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Pearls from artists* # 292

"White Star," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“White Star,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

… many tools may share qualities of fine design with works of art.  We are in the presence of a work of art only when it has no preponderant instrumental use, and when its technical and rational foundations are not pre-eminent.  When the technical organization or the rational order of a thing overwhelms our attention, it is an object of use.  On this point Lodoli anticipated the doctrine of functionalists of our century when he declared in the eighteenth century that only the necessary is beautiful.  Kant, however, more correctly said on the same point that the necessary cannot be judged beautiful, but only right or consistent.  In short, a work of art is as useless as a tool is useful.  Works of art are as unique and irreplaceable as tools are common and expendable. 

George Kubler in The Shape of Time:  Remarks on the History of Things

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?

Barbara in Bali (far right)

Barbara in Bali (far right)

A:  My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive. 

First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice. 

My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work.  As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next.  Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material. 

In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows.  Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.

In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera.  In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.   

Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  Now I go to Duggal.  Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.

Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper.  The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead. 

Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting. 

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 110

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.

A well-lived life should be worth attention.  At the very least, you should find your own story engaging.  In presenting yourself to yourself and others, then, you should keep in mind the rules that good playwrights follow.  Like a good character – you should be making choices that are explicable – choices that appear to be coming from a mind in working order.  Your choices should be reasonably coherent with each other, also, so as to support the thought that there is a real person – you – behind those choices.

Paul Woodruff, philosopher, quoted in What’s the Story:  Essays about art, theater, and storytelling by Anne Bogart

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 107

 

"The Ancestors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

* 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 proper goal of art is, as I now believe, Beauty, the Beauty that concerns me is that of Form.  Beauty is, in my view, a synonym of the coherence and structure underlying life (not for nothing does Aristotle list plot first in his enumeration of the components of  tragedy, a genre of literature that, at least in its classical form, affirms order in life).  Beauty is the overriding demonstration of pattern that one observes, for example, in the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare, the fiction of Joyce, the films of Ozu, the paintings of Cezanne and Matisse and Hopper, and the photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Dorothea Lange.

Why is Form beautiful?  Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.  James Dickey was right when he asked rhetorically, “What is heaven anyway, but the power of dwelling among objects and actions of consequence.”  “Objects of consequence” cannot be created by man alone, nor can “actions of consequence’ happen in a void; they can only be found within a framework that is larger than we are, an encompassing totality invulnerable to our worst behavior and most corrosive anxieties.

… How, more specifically, does art reveal Beauty, or Form?  Like philosophy it abstracts.  Art simplifies.  It is never exactly equal to life.  In the visual arts, this careful sorting out in favor of order is called composition, and most artists know its primacy.

Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams

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!

Pearls from artists* # 53

"Art and Beer," a roadside bar and sculpture garden in Baja del Sur, Mexico

“Art and Beer,” a roadside bar and sculpture garden in Baja del Sur, Mexico

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

We do treat books surprisingly lightly in contemporary culture.  We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once.  Books and music share more in terms of resonance than just a present-tense correlation of heard note to read word.  Books need time to draw us in, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them , because books are produced by books more than by writers; they’re a result of all the books that went before them.  Great books are adaptable; they alter with us as we alter in life, they renew themselves as we change and re-read them at different times in our lives.  You can’t step into the same story twice – or maybe it’s that stories. books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, and maybe it’s this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to more transient art, which is real too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us  and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and goings.  Because come then go we will, and in that order.

Ali Smith in Artful  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 9

Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

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

ART when really understood is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well.  It is not an outside, extra thing.

When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature.  He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding.  Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible.

The world would stagnate without him, and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others.  He  does not have to be a painter or sculptor to be an artist.  He can work in any medium.  He simply has to find the gain in the work itself, not outside it.

Museums of art will not make a country an art country.  But where there is the art spirit there will be precious works to fill museums.  Better still, there will be the happiness that is in the making.  Art tends toward balance, order, judgment or relative values, the laws of growth, the economy of living – very good things for anyone to be interested in.

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

Comments are welcome.

 

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.