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Pearls from artists* # 147

Alexandria, Virginia living room

Alexandria, Virginia living room

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

I am working, every day… on new photographs.  This body of work, family pictures, is beginning to take on a life of its own.  Seldom, but memorably, there are times when my vision, even my hand, seems guided by, well, let’s say a muse.  There is at that time an almost mystical rightness about the image:  about the way the light is enfolding, the way the [kids’] eyes have taken on an almost frightening intensity, the way there is a sudden, almost outer-space-like, quiet.

These moments nurture me through the reemergence into the quotidian… through the bill paying and the laundry and the shopping for soccer shoes, although I am finding that I am becoming increasingly distant, like I am somehow living full time in those moments.  

Sally Mann in Hold Still:  A Memoir with Photographs

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 141

Painting, subject, reference photo

Painting, subject, reference photo

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

It would be very interesting to record photographically not the stages of a painting, but its metamorphoses.  One would see perhaps by what course a mind finds its way towards the crystallization of its dream.  But what is really very curious is to see that the picture does not change basically, that the initial vision remains almost intact in spite of appearances.  I see often a light and dark, when I have put them in my picture, I do everything I can to ‘break them up,’ in adding a color that creates a counter effect.  I perceive, when this work is photographed, that which I have introduced to correct my first vision has disappeared, and that after all the photographic image corresponds to my first vision, before the occurrence of the transformation brought about by my will.

The picture is not thought out and determined beforehand, rather while it is being made it follows the mobility of thought.  Finished, it changes further, according to the condition of him who looks at it.  A picture lives its life like a living creature, undergoing the changes that daily life imposes on us.  That is natural, since a picture lives only through him who looks at it.

Christian Zervos:  Conversation with Picasso in The Creative Process, edited by Brewster Ghiselin

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 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* # 96

 

Diane Arbus Revelations

Diane Arbus Revelations

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

My final day at the magic shop [in Disneyland, where he worked as a teenager], I stood behind the counter where I had pitched Svengali decks and the Incredible Shrinking Die, and I felt an emotional contradiction: nostalgia for the present. Somehow, even though I had stopped working only minutes earlier, my future fondness for the store was clear, and I experienced a sadness like that of looking at a photo of an old, favorite pooch. It was dusk by the time I left the shop, and I was redirected by a security guard who explained that a photographer was taking a picture and would I please use the side exit.

I did, and saw a small, thin woman with hacked brown hair aim her large-format camera directly at the dramatically lit castle, where white swans floated in the moat underneath the functioning drawbridge. Almost forty years later, when I was in my early fifties, I purchased that photo as a collectible, and it still hangs in my house. The photographer, it turned out, was Diane Arbus. I try to square the photo’s breathtaking romantic image with the rest of her extreme subject matter, and I assume she saw this facsimile of a castle as though it were a kitsch roadside statue of Paul Bunyan. Or perhaps she saw it as I did: beautiful.

Quoted by A.D. Coleman in Photocritical, May 28, 2014, from Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 82

"The Sovereign," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Sovereign,” 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.

Art isn’t psychology.  For one thing art deals in images, not language.  Images precede language and are closer to feelings.  They summon feelings before they’re named and categorized, when they’re still fresh and sometimes hard to recognize or identify.

For another thing, to translate his vision an artist uses materials that are, for lack of a better word, alchemical.  Paint, for example, has this wonderful, mysterious quality –  a smell and a sensuous, velvety feel and an ability to hold color and light – that unlocks and speeds up one’s creative metabolism.  And paint captures my every impulse – from my broadest conceptions to the tiniest ticks and tremors of my wrist.

There are literally no words to describe what occurs when an image suddenly and unexpectedly appears on the canvas.  Sometimes it’s serendipity, the result of a fortunate brushstroke.  Sometimes I think it has to do with the inherent qualities of paint, or the slickness of a surface, or the fullness or acuity of a brush.  And sometimes when I’ve got a good rhythm going and everything comes together, I feel as though it produces the purest expression of who I am and what I am and how I perceive the world.   

Eric Fischl and Michael Stone in Bad Boy:  My Life on and off the Canvas

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 70

New York, NY

New York, NY

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

Ultimately, whether you like a photograph or not, it has a history behind it.  When people look at a photograph, they want to believe in its authenticity, that they’re looking at something special that can’t be repeated.  The artist’s eye, the photographer’s eye, has created a moment of truth by pushing the button on the camera.  The issue is not that the moment is separate from the rest of the photograph; it is the element that links what’s happening to the  rest of the image, and the photographer creates a higher meaning, a higher sensibility, in that instant.  That’s difficult to achieve for most people who are involved in photography as artists.  It’s an essential part of basic photography that’s learned on the street and in traditional ways that people used to do photography.

Roger Ballen in Lines, Marks, and Drawings:  Through the Lens of Roger Ballen

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 67

Negombo, Sri Lanka

Negombo, Sri Lanka

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

John Robin Baitz:  I was just thinking that you still manage to write with some kind of miraculous hope.

Athol Fugard:  You’ve got to.  Implicit in the act of creation on the part of the artist is:  I make it because I want to share it with you.  At the end of my process you are waiting for me… Pascal says “Imagine a cell in darkness and the inmates are shackled together.  Every morning at dawn, the door opens and the person at the end of the line is taken out and executed and the door is closed.  Those left behind read their fate in the opening and closing of the door every day.  it is a  metaphor of the human condition.”  That is Pascal.

Camus comes to that paragraph and says, “There is no question about it – that is an image of the human condition.  What do we do during those 24 hours between the opening and closing of the door?  Do we cry?  Or do we tap the next person in the chain and say ‘What’s your name?  I’m Athol Fugard.  Who are you?'”  And that’s how we create meaning.  At the end of the process you are waiting.  And that is the act of faith.  That is the hope that every artist has.    

Quoted by Anne Bogart in “and then you act:  making art in an unpredictable world

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 62

"The Sovereign," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Sovereign,” 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.

Yes, I’m formalistically obsessed.  I see in a picture what I see in nature – everything has its place and is integrated.  Like a tree or a human body, the image is put together for a greater whole.  If you chop off something, you immediately destroy the organism.  Form is crucial to what I do, and I believe that the form, in a way, creates the content.  If you don’t have the form, you don’t get the content.  If you get the maximum formal relationships in a precise, organic, metaphoric methodology, then you have a better chance of bringing out the content to its full degree.  Of course, a picture doesn’t stand alone by its form.  You can have forms that relate but offer no meaning.  Ultimately, a picture is judged by its meaning, and I think that’s what a lot of people lose sight of.     

Interview with Roger Ballen in Lines, Marks, and Drawings:  Through the Lens of Roger Ballen, Craig Allen Subler and Christine Mullen Kreamer

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you share some of your photographs from Sri Lanka?

A:  I  shot more than 2200 images so I am still sorting through them.   Here are a few from the beginning of the trip.

Hong Kong airport after a typhoon

Hong Kong airport after a typhoon

Negombo, Sri Lanka

Negombo, Sri Lanka

Negombo, Sri Lanka

Negombo, Sri Lanka

Negombo, Sri Lanka

Negombo, Sri Lanka

Bride, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Bride, Kandy, Sri Lanka