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Q: Why do you make art?

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

A:  Last spring I viewed Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  One thing that stayed with me is her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard” in which she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.  

I want to share some of my own personal reasons here, in no particular order.  My list keeps changing, but these are true at least for today. 

1.   Because I love the entire years-long creative process – from foreign travel whereby I discover new source material, to deciding what I will make, to the months spent in the studio realizing my ideas, to packing up my newest pastel painting and bringing it to my Virginia framer’s shop, to seeing the framed piece hanging on a collector’s wall, to staying in touch with collectors over the years and learning how their relationship to the work changes.

2.   Because I love walking into my studio in the morning and seeing all of that color!  No matter what mood I am in, my spirit is immediately uplifted.  

3.   Because my studio is my favorite place to be… in the entire world.  I’d say that it is my most precious creation.  It’s taken more than twenty-two years to get it this way.  I hope I never have to move!

4.   Because I get to listen to my favorite music all day or to Public Radio stations.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of it’s urgent problems.  The same goes for whatever personal problems I am experiencing.

6.   Because I am devoted to my medium.  How I use pastel continually evolves.  It’s exciting to keep learning about its properties and to see what new techniques will develop.

7.   Because I have been given certain gifts and abilities and that entails a sacred obligation to USE them.  I could not live with myself were I to do otherwise.

8.   Because art-making gives meaning and purpose to my life.  I never wake up in the morning wondering, how should I spend the day?  I have important work to do and a place to do it.  I know this is how I am supposed to be spending my time on earth.

9.   Because I have an enviable commute.  To get to my studio it’s a thirty-minute walk, often on the High Line early in the morning before throngs of tourists have arrived.

10.  Because life as an artist is never easy.  It’s a continual challenge to keep forging ahead, but the effort is also never boring.  

11.  Because each day in the studio is different from all the rest. 

12.  Because I love the physicality of it.  I stand all day.  I’m always moving and staying fit.

13.  Because I have always been a thinker more than a talker.  I enjoy and crave solitude.  I am often reminded of the expression, “She who travels the farthest, travels alone.”  In my work I travel anywhere.

14.  Because spending so much solitary time helps me understand what I think and feel and to reflect on the twists and turns of my unexpected and fascinating life.

15.  Because I learn about the world.  I read and do research that gets incorporated into the work.

16.  Because I get to make all the rules.  I set the challenges and the goals, then decide what is succeeding and what isn’t.  It is working life at its most free.

17.  Because I enjoy figuring things out for myself instead of being told what to do or how to think.

18.  Because despite enormous obstacles, I am still able to do it.  Art-making has been the focus of my life for thirty-three years – I was a late bloomer – and I intend to continue as long as possible.

19.  Because I have been through tremendous tragedy and deserve to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I love.  The art world has not caught up yet, but so be it.  This is my passion and my life’s work and nothing will change that.

20.  Because thanks to the internet and via social media, my work can be seen in places I have never been to and probably will never go.

21.  Because I would like to be remembered.  The idea of leaving art behind for future generations to appreciate and enjoy is appealing.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 371

 

“Poseur,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 58” x 38” at the framer

“Poseur,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 58” x 38” at the framer

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

If you look at the work of an artist over a lifetime there is always transformation.  Some hit a lively pace early on and then seem to lose it later.  Others find that place progressively throughout their life; others still find it late.  But regardless, they are all learning to isolate the poetic within them. That focus on the poetic in our own work increases our appreciation of the beauty around us, increases our growth, and increases our divine connection.

One thing you see in many artists’ work is that as they continue over the decades to translate their experience of the poetic into form, they learn to communicate better.  They strip away all the extraneous stuff and artistic baggage they had.  They say more with less.

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

“Sentinels,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38” x 58”

“Sentinels,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38” x 58”

A:  At last, I have put finishing touches on “Sentinels,” 38” x 58,” and signed it!  The photographer will photograph it and then, on my next trip south, this painting goes to the framer in Virginia.

Comments are welcome!

Start/Finish of “Shamanic,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20”

Start

Start

Finish

Finish

This one was tough going, but finally it’s ready for the framer!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 285

"The Orator," 38" x 58," boxed to go to the framer

“The Orator,” 38″ x 58,” boxed to go to the framer

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

So much of the writing life is mundane.  Buying printer ink and paper, doing dishes, arranging the pens in the cup, smoke breaks on the phone, taking baths or going for walks or sitting blankly on the couch wondering if the day will end before one makes a discovery or a decision.  These habits of day-to-day tedium are what can’t be seen on the surface of a writer’s face when we meet her at a book signing – the time and effort spent living in her own head.  Writing is a lonesome art.     

Women at Work:  Interviews from the Paris Review, preface by Ottessa Moshfegh

Comments are welcome!

Q: How can you tell with certainty when a pastel painting is finished?

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

A:  For me a work is finished when to add or subtract some element causes the composition to diminish or somehow weaken.  It’s mostly a matter of where I want viewers to look and how I decide to lead their eyes around a painting.

I work on each piece for several months so that by the time it’s nearly done, I can no longer see flaws.  I put it aside for a week or two.  Then I pull it out again, turn it upside down, and any details that need improving become obvious.  Once I fix them, I know the painting is finally finished and ready to be signed, photographed, and delivered to my framer.

Comments are welcome!

