Blog Archives

Q: Do you consider your finished pastel works to be drawings or paintings?

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

“The Sovereign,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″ image, 70″ x 50″ framed

A:  Among artists who work in pastel, these two words, ‘drawings’ and ‘paintings,’ have very specific meanings, somewhat unrelated to the usual distinctions made by art historians and others.  For a pastel artist, a ‘drawing’ refers to a work in which the paper or other substrate is allowed to show through.  In a pastel ‘painting’ you do not see the substrate at all, i.e. pastel is used much more heavily in a painting than in a drawing.  Since I have always spent months creating each piece, covering the entire sandpaper ground with up to 30 layers of pigment, I have considered my work to be pastel painting.

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Q: As an artist what would you say is your particular ‘superpower’?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I have been told that it is my unique way of composing images or, in other words, how I deliberately move the viewer’s eye around the picture.  More exactly, it’s the way I combine flat shapes, patterns, angles, forms, modeling, decoration, details, lights, and darks in surprising ways when I make pastel paintings or pick up a camera.   

But I think there’s a secondary, more subtle element:  my understanding of and sensitivity to using color for psychological effect.  The way I use color in pastel paintings is intuitive.  This is something I haven’t reflected on very much yet, but will examine in a future post.

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Q: Have any artists influenced you technically?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  I’d have to say no one, because my technique of using soft pastel on sandpaper is largely self-invented and it continues to slowly evolve.  I apply up to thirty layers of pigment, blending it with my fingers, and creating new colors directly on the sandpaper.  It is a rather meticulous process that suits my personality.

My unique way of applying and mixing pastel is a richly complex science of color.  This intricate technique is one of the reasons that my pastel paintings cannot be forged by anyone.

Every great artist throughout history has invented their own techniques and created a world that is uniquely theirs, with its own iconography, its own laws, and its own specific concerns.  Artists who are most worthy of the name create their own tasks and make and break their own rules.  

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Q: How important are the titles of your pastel paintings?

"Provocateur," soft pastel on sandpaper, 26" x 20"

“Provocateur,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″

A:  I’d say they are important.  Titles serve mainly as “a way in” for viewers, giving some clues about my thought processes while I am making a painting.  Usually titles emerge only after I have been working on a painting for weeks or months.  For me they are very much like mementos after a very interesting journey.       

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Q: Your pastel paintings are immediately recognizable as yours alone. Did you consciously try to develop a signature style in your work?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A: I don’t believe that is even possible.  An artist’s style is something that evolves with plain hard work and experience, over many years of trial and error, as one finds what techniques work best and discards those that don’t.  It is a process of continually experimenting, refining, and clarifying.  In other words, style is something that emerges naturally as you gradually strive to improve your art-making. 

Style develops in close connection to what an artist is saying as she undergoes a very personal and idiosyncratic journey.  Again, it would seem improbable for an artist to strive for any particular style, since style is not something over which an artist can exert much conscious control. 

I would even say that each artist’s unique style is inevitable.  It would be nearly impossible now to make a pastel painting or photograph that does NOT look like a Rachko. 

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Q: Do you have any favorites among the Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures that you depict in your work?

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

A:  I suppose it seems that way, since I certainly paint some figures more than others.  My favorite characters change, depending on what is happening in my work.  My current favorites are a figure I have never painted before (the Balinese dragon above) and several Mexican and Guatemalan figures last painted years ago.  All will make an appearance in a pastel painting for which I am still developing preliminary ideas (above).

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Q: Would you say there is a unifying quality to all of the work you have produced in the last thirty years?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  Yes, I can think of several.  Whether making pastel paintings or printing photographs in the darkroom, I have always been concerned with quality and craftsmanship and never pronounce a work finished until it is the best thing I can make. 

Although I started out as a maker of photorealist portraits in pastel, for twenty-odd years I have worked with Mexican folk art as my primary subject matter, treating these objects very differently in three separate series:  “Black Paintings,” “Domestic Threats,” and “Gods and Monsters.”  The first two are pastel-on-sandpaper paintings while the last is comprised of chromogenic photographs (c-prints).  A few years ago I also started making “Teleidoscopes” using an iPad app to photograph my Mexican and Guatemalan folk art collection.  This last one is just for fun; I do not offer them for sale.

Soft pastel is my first love and the two series of pastel paintings are my best-known work.  My technique for using pastel continues to evolve in intriguing ways.  I doubt I can ever learn all there is to know not only about color, but also about this medium.  Pastel is endlessly fascinating, which is why I have never wanted to switch to anything else. 

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Q: How do you store your pastel paintings?

Storage closet

Storage closet

A:  Well, I wish I could say that every pastel painting has sold as soon as it was completed, but that is a rarity that has only happened twice.  As soon as possible after I finish a painting, I bring it to the framer.  Pastel paintings are susceptible to smudging and other odd dangers (even a sneeze!) until they are under Plexiglas.  

Framed work can easily and safely be stored by hanging it on a wall in my studio or standing it upright and face up, and leaning against a wall.  When I put paintings in my storage closet for the longer term, I wrap them in bubble wrap.

The downside of having to frame everything is that it is a considerable expense.  However, the upside is that I am always ready for a solo exhibition.  Gallerists have called at the last minute when one of their exhibitions ran into unexpected problems.  Usually, I am able to step right in.     

Comments are welcome!        

Q: How do you determine what size to make your pastel paintings?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  For some time I have been making pastel paintings in two sizes:  20″ x 26″ and 38″ x 58″.  Sizes are dictated by practical considerations. 

The smaller ones are because 22″ x 28″ sheets of acid-free sandpaper are what’s available.  (I mask off an inch all around for mats so the paintings are 20″ x 26″).  For large paintings I buy rolls of acid-free sandpaper that measure 54 inches wide by 30 feet. I cut this down to 40″ x 60″ for paintings (and mask off an inch all around on these, too).  

And why specifically make them  38″ x 58″?  This is the largest size I can make.  

Again, practical factors come into play:  the size of my truck, the cost and size of mat board, and the weight of the frames.

 My pastel paintings need to lie flat  when they are moved.  Framed paintings are 50″ x 70,” the largest size that can fit flat in the back of my Ford F-150.  38″ x 58″ is the largest size that will fit in a 4 feet by 8 feet sheet of mat board.  (60 inch wide mat board is available, but the cost goes up considerably).  Lastly, I’ve never weighed them but my large framed paintings are heavy.  It takes two people to carry them.   

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Q: In terms of change where will you take your work next?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  That’s difficult to say because creating new pastel paintings is a somewhat mysterious process.  Change happens on its own timetable and in its own way rather than from my efforts to exert conscious control over it.  In essence it is my job to keep working in the studio, to be sensitive and true to my own creative process, and to go where the work leads.  I doubt that I could work otherwise and still claim to be authentic.

Comments are welcome!