Blog Archives

Pearls from artists* # 266

Washington, DC

Washington, DC

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

… it is easy to describe the natural objects that we can hold in our  hands, or move into view, as we would describe works of art:  and this conditions the kind of pleasure we take in them.  They are objets trouves, jewels, treasures, whose perfection seems to radiate from themselves, as from an inner light.  Landscapes by contrast are very far from works of art – they owe their appeal not to symmetry, unity and form, but to an openness, grandeur and world-like expansiveness, in which it is we and not they that are contained.   

Roger Scruton in Beauty:  A Very Short Introduction

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Pearls from artists* # 141

Painting, subject, reference photo

Painting, subject, reference photo

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

It would be very interesting to record photographically not the stages of a painting, but its metamorphoses.  One would see perhaps by what course a mind finds its way towards the crystallization of its dream.  But what is really very curious is to see that the picture does not change basically, that the initial vision remains almost intact in spite of appearances.  I see often a light and dark, when I have put them in my picture, I do everything I can to ‘break them up,’ in adding a color that creates a counter effect.  I perceive, when this work is photographed, that which I have introduced to correct my first vision has disappeared, and that after all the photographic image corresponds to my first vision, before the occurrence of the transformation brought about by my will.

The picture is not thought out and determined beforehand, rather while it is being made it follows the mobility of thought.  Finished, it changes further, according to the condition of him who looks at it.  A picture lives its life like a living creature, undergoing the changes that daily life imposes on us.  That is natural, since a picture lives only through him who looks at it.

Christian Zervos:  Conversation with Picasso in The Creative Process, edited by Brewster Ghiselin

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Pearls from artists* # 132

 

Las Cruces, NM

Las Cruces, NM

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

… To feel confident and successful is not natural to the artist.

To feel insufficient.

to experience disappointment and defeat in waiting for

inspiration

is the natural state of mind of an artist.

As a result praise to most artists is a little embarrassing.

They cannot take credit for inspiration,

for what we can see perfectly, but we cannot do perfectly…

Agnes Martin quoted in The Art Life:  On Creativity and Career by Stuart Horodner

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Pearls from artists* # 125

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

My own natural proclivity is to categorize the world around me, to remove unfamiliar objects from their dangerous  perches by defining, compartmentalizing and labeling them.  I want to know what things are and I want to know where they are and I want to control them.  I want to remove the danger and replace it with the known.  I want to feel safe.  I want to feel out of danger.

And yet, as an artist, I know that I must welcome the strange and the unintelligible into my awareness and into my working process.  Despite my propensity to own and control everything around me, my job is to “make the familiar strange and the strange familiar,” as Bertolt Brecht recommended:  to un-define and un-tame what has been delineated by belief systems and conventions, and to welcome the discomfort of doubt and the unknown, aiming to make visible what has become invisible by habit.

Because life is filled with habit, because our natural desire is to make countless assumptions and treat our surroundings as familiar and unthreatening, we need art to wake us up.  Art un-tames, reifies and wakes up the part of our lives that have been put to sleep and calcified by habit.  The artist, or indeed anyone who wants to turn daily life into an adventure, must allow people, objects and places to be dangerous and freed from the definitions that they have accumulated over time.            

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

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Q: How do you select a photograph to use as reference material to make a pastel painting?

Photograph, left, and work in progress

Photograph, left, and work in progress

A:  Like everything else associated with my studio practice, my use of photographs from which to work has changed considerably. Beginning in the early 1990s all of the paintings in my first series, “Domestic Threats,” started out as elaborately staged, well-lit scenes that either my husband, Bryan, or I photographed with Bryan’s Toyo Omega 4 x 5 view camera using a wide-angle lens.   Depending on where I was living at the time, I set up the scenes in one of three places:  our house in Alexandria, VA, a six-floor walkup apartment on West 13th Street in New York, or my current Bank Street condominium.  Then one of us shot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I’d usually select the more detailed one to be made into a 20″ x 24″ photo to use as a reference.  

Just as the imagery in my paintings has simplified and emptied out over the years, my creative process has simplified, too.  I often wonder if this is a natural progression that happens as an artist gets older.  More recently I have been shooting photos independently of how exactly I will use them in my work.  Only later do I decide which ones to make into paintings; sometimes it’s YEARS later.  For example, the pastel painting that is on my easel now is based on a relatively old (2002) photograph that I have always liked, but only now felt ready to tackle in pastel.

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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.

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Q: Why do you work in series?

The studio recently

The studio recently

A:  I don’t really have any choice in the matter.  It’s more or less the way I have always worked so it feels natural.  Art-making comes from a deep place.  In keeping with the aphorism ars longa, vita brevis, it’s a way of making one’s time on earth matter.  Working in series mimics the more or less gradual way that our lives unfold, the way we slowly evolve and change over the years.  Life-altering events happen, surely, but seldom do we wake up drastically different – in thinking, in behavior, etc. – from what we were the day before.  Working in series feels authentic.  It helps me eke out every lesson my paintings have to teach.  With each completed piece, my ideas progress a step or two further. 

Last week I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see an exhibition called, “Matisse:  In Search of True Painting.”  It demonstrates how Matisse worked in series, examining a subject over time and producing multiple paintings of it.  Matisse is my favorite artist of any period in history.  I never tire of seeing his work and this particular exhibition is very enlightening.  In fact, it’s a must-see and I plan to return, something I rarely do because there is always so much to see and do in New York.  As I studied the masterpieces on the wall, I recognized a kindred spirit and thought, “Obviously, working in series was good enough for Matisse!”    

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Pearls from artists* # 5

Arizona storm

Arizona storm

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

Flying over the desert yesterday, I found myself lifted out of my preoccupations by noticing suddenly that everything was curved.  Seen whole from the air, circumscribed by its global horizon, the earth confronted me bluntly as a context all its own, echoing that grand sweep.  I had the startling impression that I was looking at something intelligent.  Every delicate pulsation of color was met, matched, challenged, repulsed, embraced by another, none out of proportion, each at its own unique and proper part of the whole.  The straight lines with which human beings have marked the land  are impositions of a different intelligence, abstract in this area of the natural.  Looking down at these facts, I began to see my life as somewhere between these two orders of the natural and the abstract, belonging entirely neither to one nor to the other.

In my work as an artist I m accustomed to sustaining such tensions:  A familiar position between my senses, which are natural, and my intuition of an order they both mask and illuminate.  When I draw a straight line or conceive of an arrangement of tangible elements all my own, I inevitably impose my own order on matter.  I actualize this order, rendering it accessible to my senses.  It is not so accessible until actualized.

An eye for this order is crucial for an artist.  I notice that as I live from day to day, observing and feeling what goes on both inside and outside myself, certain aspects of what is happening adhere to me, as if magnetized by a center of psychic gravity.  I have learned to trust this center, to rely on its acuity and to go along with its choices although the center itself remains mysterious to me.  I sometimes feel as if I recognize my own experience.  It is a feeling akin to that of unexpectedly meeting a friend in a strange place, of being at once startled and satisfied – startled to find outside myself what feels native to me, satisfied to be so met.  It is exhilarating.

I have found that this process of selection, over which I have virtually no control, isolates those aspects of my experience that are most essential to me in my work because they echo my own attunement to what life presents me.  It is as if there are external equivalents for truths which I already in some mysterious way know.  In order to catch these equivalents, I have to stay “turned on” all the time, to keep my receptivity to what is around me totally open.  Preconception is fatal to this process.  Vulnerability is implicit in it; pain, inevitable.

Anne Truitt, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist 

Comments are welcome.