*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
According to [Rudolph] Arnheim, the way in which we reach out for and grasp the “object we see, either in our immediate range of perception or through the medium of photography, is dependent upon who we are and what we recognize from past experience.” The visual imprint of an image, an object, or a scene upon the eye is not at all “objective.” In the image-making process of thinking, we see, sort, and recognize according to the visual phenomenology of our own experience. What people notice in the “same” image – be it an image of a dancing Siva or a film of a Hindu festival procession – depends to some extent on what they can recognize from the visual experience of the past. In the case of film, of course, it also depends on what the photographer has seen and chosen to show us. Arnheim writes that the eye and the mind, working together in the process of cognition, cannot simply note down images that are “already there.” “We find instead that direct observation, far from being a mere ragpicker, is an exploration of the form-seeking, form-imposing mind, which needs to understand but cannot until it casts what it sees into manageable models.”
Diana L. Eck in Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India
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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: 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!
* 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!