Blog Archives

Q: When you left the Navy you worked on commission as a portrait artist. Why don’t you accept commissions now?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  As I have often said, I left the active duty Navy in 1989, but stayed in the Reserves. The Reserves provided a small part-time income and the only requirement was that I work one weekend a month and two weeks each year.  Plus, I could retire after 13 more years and receive a pension.  (In 2003 I retired from the Navy Reserve as a Commander).  The rest of the time I was free to pursue my studio practice. 

For a short time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper.  However, after a year I became very restless.  I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!”  I lost interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish personally as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted.  I finished my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back. 

To this day I remain reluctant to accept a commission of any kind.  So I am completely free to paint whatever I want, which is the only way to evolve as a serious, deeply committed artist.      

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 84

My Alexandria living room

My Alexandria living room

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

I have a stockpile of sculptures, paintings, and drawings – every work of art I have made that has not sold – in a storage space for which I pay every month as regularly as I pay my utility bills.  This is a sensible arrangement, as I can leave this work to my children.  Most of the time I never give it a thought, but this morning it flashed across my mind that if it were blown away I would be bereaved in a way that would hurt me very much.  I have not been inordinately materialistic, but I am attached to my house, to my inherited belongings, and to the things that I have chosen for myself.  All these objects add complexity to my emotional ties to people with whom I have shared, and share, my life, and to my aspirations for myself.

Anne Truitt in Turn:  The Journal of an Artist 

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you begin a photograph?

Untitled chromogenic print, 24" x 24", edition of 5

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x 24″, edition of 5

A:  It always begins in my mind long before I actually start making it.  By the time I take the photograph, I’ve already thought deeply about the possibilities, the formal arrangements, meanings, etc. so that setting up the objects, lighting them, and clicking the shutter feels like a reward after a long thought process.  My fine art photographs are  finished works in themselves.  However, when I select one to use as reference for a pastel painting, a different but related process of working out my ideas and translating them into pastel occurs over the next several months spent in the studio.  Of course, in that case the photo becomes only the starting point for an entirely new artwork.  

Comments are welcome!  

Q: At the end of last Saturday’s (September 28th) post you mentioned something called, “Esala Perahera.” What is that?

Waiting for the Perahera to start, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Waiting for the Perahera to start, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Mending an elephant's headdress, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Mending an elephant’s headdress, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Preparations - planning what to do in case an elephant charges

Preparations – planning what to do in case an elephant charges

Flame throwers watching a man balancing on one stilt

Flame throwers watching a man balancing on one stilt

First elephant in the procession

First elephant in the procession

Drummers, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Drummers, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Three elephants, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Three elephants, Kandy, Sri Lanka

A single "tusker," Kandy, Sri Lanka

A single “tusker,” Kandy, Sri Lanka

Esala Perahera, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Esala Perahera, Kandy, Sri Lanka

After the festival

After the festival

A:  My trip to Sri Lanka was timed so that I could observe it first hand.  Here is a description from the “Insight Guide to Sri Lanka:”

The lunar month of Esala is a month for festivals and peraheras all around the island.  Easily the finest and the most famous is the Esala Perahera held at Kandy over the ten days leading up to the Esala Poya (full moon) day (late July or early August).  The festival dates back to ancient Anuradhapura, when the Tooth Relic (of the Buddha) was taken through the city in procession, and the pattern continues to this day, with the relic carried at the head of an enormous procession which winds its way round and round the city by night.  The perahera becomes gradually longer and more lavish over the 10 days of the festival, until by the final night it has swollen to include a cast of hundreds of elephants and thousands of dancers, drummers, fire-eaters, acrobats, and many others – an extraordinary sight without parallel anywhere else in Sri Lanka, if not the whole of Asia.

I would go further and add that the Esala Perahera is one of the world’s great festivals.  Who could ever imagine such a spectacle?  It may be a cliché to say it, but travel is ultimately the best education. 

Comments are welcome!   

Q: Would you speak about the practical realities – time and expenses – involved in making your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings? What might people be surprised to learn about this aspect of art-making?

Studio

Studio

A:  I have often said that this work is labor-intensive.  In a good year I can complete five or six large (38″ x 58″) pastel paintings.  In 2013 I am on track to make four, or, on average, one completed painting every three months.  I try to spend between thirty-five and forty hours a week in the studio.  Of course, I don’t work continuously all day long.  I work for awhile, step back, look, make changes and additions, think, make more changes, step back, etc.  Still, hundreds of hours go into making each piece in the “Black Paintings” series, if we count only the actual execution.  There is also much thinking and preparation – there is no way to measure this – that happen before I ever get to stand before an empty piece of sandpaper and begin.

