Blog Archives

Q: What made you fall in love with soft pastel versus another medium?

 

“The Champ” in “Worlds Seen & Unseen” at Westbeth Gallery, NYC

“The Champ” in “Worlds Seen & Unseen” at Westbeth Gallery, NYC

A: I like to get my hands right into my work. In other words, I don’t like brushes or anything else to intervene between my hands and what I’m working on.

I work with 400 or 500 grit Uart sandpaper so the downside is that I rub my fingertips raw from blending layers of soft pastel onto sandpaper. I’ve tried using rubber gloves (they make my fingers sweat and wear out fast), cotton gloves (they leave bits of lint on the paper), using a blending stump (it leaves lint on the paper), etc., but nothing works as well as my own fingers. So sore fingertips are an unavoidable occupational hazard. I sometimes take days off from the studio just so that my hands can heal.

I adore color and love looking at the thousands of pastels in my studio!  After working with this medium for more than thirty years, I still love what I am able to accomplish and I am still pushing it to do new things. The colors are rich, intense, velvety.  No other medium is as sensuous or as satisfying.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you speak about the meaning of your work and the different materials you use?

About half of Barbara’s pastels

About half of Barbara’s pastels

A:  It is as difficult to explain the meaning of my art as it is to interpret the meaning of life!  I am invested in and concerned with process:  foreign travel, prodigious reading, devotion to craft, months of slow meticulous work in the studio trying to create an exciting work of art that has never been seen before, etc.  I love making pastel paintings!  Many years ago I challenged myself to push the limits of what soft pastel can achieve.  I am still doing so.

I leave it to others – viewers, arts writers, critics, art historians – to study my creative journey and talk about meanings.  I believe an artist is inspired to create and viewers ponder the creation.  I would not presume to tell anyone how to react to my work.

For many years I have been devoted to promoting soft pastel as a fine art medium.  There are excellent reasons it has been around for five hundred years!  It is the most permanent of media. There’s no liquid binder to cause oxidizing or cracking over time, as happens with oil paint.  Pastel colors are intense because they are close to being pure pigment.  Pastel allows direct application (no brushes) with no drying time and no color changes.

I use UArt acid-free sandpaper.  This is not sandpaper from a hardware store.  It is made for artists who work in pastel and allows me to build up layers of pigment without using a fixative.  My process – slowly applying and layering pastels, blending and mixing new colors directly on the paper, making countless adjustments, searching for the best and/or most vivid colors – continually evolves.  Each pastel painting takes months to create.

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: Last week you spoke about what happens before you begin a pastel painting. Would you talk about how you actually make the work?

Beginning a new pastel painting

Beginning a new pastel painting

A:  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I try to be in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week. 

I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have thousands 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 before.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 113

Studio corner

Studio corner

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

In Amsterdam I saw a striking still life painted by Rembrandt van Rijn suspended above a glass case that contained the same objects that he used as a model for the picture.  The contrast between what felt like a drab collection of random objects in the case and the stunning luminescent painting that seemed imbued with nothing less than intense energy and life gave me pause and clarified something I had been thinking about.  I had been thinking about the power of art to transform the frustrations and irritations of daily life into a realm of grace and to embody, through arrangement, composition, light, color and shade, nothing less than the secret elixir of life itself.

We encounter daily frustrations, irritations, and obstacles.  Perhaps we feel hampered and limited by our hit-and-miss upbringing, our apparent limitations and our imperfect ongoing circumstances.  And yet Rembrandt’s still life painting demonstrates that it is within our power to transform the random, the everyday, the frustrating and the prosaic into an arrangement instilled with grace and poetry.  Is it the arrangement of these objects that lends such a spiritual quality to the painting?  Is it the sensation of light captured upon canvas?  How did Rembrandt transform the quotidian into an uplifting vision of life?

Anne Bogart in What’s the Story:  Essays about art, theater, and storytelling  

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* # 94

Working on "False Friends"  Photo: Diana Feit

Working on “False Friends” Photo: Diana Feit

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

A work of art which inspires us comes from no quibbling or uncertain man.  It is the manifest of a very positive nature in great enjoyment, and at the very moment the work was done.

It is not enough to have thought great things before doing the work.  The brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact state of being of the artist at that exact moment into the work, and there it is, to be seen and read by those who can read such signs, and to be read later by the artist himself, with perhaps some surprise, as a revelation of himself.

For an artist to be interesting to us he must be interesting to himself.  He must have been capable of intense feeling, and capable of profound contemplation.

He who has contemplated has met with himself, is in a state to see into the realities beyond the surfaces of his subject.  Nature reveals to him, and, seeing and feeling intensely, he paints, and whether he wills it or not each brush stroke is an exact record of such as he was at the exact moment the stroke was made.

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 76

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

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

What stops us in our tracks?   I am rarely stopped by something or someone I can instantly know.  In fact, I have always been attracted to the challenge of getting to know what I cannot instantly categorize or dismiss, whether an actor’s presence, a painting, a piece of music, or a personal relationship.  It is the journey towards the object of attraction that interests me.  We stand in relation to one another.  We long for the relationships that will change our vistas.  Attraction is an invitation to an evanescent journey, to a new way of experiencing life or perceiving reality.

An authentic work of art embodies intense energy.  It demands response.  You can either avoid it, shut it out, or meet it and tussle.  It contains attractive and complicated energy fields and a logic all its own.  It does not create desire or movement in the receiver, rather it engenders what James Joyce labeled ‘aesthetic arrest.’ You are stopped in your tracks.  You cannot easily walk by it and go on with your life.  You find yourself in relation to something that you cannot readily dismiss.

Anne Bogart in A Director Prepares:  Seven Essays on Art and Theater 

Comments are welcome!   

Q: Can you discuss your process, including how you actually use Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures in your art?

A corner of Barbara's studio

A corner of Barbara’s studio

A:  When I set up the figures to photograph for a painting, I work very intuitively, so how I actually cast them in an artwork is difficult to say. Looks count a lot – I select an object and put it in a particular place, look at it, move it or let it stay, and sometimes develop a storyline. I spend time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. With my first “Domestic Threats” series, all of this was done so that Bryan, my late husband, or I could shoot a couple of negatives with his Toyo Omega 4″ x 5″ view camera.  For  my “Black Paintings” series, begun in 2007, I shoot medium format negatives with a Mamiya 6 camera.

I always look at a 20″ x 24″ photograph for reference as I make a pastel-on-sandpaper painting, plus I also work from the ‘live’ objects.  The photograph is mainly a catalyst because finished paintings are always quite different from their associated reference photos.  Also, since I spend months creating them, the paintings’ interpretative development goes way beyond that of the photo.   

I once completed 6 large (58” x 38”) pastel paintings in a single year, but more recently 4 or 5 per year is common.  It takes approximately 3 months to make each one.  During that time I layer and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pastel. Of course, the colors get more intense as the painting progresses and the pigment accumulates on the sandpaper.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you remove pastel dust from your clothing, fingers, etc.?

Pastel dust

Pastel dust

A:  Pastel usually comes out of my clothes easily in the laundry, unless I have had an intense studio session where I let it make a total mess.  I try not to wear good clothes to the studio.  Getting it off my hands is easy with Artguard, a barrier cream I always apply before working.  A good scrub with soap and water washes the pastel right off.

The worst occupational hazard, believe it or not, is what happens to the tops of my shoes!  As I work, the dust falls onto my feet and I usually don’t notice until the end of the day.  Whether made of canvas, leather, or whatever, shoes can be a problem when it comes to removing the dust.      

Comments are welcome!