Blog Archives

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Preliminary drawing

Preliminary drawing

A:  I am ready to start a preliminary charcoal drawing as a study for my next pastel painting. It has been a while since I worked with the Mexican figures in the photo on the left. It’s like a reunion with dear friends!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What career accomplishment are you most proud of?

Collector, "False Friends," and ARTNews article that shows the painting in progress

Collector, “False Friends,” and ARTNews article that shows the painting in progress

A:  I am most proud of my global network of friends, collectors, and fans who enjoy and support my work.  Over the years, thanks to direct personal contact and social media, many have become valued friends.

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 139

"Broken," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Broken,” 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.

Leaving a show of Pat Steir’s work called Winter Paintings at Cheim & Read Gallery, I thought back some years to when the Walker Art Center’s then curator Richard Flood was walking us through the Center’s collection and we came upon an abstract expressionist painting by Joan Mitchell that was so striking I asked him why it had taken so long for her to be recognized.  He answered with a wry expression:  “It’s the problem of beauty!”

A few days earlier our friends Kol and Dash came to lunch at our home, and Dash said at this time most visual art is conceptual.  “It’s a way of thinking,” she said.

Story/Time:  The Life of an Idea/Bill T. Jones

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Do you have a daily artistic practice?

Studio entrance

Studio entrance

A:  In one way or another I suppose I do.  Of course, I don’t go to the studio six days a week like I used to, but I generally work five days, about seven to eight hours per day.  When I am not actually in the studio working at my easel, I try to make use of my time in ways that, hopefully, will make me a better artist.  I am usually reading, studying, looking at art, talking to friends who are artists, thinking about my creative practice, etc.  Art and everything related to it are naturally the focus of my life.

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Where do you want your work to go in the future?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Recently I answered a question about why I create, but now that I think about it, the same answer applies to what I want to do as an artist in the future:  

~ to create bold and vibrant pastel paintings and photographs that have never existed before  

~ to continue to push my primary medium – soft pastel on sandpaper – as far as I can and to use it in more innovative ways  

~ to create opportunities for artistic dialogue with people who understand and value the work to which I am devoting my life  

The last has always been the toughest.  I sometimes think of myself as Sisyphus because expanding the audience for my art is an ongoing uphill battle.  Many artist friends tell me they feel the same way about building their audience.  It’s one of the most difficult tasks that we have to do as artists.  I heard Annie Leibovitz interviewed on the radio once and remember her saying that after 40 years as a photographer, everything just gets richer.  Notice that she didn’t say it gets any easier; she said, “it just gets richer.”  I have been a painter for nearly  30 years and a photographer for 11.  I agree completely.  All artists have to go wherever our work goes.  Creating art and watching the process evolve is an endlessly fascinating intellectual journey.  I wouldn’t want to be spending my time on earth doing anything else!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Pastel-on-sandpaper painting in progress

Pastel-on-sandpaper painting in progress

A:  I am working on a pastel painting that features a mask I found in Todos Santos, Mexico on a recent trip there with friends.  This is the first time I have so prominently featured a head without a body so I’m unsure whether the painting is coming together just yet.  Fortunately it’s very early in the process so there is plenty of time to make adjustments.

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Can you speak about what draws you to the Mexican and Guatemalan figures that you collect?

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo:  Donna Tang

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo: Donna Tang

A:  I search the markets and bazaars of Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere for folk art objects – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, children’s toys – to bring back to New York to paint and photograph. Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the patterns are on these objects the better – plus they must be unique and have lots of personality. I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for the tourist trade. The objects must have been used or otherwise look like they’ve had a life (i.e., been part of religious festivities) to draw my attention. How and where each one comes into my possession is an important part of my creative process.

Finding, buying, and getting them back to the U.S. is always circuitous, but that, too, is part of the process, an adventure, and often a good story. Here’s an example. In 2009 I was in a small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, called Panajachel. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we discovered a wonderful mask store. I spent some time looking around, made my selections, and was ready to buy five exquisitely-made standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no, I’ll have to leave them behind.” However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish is much more fluent than mine, the three of us brain-stormed until finally, Tomas had an idea. I could pay for the figures at the hotel up the block and in a few days when the hotel was paid by the credit card company, the hotel would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was made and the first hurdle was overcome. Working out the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour or two, but during that time Tomas and I became friends and exchanged telephone numbers (the store didn’t even have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door!). Most surprisingly, the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What is it about soft pastel that you find so intriguing that you use it as your primary fine art medium?

Some of Barbara's pastels

Some of Barbara’s pastels

A:  For starters it’s the medium that I fell in love with many years ago.  I recently read this article online, “What is Pastel?” by Mike Mahon, and will quote it because it neatly sums up  what I love about working with pastel.

Pastel is the most permanent of all media when applied to conservation ground and properly framed. Pastel has no liquid binder that may cause it to oxidize with the passage of time as oftentimes happens with other media.

