Blog Archives

Q: Can you explain how you choose colors? (Question from Maria Cox via Instagram)

“Overlord,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58” x 38”

A: I am wild about color! As I work to create a pastel painting, I apply a color, back up from my easel to see how it interacts with and affects the rest of the painting, and then I make revisions. This process necessitates countless color changes and hundreds of hours during months of work. I apply pastel using a meticulous layering process. Were you to x-ray one of them, the earlier, discarded versions of a pastel painting would be visible. All the while I carefully fine-tune and refine how the colors and shapes interact with each other.

The goal is to make an exciting painting that no one, especially me as the maker, has ever seen before. I have no desire to repeat myself, to make art that resembles work by any other artist, or to be forced into a niche.

I try to select intense, vibrant colors that are exciting to look at, that work well in relationship to each other, and that will grab the viewer. Sometimes I deliberately choose colors for their symbolic meanings. For example, I selected a dark purple for the alternating triangles (the ones with the pink dots above) in “Overlord” because purple denotes royalty.

I have been working with soft pastel for 37 years so I have a fairly intricate science of color at my disposal. No doubt, many unconscious factors are at play, too. More on that in future posts.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 532

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.

Far from offering an escape from the world, the arts present one of the most difficult and hard-fought ways to enter into the life of our time or any other time. What the artist must first accept is the authority of an art form, the immersion in what others have done and achieved. Once the artist has begun to take all that in – it’s a process that never really ends – there comes the even greater challenge of asserting one’s freedom. It’s the limits imposed by a vocation that makes it possible to turn away from the pressures of the moment and think and feel freely – and sometimes, give the most private emotions an extraordinary public hearing. If art is the ordering of disorderly experience, and I don’t know how else to describe it, then the artist must be true both to the order and to the disorder. These are the trials of the artist and the artistic vocation. They shape the experience of anybody who reads a novel or looks at a painting or listens to a piece of music.

Jed Perl in Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 531

In the 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.

Find joy in the process as well as in the product. The issue of recognition is in part the issue of process versus outcome. Insofar as the process brings you joy, insofar as constructing a paragraph, painting shafts of sunlight, or playing a passage fills you with awe and delight, for that hour the issue of recognition vanishes. Insofar as the effort to construct that paragraph or to master that passage is a heartfelt struggle, welling up from deep sources, for that hour the issue of recognition vanishes. Notice your joy in the work, so as to remind yourself why you embarked on this journey.

Eric Maisel in A Life in the Arts: Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

Comments are welcome!

Q: What makes you feel most alive?

Morning in Udaipur, India

A: Making art makes me feel alive, using all my gifts, my brain, my heart, and my hands to create something that never existed before and that can never be duplicated; knowing I’m the only person, ever, who could or would make this particular thing, as I strive to push my pastel techniques further each time out. Whether it’s a painting or a photograph, I enjoy making something from nothing… art that is well-crafted and has never been seen before.  

Travel is the other activity that excites me. I thrive on adventure and I especially love new vistas.  When I am in a country I have never visited before, with every step and around every bend there is something new to see. I am an explorer at heart!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 527

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.

Vocation was originally a religious term. The word comes from the Latin vocatio, which means a summons, a call. To be a priest, a monk, or a nun is to accept a calling – a vocation. The sense of an imperative – of an activity that’s a necessity, an inevitability – remains very much part of the meaning of the word today. A creative vocation isn’t a job. It’s a calling, even if for most modern artists the summons is an inner necessity, not the call of some divine figure or force. Even an artist as determinedly secular as Picasso saw echoes of religious vocation in his experience as an artist. When his mistress Francoise Gilot, wondering at his concentration and stamina, asked him if when he was painting “it didn’t tire him to stand so long in one spot,” this was his response: “No. That’s why painters live so long. While I work, I leave my body outside the door, the way Moslems take off their shoes before entering the mosque.” For creative spirits the studio or stage – or wherever they do their work – is a place apart. They may recoil from describing this as a sacred space, but there’s no question that these spaces have a special significance.

Jed Perl in Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

A: I began a new 26” x 20” “Bolivianos” pastel-on-sandpaper painting a few days ago.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What is your process? (Question from artamour)

Some of Barbara’s pastels

A: For thirty-six years I have worked exclusively in soft pastel on sandpaper.  Pastel, which is pigment and a binder to hold it together, is as close to unadulterated color as an artist can get.  It allows for very saturated color, especially employing the self-invented techniques I have developed and mastered. I believe my “science of color” is unique, completely unlike how any other artist works.  I spend three to four months on each painting, applying pastel and blending the layers together to mix new colors on the paper. 

The acid-free sandpaper support allows the buildup of 25 to 30 layers of pastel as I slowly and meticulously work for hundreds of hours to complete a painting.  The paper is extremely forgiving.  I can change my mind, correct, refine, etc. as much as I want until a painting is the best I can create at that moment in time. 

My 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 the sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I make new colors directly on the paper.  Regardless of size, each pastel painting takes three to four months and hundreds of hours to complete. 

have been devoted to soft pastel from the beginning.  In my blog and in numerous interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close. 

My subject matter is unique.  I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys.  On trips to these countries 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!

Pearls from artists* # 491

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

*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 look at ancient Egyptian painting today and may find it slightly comic, but what the Egyptians were trying to do with the figure was reveal the various aspects of the person’s body in the most characteristic aspect. The face is in profile because that reveals the most about the person’s face, but the shoulders are not in profile, they’re facing the viewer, because that’s the most revealing angle for the shoulders. The hips are not in profile, but the feet are. It gives a strange, twisted effect, but it was natural to the Egyptians. They were painting essences, and in order to paint an essence you have to paint it from its most characteristic angle. So they would simply combine the various characteristic essences of the human body. This was a piece of spiritual art. It wasn’t trying to reproduce photographic reality, it was trying to reproduce and combine all the essential features of a person within one figure.

Walter Murch in The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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Pearls from artists* # 485

New York City

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

[Michael] Ondaatje: It’s an odd thing: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of ambiguity in film, and the need to save that ambiguous quality which exists in a book or painting, and which you think a film does not often have. And at the same time in a mix you are trying to “perfect” that ambiguity.

[Walter] Murch: I know. It’s a paradox. And one of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix – even though it had been ambiguous up to that point – I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of hemorrhaging of the organism.

O: And more of a confusion.

M: Yes. I keep thinking about it, and it’s a wonderful dilemma: you have to acknowledge that there must be unsolved problems at each stage. As hard as you work, you must have this secret, unspoken hope that one very significant problem will remain unsolved. But you never know what that will be until the film is done. You can almost define a film by the problem it poses, that it can’t answer itself, that it asks the audience to solve.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 477

Photo: Izzy Nova
Photo: Izzy Nova

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

Although he produced thousands of works of art in his pitifully short time on earth, Vincent [van Gogh] – as, following his own example, we shall call him – failed to sell a single painting in his lifetime, despite the fact that his brother Theo was a prominent Paris art dealer who, among other business coups, made a fortune for Claude Monet. Although he suffered through periods of deepest doubt, Vincent knew that one day his work would be recognized for its true worth. All the same, he could not have dreamed that his jarringly revolutionary paintings would one day rise so high in popular regard.

John Banville in His Own Worst Enemy, The New York Review of Books, May 13, 2021

Comments are welcome!

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