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Pearls from artists* # 122

Sanur, Bali

Sanur, Bali

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

Most significant growth in my life has been the direct result of errors, mistakes, accidents, faulty assumptions and wrong moves.  I have generally learned more from my mistakes and my so-called failures than any successes or instances of “being right.”  I would venture to propose that this equation is also true in the world at large.  Error is a powerful animating ingredient in political, scientific and historical evolution as well as in art and mythology.  Error is a necessity.  The question I had to ask myself was:  how can I cultivate a tolerance and an appetite for being wrong, for error?

In the face of an exceedingly complicated world, there are too many people who are invested in “being right.”  These people are dangerous.  Their authority is based on their sense of certainty.  But innovation and invention do not only happen with smart people who have all of the answers.  Innovation results from trial and error.  The task is to make good mistakes, good errors, in the right direction.

There are many reasons that we get things as wrong as often as we do.  Failures of perception, the cause of most error, are far more common in our daily lives than we like to think.  We make errors because of inattention, because of poor preparation and because of haste.  We err as a result of hardened prejudices about how things are.  We err because we neglect to think things through.  Our senses betray us constantly.  But the chaos caused by being wrong also  awakens energy and consciousness in us.  In the moments that we realize our faults of perception, we are jerked into an awareness of our humanity.  The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote, “Consciousness originates with something going terribly wrong.”

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

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 48

"Big Deal," with double portrait of the author

“Big Deal,” with double portrait of the author

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

Until the invention of photography, the painted (or sculptural) portrait was the only means of recording and presenting the likeness of a person.  Photography took over this role from painting and at the same time raised our standards for judging how much an informative likeness should include.

This is not to say that photographs are in all ways superior to painted portraits.  They are more informative, more psychologically revealing, and in general more accurate.  But they are less tensely unified.  Unity in a work of art is achieved as a result of the limitations of the medium.  Every element has to be transformed in order to have its proper place within these limitations.  In photography the transformation is to a considerable extent mechanical.  In a painting each transformation is largely the result of a conscious decision by the artist.  Thus the unity of a painting is permeated by a far higher degree of intention.  The total effect of a painting (as distinct from its truthfulness) is less arbitrary than that of a photograph; its construction is more intensely socialized because it is dependent on a greater number of human decisions.  A photographic portrait may be more revealing and accurate about the likeness and character of the sitter; but it is likely to be less persuasive, less (in the very strict sense of the word) conclusive.  For example, if the portraitist’s intention is to flatter or idealize, he will be able to do so far more convincingly in a painting than with a photograph. 

Geoff Dyer, editor, Selected Essays:  John Berger

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!