In this instance, Pastel does not refer to pale colors, as the word is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion terminology. The pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste with a minimum amount of gum binder, rolled into sticks and dried. The infinite variety of colors in the Pastel palette range from soft and subtle to hard and brilliant.

An artwork is created by stroking the stick of dry pigment across an abrasive ground, embedding the color in the “tooth” of the ground. If the ground is completely covered with Pastel, the work is considered a Pastel painting; whereas, leaving much of the ground exposed produces a Pastel sketch. Techniques vary with individual artists. The Pastel medium is favored by many artists because it allows a spontaneous approach. There is no drying time, therefore, no change in color occurs after drying as it does in other media.

Did you know that a particle of Pastel pigment seen under a microscope looks like a diamond with many facets? It does! Therefore, Pastel paintings reflect light like a prism. No other medium has the same power of color or stability.

Historically, Pastel can be traced back to the 16th century. Its invention is attributed to the German painter, Johann Thiele. A Venetian woman, Rosalba Camera, was the first to make consistent use of Pastel. Chardin did portraits with an open stroke, while La Tour preferred the blended finish. Thereafter, a galaxy of famous artists—Watteau, Copley, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Glackens, Whistler, Hassam, William Merritt Chase—used Pastel for a finished work rather than for preliminary sketches.

Pastels from the 16th century exist today, as fresh as the day they were painted. Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of Pastel and its champion. His protégé, Mary Cassat, introduced Pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and thus to the United States. In the Spring of 1983, Sotheby Parke Bernet sold at auction, two Degas Pastels for more than $3,000,000 each! Both Pastels were painted about 1880.

Note: Do not confuse Pastel with “colored chalk.” Chalk is a porous, limestone substance impregnated with dyes, whereas, Pastel is pure pigment—the same as is used in other permanent painting media.

Today, Pastel paintings have the stature of oil and watercolor as a major fine art medium. Many of our most renowned, living artists have distinguished themselves in Pastel and have enriched the art world with this beautiful medium.

So knowing all this, I often wonder, why don’t more artists use pastel?  Is it because framing is a big issue?  Works on paper need to be framed and pastel paintings have unique problems (see my April 27, 2013 blog post).  Second only to the cost of maintaining a studio in New York City, frames are my single largest business expense.  Sometimes I am grateful that pastel is a very slow medium.  I typically finish 4 or 5 paintings in a year, which means I only have to pay for 4 or 5 frames!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 17

Boat hull

Boat hull

* 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 better you know yourself, the more you will know when you are playing to your strengths and when you are sticking your neck out.  Venturing out of your comfort zone may be dangerous, yet you do it anyway because our ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable.

… Another thing about knowing who you are is that you know what you should not be doing, which can save you a lot of heartaches and false starts if you catch it early on.

I was giving a lecture to students at Vassar not long ago.  Working with the students’ autobiographies, I invited a dance student, a music student who brought his saxophone, and an art student to join me on stage.  I asked the dancer to improvise some movement from a tuck position on the floor.  I asked the saxophone player to accompany the dancer.  And I asked the art student to assign colors to what they were doing.  I admit I was constructing a three-ring circus in the lecture hall.  But my goal was to bring the three students together by forcing them to work off the same page, and also to free them to discover how far they could go improvising on this simple assignment.

When I asked the art student to read out loud his color impressions, everyone in the hall was taken aback. He droned on and on about himself, feelings he’d had, stories about friends.  Not a word about color.  Finally I heard “limpid blue” come out of his mouth.  I waved my arms, signaling him to stop reading.

“Do you realize,” I said, “that you’ve just recited about five hundred words  in an assignment about color?  You’ve covered everything under the sun, and ‘limpid blue’ is the first time you’ve mentioned a color.  I’m not convinced you want to be a painter.”

As far as I was concerned, this young man was in “DNA denial.”  I gave him a painterly exercise and he gave me a text heavy response.  A young man with painting in his genes would be rattling off colors immediately.  Instead, his vivid use of language – limpid blue does not come in tubes – suggested that he really ought to be a writer.

It would be presumptious of me to think I had him pegged for a writer, not a painter, after that brief encounter.  But if I got him to reexamine what he’s built for, then he was a step or two ahead of most people.  

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit:  Learn it and Use it for Life

Comments are welcome.

Q: What gives you the most personal pleasure as an artist?

"The Older One Pulled His Punches," at Beth and Larry's house

“The Older One Pulled His Punches,” at Beth and Larry’s house; photo by Larry Rubin

A: I’d have to say that it’s my relationships with my collectors. I love to see my pastel paintings and photographs hanging on collectors’ walls, especially when the work is first installed and they tell me how happy they are to own them. People’s relationship to work that they own evolves over time. It’s always gratifying to hear that they love my paintings and photographs more after living with them. Then I know that my work has found the right home. An artist’s works are her children, after all, so we hope they are “adopted” by the right people. Collectors invariably become good friends so now I have a network of art-loving friends around the country.