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Q: Would you describe how you are taking soft pastel in new directions as a fine art medium?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  I have been devoted to soft pastel for more than thirty years.  In this blog and in countless interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close.

I have developed my own original methods for working with soft pastel, pushing this venerable 500-year-old medium to its limits and using it in ways that no one has done before.  I have created a unique science of color in which I layer and blend pigments.  When viewers (including fellow artists) see my work in person for the first time, they often ask, “What medium is this?”  

My self-invented techniques for using soft pastel achieve rich velvety textures and exceptionally vibrant color.  Blending with my fingers, I painstakingly apply dozens of layers of pastel onto acid-free sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I blend new colors directly on the paper.  Each pastel painting takes about three months and hundreds of hours to complete. 

My subject matter is singular.  I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys.  On trips to these places and elsewhere I frequent local mask shops, markets, and bazaars searching for the figures that will populate my pastel paintings.  How, why, when, and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the creative process.  Each pastel painting is a highly personal blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

Comments are welcome!  

Q: What was the first painting you ever sold?

“Bryan’s Ph.D.”, 11″ x 13 1/2″, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.”  I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel.  I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist.  Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands. 

In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland.  In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research.  He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA.  I still own the chair and the house.  I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting.  I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2.  Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.

“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria.  I have not seen it since 1990.  (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).

Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband.  She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce.  Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now.  She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.

I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan.  He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty.  At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.  

My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation.  In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others.  This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally.  I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.  

Comments are welcome!     

Q: How do you decide how much realism and how much imagination to put into a pastel painting?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  I wouldn’t say “decide” is the right word because creating a painting is not strictly the result of conscious decisions.  I think of my reference photograph, my preliminary sketch, and the actual folk art objects I depict as starting points.  Over the months that it takes to make a pastel painting, the resulting interpretive development pushes the painting far beyond this source material.  When all goes well, the original material disappears and characters that belong to the painting and nowhere else emerge.  

It is a mysterious process that I am still struggling to understand.  This is the best way I can describe what it feels like from the inside, as the maker.  

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 127

eBook cover

eBook cover

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

Two facts differentiate Daybook from my work in visual art.

The first is the simple safety of numbers.  There are 6500 Daybooks in the world.  My contribution to them was entirely mental, emotional.  I never put my hand on a single copy of these objects until I picked up a printed book.  I made no physical effort; no blood, no bone marrow moved from me to them.  I do not mean that I made no effort.  On the contrary, the effort was excruciating because it was so without physical involvement, so entirely hard-wrought out of nothing physical at all; no matter how little of the material world goes into visual art, something of it always does, and that something keeps you company as you work.  There seems to me no essential difference in psychic cost between visual and literary effort,  The difference is in what emerges as result.  A work of visual art is painfully liable to accident; months of concentration and can be destroyed by a careless shove.  Not so 6500 objects.  This fact gives me a feeling of security like that of living in a large, flourishing, and prosperous family.

Ancillary to this aspect is the commonplaceness of a book.  People do not have to go much out of their way to get hold of it, and they can carry it around with them and mark it up, and even drop it in a tub while reading in a bath.  It is a relief to have my work an ordinary part of life, released from the sacrosanct precincts of galleries and museums.  A book is also cheap.  Its cost is roughly equivalent to its material value as an object, per se.  This seems to me more healthy than the price of art, which bears no relation to its quality and fluctuates in the marketplace in ways that leave it open to exploitation.  An artist who sells widely has only to mark a piece of paper for it to become worth an amount way out of proportion to its original cost.  This aspect of art has always bothered me, and is one reason why I like teaching;  an artist can exchange knowledge and experience for money in an economy as honest as that of a bricklayer.   

Anne Truitt in Turn:  The Journal of an Artist

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you please share a few more of your pastel portraits?

"Sam and Bobo," soft pastel on sandpaper, 36" x 31", 1989

“Sam and Bobo,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 36″ x 31″, 1989

"Jules," soft pastel on sandpaper, 28" x 22", 1989

“Jules,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 28″ x 22″, 1989

"The Post Oak Jacks," soft pastel on sandpaper, 31" x 39", 1990

“The Post Oak Jacks,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 31″ x 39″, 1990

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

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

A:   See the four above.  As in my previous post, I reshot photographs from my portfolio book so the colors above have faded.  Many years later, however, my originals are as vibrant as ever. 

“Reunion” (bottom) is the last commissioned portrait I ever made.  Early on I knew that portraiture was too restrictive and that I wanted my work to  evolve in a completely different direction.  However, I didn’t know yet what that direction would be.     

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Can we see some of your early potraits?

"Krystyn," charcoal, 22" x 30", 1989

“Krystyn,” charcoal, 22″ x 30″, 1989

"John," soft pastel on sandpaper, 22" x 28", 1989

“John,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 22″ x 28″, 1989

A:   The  reproductions above are two of my earliest.  The portrait of Bryan (see last week’s post) is hanging at the school that was named for him, Dr. Bryan C. Jack Elementary School, in Tyler, Texas.  Krystyn’s portrait is hanging in my dining room in Alexandria, VA – I liked it too much to part with it.  I have no idea where the one of John is now. 

Note that the actual paintings are more vibrant than the 8 x 10’s shown above.  For example, the background of John’s painting is a brilliant green.  To obtain the images above I re-photographed photos from my portfolio book.  These photos, unlike the originals, have faded over the years.  That’s one more reason that my originals need to be seen in person.    

Comments are welcome!

Q: Have you ever worked outside?

Reproductions of "Cardinal Rule" (top) and "Blue Ego," originals are soft pastel on sandpaper, 30" x 38"

Reproductions of “Cardinal Rule” (top) and “Blue Ego,” originals are soft pastel on sandpaper, 30″ x 38″

A:  As a pastel artist I’ve never worked outside – with so many pastels, it’s just not practical – but early on in the “Domestic Threats” series, I created two outdoor setups.  Works in the series derived from elaborate scenes that I arranged and then photographed.  

I used to take long walks along the Potomac River in Alexandria, VA, and there was a tree stump that was fascinating.  It was mostly twisted roots, knotty branches, dark hidden spaces, etc. (top painting in photo).  One morning I took several hand puppets and stuffed animals (my subject matter at the time) and carefully arranged them on the tree.  Around me people were busy exercising their dogs.  Soon I attracted quite a bit of attention – a tall blonde woman playing with puppets on a tree stump!  Dogs came over to sniff.  Their owners came over, too, and I was pressed into explaining, again and again, that I was an artist, that I was photographing this scene so I could paint it, etc.  The interruptions were very annoying.

The second time I tried an outdoor setup was again along the Potomac River, but this time I selected a secluded strip of beach where I was undisturbed.  I had forgotten to consider the light and inadvertently chose a cloudy day.  I remember being disappointed that the light was flat and lacking shadows.  The painting (bottom in photo) turned out to be one of my least favorites. 

I resolved from then on to focus on interiors.  Alfred Hitchcock famously used rear projection so that he could work in a studio rather than on location.  One reason, he said, was that in a studio he had total control.  I know what he meant.  When I set up an interior scene and position the lights to make interesting shadows, indeed, I have control over the whole look.  No aspect is left to chance.   The accidents – improvements! – happen later when I work on the painting.  

Comments are welcome!