         

Q: How do you store your pastel paintings?

Storage closet

Storage closet

A:  Well, I wish I could say that every pastel painting has sold as soon as it was completed, but that is a rarity that has only happened twice.  As soon as possible after I finish a painting, I bring it to the framer.  Pastel paintings are susceptible to smudging and other odd dangers (even a sneeze!) until they are under Plexiglas.  

Framed work can easily and safely be stored by hanging it on a wall in my studio or standing it upright and face up, and leaning against a wall.  When I put paintings in my storage closet for the longer term, I wrap them in bubble wrap.

The downside of having to frame everything is that it is a considerable expense.  However, the upside is that I am always ready for a solo exhibition.  Gallerists have called at the last minute when one of their exhibitions ran into unexpected problems.  Usually, I am able to step right in.     

Comments are welcome!        

Q: How do you determine what size to make your pastel paintings?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  For some time I have been making pastel paintings in two sizes:  20″ x 26″ and 38″ x 58″.  Sizes are dictated by practical considerations. 

The smaller ones are because 22″ x 28″ sheets of acid-free sandpaper are what’s available.  (I mask off an inch all around for mats so the paintings are 20″ x 26″).  For large paintings I buy rolls of acid-free sandpaper that measure 54 inches wide by 30 feet. I cut this down to 40″ x 60″ for paintings (and mask off an inch all around on these, too).  

And why specifically make them  38″ x 58″?  This is the largest size I can make.  

Again, practical factors come into play:  the size of my truck, the cost and size of mat board, and the weight of the frames.

 My pastel paintings need to lie flat  when they are moved.  Framed paintings are 50″ x 70,” the largest size that can fit flat in the back of my Ford F-150.  38″ x 58″ is the largest size that will fit in a 4 feet by 8 feet sheet of mat board.  (60 inch wide mat board is available, but the cost goes up considerably).  Lastly, I’ve never weighed them but my large framed paintings are heavy.  It takes two people to carry them.   

Comments are welcome!

                  

Q: Your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are very labor intensive. Do you typically have just one in progress at any given time?

Works in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

Works in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  For many years I always worked on one at a time because I have only one or two ideas – never more than that – about what I will make next.  Also, I believe that “all art is the result of one’s having gone through an experience to the end.”  (It’s on a note taped to the wall near my easel).  So I would work on one painting at a time until all of the problems in it were resolved.  Each piece that I undertake represents an investment of several months of my life and after nearly three decades as an artist, I know that once I start a piece I will not abandon it for any reason.  When it is the best painting that I can make – when adding or subtracting anything would be a diminishment – I pronounce it “finished.”  In the past I would start the next one only when the completed piece was out of my sight and at the frame shop.

But a few years ago I began working on two pastel paintings at a time.  When I get stuck – or just need a break from looking at the same image day after day (I am in my studio 5 days a week) – I switch to the other one.  This helps me work more efficiently.  The two paintings interact with each other; they play off of each other and one suggests solutions that help me to resolve problem areas in the other.  I’m not sure exactly how this happens – maybe putting a piece aside for awhile alerts my unconscious to begin working deeply on it – but having two in progress at the same time is my preferred way of working now.

A note about the painting on the left above, which was previously called, “Judas.”  I happen to be reading “Cloud Atlas,” by David Mitchell and came across the word “judasing” used as a verb meaning, “doing some evil to a person who profoundly trusted you.”  I’d never heard the word before, but it resonated with an event in my personal life.  So the new title of my painting is “Judasing.”  This is a good reminder that work and life are inextricably (and inexplicably) woven together and that titles can come from anywhere!  

Comments are welcome!

Q: The handmade frames on your large pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are quite elaborate. Can you speak more about them?

"Quartet" (left) and "Epiphany," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Quartet” (left) and “Epiphany,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I have been working in soft pastel since 1986, I believe, and within six years the sizes of my paintings increased from 11″ x 14″ to 58″ x 38.”  (I’d like to work even bigger, but the limiting factors continue to be first, the size of mat board that is available and second, the size of my pick-up truck).  My earliest work is framed with pre-cut mats, do-it-yourself Nielsen frames, and glass that was cut-to-order at the local hardware store.  With larger-sized paintings DIY framing became impractical.  In 1989 an artist told me about Underground Industries, a custom framing business in Fairfax, Virginia, run by Rob Plati, his mother, Del, and until last year, Rob’s late brother, Skip.  So Rob and Del have been my framers for 24 years.  When I finish a painting in my New York studio, I drive it to Virginia to be framed.

Pastel paintings have unique problems – for example, a smudge from a finger, a stray drop of water, or a sneeze will ruin months of hard work.  Once a New York pigeon even pooped on a finished painting!  Framing my work is an ongoing learning experience.  Currently, my frames are deep, with five layers of acid-free foam core inserted between the painting and the mat to separate them.  Plexiglas has a static charge so it needs to be kept as far away from the pastel as possible, especially since I do not spray finished pastel paintings with fixative.

Once they are framed, my paintings cannot be laid face down.  There’s a danger that stray pastel could flake off.  If that happens, the whole frame needs to be taken apart and the pastel dust removed.  It’s a time-consuming, labor-intensive process and an inconvenience, since Rob and Del, the only people I trust with my work, are five hours away from New York by truck. 

Comments are welcome!

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