  But in real time the process is a blur, a state that precludes consciousness or any kind of rational thinking.  When I’m working well, I’m lost in the moment, painting quickly and intuitively, reacting to forms on the canvas, allowing their meaning to reveal itself to me.  In every painting I make I’m looking for some kind of revelation, something I didn’t see before.  If it surprises me, hopefully it will surprise the viewer, too.

Eric Fischl and Michael Stone in Bad Boy:  My Life On and Off the Canvas

Comments are welcome! 

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