Blog Archives

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  This is the first day – with only one layer of soft pastel in most places – of a 38″ x 58″ pastel painting.  It’s based on a photo I composed at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia.  This is the fourth work in my “Bolivianos” series.

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!

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!

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: The handmade frames on your large pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are quite elaborate. Can you speak more about them?

"Quartet" (left) and "Epiphany," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Quartet” (left) and “Epiphany,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I have been working in soft pastel since 1986, I believe, and within six years the sizes of my paintings increased from 11″ x 14″ to 58″ x 38.”  (I’d like to work even bigger, but the limiting factors continue to be first, the size of mat board that is available and second, the size of my pick-up truck).  My earliest work is framed with pre-cut mats, do-it-yourself Nielsen frames, and glass that was cut-to-order at the local hardware store.  With larger-sized paintings DIY framing became impractical.  In 1989 an artist told me about Underground Industries, a custom framing business in Fairfax, Virginia, run by Rob Plati, his mother, Del, and until last year, Rob’s late brother, Skip.  So Rob and Del have been my framers for 24 years.  When I finish a painting in my New York studio, I drive it to Virginia to be framed.

Pastel paintings have unique problems – for example, a smudge from a finger, a stray drop of water, or a sneeze will ruin months of hard work.  Once a New York pigeon even pooped on a finished painting!  Framing my work is an ongoing learning experience.  Currently, my frames are deep, with five layers of acid-free foam core inserted between the painting and the mat to separate them.  Plexiglas has a static charge so it needs to be kept as far away from the pastel as possible, especially since I do not spray finished pastel paintings with fixative.

Once they are framed, my paintings cannot be laid face down.  There’s a danger that stray pastel could flake off.  If that happens, the whole frame needs to be taken apart and the pastel dust removed.  It’s a time-consuming, labor-intensive process and an inconvenience, since Rob and Del, the only people I trust with my work, are five hours away from New York by truck. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: When and why did you start working on sandpaper?

Raw sandpaper

Raw sandpaper

A:  In the late 1980s when I was studying at the Art League in Alexandria, VA, I took a three-day pastel workshop with Albert Handel, an artist known for his southwest landscapes in pastel and oil paint.  I had just begun working with soft pastel (I’d completed my first class with Diane Tesler) and was still experimenting with paper.  Handel suggested I try Ersta fine sandpaper.  I did and nearly three decades later, I’ve never used anything else. 

The paper (UArt makes it now) is acid-free and accepts dry media, especially pastel and charcoal.   It allows me to build up layer upon layer of pigment, blend, etc. without having to use a fixative.  The tooth of the paper almost never gets filled up so it continues to hold pastel.  If the tooth does fill up, which sometimes happens with problem areas that are difficult to resolve, I take a bristle paintbrush, dust off the unwanted pigment, and start again.  My entire technique – slowly applying soft pastel, blending and creating new colors directly on the paper (occupational hazard:  rubbed-raw fingers, especially at the beginning of a painting as I mentioned in last Saturday’s blog post), making countless corrections and adjustments, looking for the best and/or most vivid colors, etc. – evolved in conjunction with this paper. 

I used to say that if Ersta ever went out of business and stopped making sandpaper, my artist days would be over.  Thankfully, when that DID happen, UArt began making a very similar paper.  I buy it from ASW (Art Supply Warehouse) in two sizes – 22″ x 28″ sheets and 56″ wide by 10 yard long rolls.  The newer version of the rolled paper is actually better than the old, because when I unroll it it lays flat immediately.  With Ersta I laid the paper out on the floor for weeks before the curl would give way and it was flat enough to work on.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress, 58" x 38"

Work in progress, 58″ x 38″

A:  Today is a day off to let my fingers heal.  When I start a new painting, I need to rub my fingers against raw sandpaper in order to blend the pastel.  With each layer the tooth of the paper gets filled up and becomes smooth, but until then my fingers suffer.  Here is what I’ve been working on.

This pastel-on-sandpaper painting is an experiment, an attempt to push myself to work with bigger and bolder imagery.  The photograph clipped to the easel is one of my favorites.  It depicts a Judas that Bryan and I found in a dusty shop in Oaxaca.  Among the Mexican and Guatemalan folk art pieces that I’ve collected are five papier mâché Judases.  This particular one is unusual because it has a cat’s head attached at the forehead (the purple shape in the painting).  They are not made to last.  In some Mexican towns large Judases are hung from church steeples, loaded with fireworks, and burned in effigy.  This takes place at 10:00 a.m. on the Saturday morning before Easter.  Mexico is primarily a Catholic nation, of course, so effigy burning is done as symbolic revenge against Judas for his betrayal of Christ.  The Judas in the photo is small and meant for private burning by a family (rather than in public at a church) so by bringing it back to New York I rescued it from a fire-y death!  In sympathy with Mexican tradition, I began this painting last Saturday (the day before Easter) at 10 a.m.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do you have so many pastels?

Barbara's pastels

Barbara’s pastels

A: Our eyes can see infinitely more colors than the relative few that are made into pastels. When I layer pigments onto the sandpaper, I mix new colors directly on the painting. The short answer is, I need lots of pastels so that I can make new colors.

I’ve been working exclusively with soft pastel for nearly 27 years. Whenever I feel myself getting into a rut in how I select and use my colors, I look around for new materials to try.   I’m in one of those periods now and plan to buy  soft pastels made by Henri Roché in Paris.  (Not long ago I received a phone call from their artist’s liaison and was offered samples based on my preferences.  Wow, what great colors!).  Fortunately, new brands of soft pastels are continually coming onto the market. There are pastels that are handmade by artists – I love discovering these – and new ones manufactured by well-known art supply companies.  Some sticks of soft pastel are oily, some are buttery, some more powdery, some crumble easily, some are more durable.  Each one feels distinct in my hand.

Furthermore, they each have unique mixing properties.  It’s an under-appreciated science that I stumbled upon (or maybe I invented it, I’m not sure since I can’t know on a deep level how other pastel painters work). In this respect soft pastel is very different from other paint media. Oil painters, for example, need only a few tubes of paint to make any color in the world. I don’t go in much for studying color theory as a formal discipline. If you want to really understand and learn how to use color, try soft pastel and spend 10,000+ hours (the amount of time Malcolm Gladwell says, in his book, “Outliers,” that it takes to master a skill) figuring it all out for yourself!

Comments are welcome.