Blog Archives

Q: Pastel painting is the cornerstone of your practice. What attracted you to this medium?

Barbara's studio with "White Star" in progress

Barbara’s studio with “White Star” in progress

A:  For starters soft pastel is the medium that I fell in love with many years ago.  I am fond of this article, “What is Pastel?” by Mike Mahon, and quote it here 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 expense? 

Works on paper need to be framed and pastel paintings do have some unique problems.  Third after the cost of maintaining a studio in New York City and marketing, 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!

 

Q: Would you say there is a unifying quality to all of the work you have produced in the last thirty years?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  Yes, I can think of several.  Whether making pastel paintings or printing photographs in the darkroom, I have always been concerned with quality and craftsmanship and never pronounce a work finished until it is the best thing I can make. 

Although I started out as a maker of photorealist portraits in pastel, for twenty-odd years I have worked with Mexican folk art as my primary subject matter, treating these objects very differently in three separate series:  “Black Paintings,” “Domestic Threats,” and “Gods and Monsters.”  The first two are pastel-on-sandpaper paintings while the last is comprised of chromogenic photographs (c-prints).  A few years ago I also started making “Teleidoscopes” using an iPad app to photograph my Mexican and Guatemalan folk art collection.  This last one is just for fun; I do not offer them for sale.

Soft pastel is my first love and the two series of pastel paintings are my best-known work.  My technique for using pastel continues to evolve in intriguing ways.  I doubt I can ever learn all there is to know not only about color, but also about this medium.  Pastel is endlessly fascinating, which is why I have never wanted to switch to anything else. 

Comments are welcome!      

Q: Why do you make art?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  This is an excellent question and one I like to revisit because with all the day-to-day frustrations and disappointments that are a normal part of an artist’s life, it is easy to forget what is important.  

First, I make art because I have a gift and a desire to share it with others.  To not develop, express, and share all that I have to say through my work is unthinkable.

Second, I make art because it is what gives my life direction and purpose.  I believe that each human being has his or her own quest, driven by passion, to fulfill a certain duty. Recall Joseph Campbell’s, “The Hero’s Journey.”  I need to make art in order to feel that I am living up to my highest potential. 

Third, for inexplicable reasons (to me, anyway) soft pastel is an undervalued medium.  I fell in love with pastel above all other media and hope to demonstrate that great art can be created with it.  This is one of the drives that keeps me steadily working.

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* # 112

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.

If the goal of art is Beauty and if we assume that the goal is sometimes reached, even if always imperfectly, how do we judge art?  Basically, I think, by whether it reveals to us important Form that we ourselves have experienced but to which we have not paid adequate attention.  Successful art rediscovers Beauty for us.

One standard, then, for the evaluation of art is the degree to which it gives us a fresh intimation of Form.  For a picture to be beautiful it does not have to be shocking, but it must in some significant respect be unlike what has preceded it (this is why an artist cannot afford to be ignorant of the tradition within his medium).  If the dead end of the romantic vision is incoherence, the failure of classicism, which is the outlook I am defending, is the cliché, the ten thousandth camera-club imitation of a picture by Ansel Adams.

Robert Adams in Beauty in Photography 

Comments are welcome!

 

 

 

Q: How would you define art?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  At its core all art is communication.  I personally believe that without the component of communication, there is no art.  The expression of human creative skill and imagination becomes art when it is appreciated for its beauty, complexity, emotional power, evocativeness, etc.  A sympathetic and understanding audience is essential.  

Why might artists fail to communicate?  Perhaps they haven’t mastered their medium sufficiently to elicit a reaction from the viewer.  Perhaps the viewer lacks the necessary artistic, cultural, or intellectual background to understand and appreciate what the artist is communicating.  Maybe the viewer is distracted or preoccupied and not looking or thinking deeply enough.  There are many reasons.

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Do you have any advice for a young painter or someone just starting out as an artist?