As far as current expenses, they are upwards of $12,000 per painting.  Here is a partial breakdown:

$4500    New York studio, rent and utilities ($1350/month) for three months                                         

$2500    Supplies, including frames (between $1500 – $1700), photographs, pastels (pro-rated), paper                  

$2000    Foreign travel to find the cultural objects, masks, etc. depicted in my work (approximate, pro-rated)                                                   

$3000    Business expenses, such as computer-related expenses, website, marketing, advertising, etc.                                                                      

This list leaves out many items, most notably compensation for my time, shipping and exhibition expenses, costs of training (i.e. ongoing photography classes), photography equipment, etc.  Given my overhead, the paintings are always priced at the bare minimum that will allow me to continue making art. 

I wonder:  ARE people surprised by these numbers?  Anyone who has ever tried it knows that art is a tough road.  Long ago I stopped thinking about the cost and began doing whatever is necessary to make the best paintings.  The quality of the work and my evolution as an artist are paramount now.  This is my life’s work, after all.  

Comments are welcome!

    

Q: Your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are very labor intensive. Do you typically have just one in progress at any given time?

Works in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

Works in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  For many years I always worked on one at a time because I have only one or two ideas – never more than that – about what I will make next.  Also, I believe that “all art is the result of one’s having gone through an experience to the end.”  (It’s on a note taped to the wall near my easel).  So I would work on one painting at a time until all of the problems in it were resolved.  Each piece that I undertake represents an investment of several months of my life and after nearly three decades as an artist, I know that once I start a piece I will not abandon it for any reason.  When it is the best painting that I can make – when adding or subtracting anything would be a diminishment – I pronounce it “finished.”  In the past I would start the next one only when the completed piece was out of my sight and at the frame shop.

But a few years ago I began working on two pastel paintings at a time.  When I get stuck – or just need a break from looking at the same image day after day (I am in my studio 5 days a week) – I switch to the other one.  This helps me work more efficiently.  The two paintings interact with each other; they play off of each other and one suggests solutions that help me to resolve problem areas in the other.  I’m not sure exactly how this happens – maybe putting a piece aside for awhile alerts my unconscious to begin working deeply on it – but having two in progress at the same time is my preferred way of working now.

A note about the painting on the left above, which was previously called, “Judas.”  I happen to be reading “Cloud Atlas,” by David Mitchell and came across the word “judasing” used as a verb meaning, “doing some evil to a person who profoundly trusted you.”  I’d never heard the word before, but it resonated with an event in my personal life.  So the new title of my painting is “Judasing.”  This is a good reminder that work and life are inextricably (and inexplicably) woven together and that titles can come from anywhere!  

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you decide on the titles for your pastel paintings?

"Stigmata," soft pastel on sandpaper, 28" x 48"

“Stigmata,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 28″ x 48″

A:  Usually a title suggests itself over the course of the months I spend on a painting.  Sometimes it comes from a book I’m reading, from a piece of music, a film, bits of overheard conversation.  A title can come from anywhere, but finding the best one is key.  I like what Jean Cocteau says about this:

One title alone exists.  It will be, so it is.  Time conceals it from me.  How discover it, concealed by  a hundred others?  I have to avoid the this, the that.  Avoid the image.  Avoid the descriptive and the undescriptive.  Avoid the exact meaning and the inexact.  The soft, the hard.  Neither long nor short.  Right to catch the eye, the ear, the mind.  Simple to read and to remember.  I had announced several.  I had to repeat them twice and the journalists still got them wrong.  My real title defies me.  It enjoys its hiding place, like a child one keeps calling, and whom one believes drowned in the pond.    

Once I have the best title, I make sure it fits the painting exactly.  How I do that is difficult to explain.  It’s an intuitive process that involves adjusting colors, shapes, and images so that they fit the painting’s meaning, i.e., the meaning hinted at by the title.

Comments are welcome!        

Q: Why do you need to use a photograph as a reference source to make a pastel painting?

One of Barbara's reference photos

One of Barbara’s reference photos

A:  When I was about 4 or 5 years old I discovered that I had a natural ability to draw anything that I could see.  It’s the way my brain is wired and it is a gift!  One of my earliest memories as an artist is of copying the Sunday comics.  Always it has been much more difficult to draw what I CANNOT see, i.e., to recall how things look solely from memory or to invent them outright.

The evolution of my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings has been the opposite of what one might expect.  I started out making extremely photo-realistic portraits.  I remember feeling highly unflattered when after months of hard work, someone would look at my completed painting and say, “It looks just like a photograph!”  I know this was meant as a compliment, but to me it meant that I had failed as an artist.   Art is so much more than copying physical appearances.

So I resolved to move away from photo-realism.  It has been slow going and part of me still feels like a slacker if I don’t put in all the details.  But after nearly three decades I have arrived at my present way of working, which although still highly representational, contains much that is made up, simplified, and/or stylized.  As I have always done, I continue to work from life and from photographs, but at a certain point I put everything aside and work solely from memory.

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!