Studio

Studio

A:  As artists each of us has at least two important responsibilities:  to express things we are feeling for which there are no adequate words and to communicate to a select few people, who become our audience.  By virtue of his or her own uniqueness, every human being has something to say.  But self-expression by itself is not enough.  As I often say, at it’s core art is communication.  Without this element there is no art.  When artists fail to communicate, perhaps they haven’t mastered their medium sufficiently so are unsuccessful in the attempt, or they may be being self-indulgent and not trying.  Admittedly there is that rare and most welcome occurrence when an artistic statement – such as a personal epiphany – happens for oneself alone. 

Most importantly, always listen to what your heart tells you.  It knows and speaks the truth and becomes easier to trust as you mature.  If you get caught up in the art world, step back and take some time to regain your bearings, to get reacquainted with the voice within you that knows the truth.  Paint from there.  Do not ever let a dealer or anyone else dictate what or how you should paint. 

With perhaps the singular exception of artist-run cooperative galleries, be very suspicious of  anyone who asks for money to put your work in an exhibition.  These people are making money from desperate and confused artists, not from appreciative art collectors.   With payment already in hand there is no financial incentive whatsoever for these people to sell your paintings and they won’t. 

Always work in a beautiful and special place of your own making.  It doesn’t need to be very large, unless you require a large space in which to create, but it needs to be yours.  I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf’s “a room of one’s own” here.  A studio is your haven, a place to experiment, learn, study, and grow.  A studio should be a place you can’t wait to enter and once you are there and engaged, are reluctant to leave. 

Be prepared to work harder than you ever have, unrelentingly developing your special innate gifts, whether you are in the mood to do so or not.  Most of all remember to do it for love, because you love your medium and it’s endless possibilities, because you love working in your studio, and because you feel most joyously alive when you are creating.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you feel about accepting commissions?

"Reunion," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58", 1990

“Reunion,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″, 1990

A:  By the time I left the Navy in 1989 to devote myself to making art, I had begun a career as a portrait painter.  I needed to make money, this was the only way I could think of to do so, and I had perfected the craft of creating photo-realistic portraits in pastel.  It worked for a little while. 

A year later I found myself feeling bored and frustrated for many reasons.  I didn’t like having to please a client because their concerns generally had little to do with art.  Once I ensured that the portrait was a good (and usually flattering) likeness, there was no more room for experimentation, growth, or creativity.  I believed (and still do) that I could never learn all there was to know about soft pastel.  I wanted to explore color and composition and take this under-appreciated medium as far as possible.  It seemed likely that painting portraits would not allow me to accomplish this.  Also, I tended to underestimate the amount of time needed to make a portrait  and charged too small a fee.

So I decided commissioned portraits were not for me and made the last one in 1990 (above).  I feel fortunate to have the freedom to create work that does not answer to external concerns.  

Comments are welcome!        

Q: Where do you want your work to go in the future?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Recently I answered a question about why I create, but now that I think about it, the same answer applies to what I want to do as an artist in the future:  

~ to create bold and vibrant pastel paintings and photographs that have never existed before  

~ to continue to push my primary medium – soft pastel on sandpaper – as far as I can and to use it in more innovative ways  

~ to create opportunities for artistic dialogue with people who understand and value the work to which I am devoting my life  

The last has always been the toughest.  I sometimes think of myself as Sisyphus because expanding the audience for my art is an ongoing uphill battle.  Many artist friends tell me they feel the same way about building their audience.  It’s one of the most difficult tasks that we have to do as artists.  I heard Annie Leibovitz interviewed on the radio once and remember her saying that after 40 years as a photographer, everything just gets richer.  Notice that she didn’t say it gets any easier; she said, “it just gets richer.”  I have been a painter for nearly  30 years and a photographer for 11.  I agree completely.  All artists have to go wherever our work goes.  Creating art and watching the process evolve is an endlessly fascinating intellectual journey.  I wouldn’t want to be spending my time on earth doing anything else!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What impact do you hope to have on viewers of your work?

"Us and Them," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38", 1993

“Us and Them,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″, 1993

A: I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no artist has done before.  I want people to see what is possible to accomplish with this medium.  Because I have experienced unspeakable heartache – the loss of my husband on 9/11, onboard the high-jacked airplane that crashed into the Pentagon –  when viewers learn about my life story, I hope to serve as an inspiration to keep forging ahead regardless of what tragedies life may bring.  These are the main reasons that I wrote my eBook.

Comments are welcome!