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Q: When did you start using the sandpaper technique and why (Question from “Arte Realizzata”)

The start of a new pastel-on-sandpaper painting

A: In the late 1980s when I was studying at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, I enrolled in  a three-day pastel workshop with Albert Handel, an artist known for his southwest landscapes in pastel and oil paint.  I had just begun working with soft pastel and was experimenting with paper.  Handel suggested I try Ersta fine sandpaper.  I did and nearly three decades later, I’ve never used anything else. 

This paper is acid-free and accepts dry media, mainly pastel and charcoal.   It allows me to build up layer upon layer of pigment and blend, without having to use a fixative.  The tooth of the paper almost never gets filled up so it continues to hold pastel.  (On the rare occasion when the tooth DOES fill up, which sometimes happens with problem areas that are difficult to resolve, I take a bristle paintbrush, dust off the unwanted pigment, and start again).  My entire technique – slowly applying soft pastel, blending and creating new colors directly on the paper, making countless corrections and adjustments, rendering minute details, looking for the best and/or most vivid colors – evolved in conjunction with this paper. 

I used to say that if Ersta ever went out of business and stopped making sandpaper, my artist days would be over.  Thankfully, when that DID happen, UArt began making a very similar paper.  I buy it in two sizes – 22″ x 28″ sheets and 56″ wide by 10-yard-long rolls.  The newer version of the rolled paper is actually better than the old, because when I unroll it, it lays flat immediately.  With Ersta I would lay the paper out on the floor for weeks before the curl would give way and it was flat enough to work on.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am working on a large pastel-on-sandpaper painting that features two figures found in Mexico City in March – the fish-face mask and the lying dog – and an angel ceramic thing I found last year in Todos Santos, Mexico.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

"Blind Faith," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Blind Faith,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

A:  I am putting finishing touches on a pastel-on-sandpaper painting called “Blind Faith.” Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Pastel-on-sandpaper painting in progress

Pastel-on-sandpaper painting in progress

A:  I am working on a pastel painting that features a mask I found in Todos Santos, Mexico on a recent trip there with friends.  This is the first time I have so prominently featured a head without a body so I’m unsure whether the painting is coming together just yet.  Fortunately it’s very early in the process so there is plenty of time to make adjustments.

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Would you speak about the practical realities – time and expenses – involved in making your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings? What might people be surprised to learn about this aspect of art-making?

Studio

Studio

A:  I have often said that this work is labor-intensive.  In a good year I can complete five or six large (38″ x 58″) pastel paintings.  In 2013 I am on track to make four, or, on average, one completed painting every three months.  I try to spend between thirty-five and forty hours a week in the studio.  Of course, I don’t work continuously all day long.  I work for awhile, step back, look, make changes and additions, think, make more changes, step back, etc.  Still, hundreds of hours go into making each piece in the “Black Paintings” series, if we count only the actual execution.  There is also much thinking and preparation – there is no way to measure this – that happen before I ever get to stand before an empty piece of sandpaper and begin.

As far as current expenses, they are upwards of $12,000 per painting.  Here is a partial breakdown:

$4500    New York studio, rent and utilities ($1350/month) for three months                                         

$2500    Supplies, including frames (between $1500 – $1700), photographs, pastels (pro-rated), paper                  

$2000    Foreign travel to find the cultural objects, masks, etc. depicted in my work (approximate, pro-rated)                                                   

$3000    Business expenses, such as computer-related expenses, website, marketing, advertising, etc.                                                                      

This list leaves out many items, most notably compensation for my time, shipping and exhibition expenses, costs of training (i.e. ongoing photography classes), photography equipment, etc.  Given my overhead, the paintings are always priced at the bare minimum that will allow me to continue making art. 

I wonder:  ARE people surprised by these numbers?  Anyone who has ever tried it knows that art is a tough road.  Long ago I stopped thinking about the cost and began doing whatever is necessary to make the best paintings.  The quality of the work and my evolution as an artist are paramount now.  This is my life’s work, after all.  

Comments are welcome!

    

Q: Your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are very labor intensive. Do you typically have just one in progress at any given time?

Works in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

Works in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  For many years I always worked on one at a time because I have only one or two ideas – never more than that – about what I will make next.  Also, I believe that “all art is the result of one’s having gone through an experience to the end.”  (It’s on a note taped to the wall near my easel).  So I would work on one painting at a time until all of the problems in it were resolved.  Each piece that I undertake represents an investment of several months of my life and after nearly three decades as an artist, I know that once I start a piece I will not abandon it for any reason.  When it is the best painting that I can make – when adding or subtracting anything would be a diminishment – I pronounce it “finished.”  In the past I would start the next one only when the completed piece was out of my sight and at the frame shop.

But a few years ago I began working on two pastel paintings at a time.  When I get stuck – or just need a break from looking at the same image day after day (I am in my studio 5 days a week) – I switch to the other one.  This helps me work more efficiently.  The two paintings interact with each other; they play off of each other and one suggests solutions that help me to resolve problem areas in the other.  I’m not sure exactly how this happens – maybe putting a piece aside for awhile alerts my unconscious to begin working deeply on it – but having two in progress at the same time is my preferred way of working now.

A note about the painting on the left above, which was previously called, “Judas.”  I happen to be reading “Cloud Atlas,” by David Mitchell and came across the word “judasing” used as a verb meaning, “doing some evil to a person who profoundly trusted you.”  I’d never heard the word before, but it resonated with an event in my personal life.  So the new title of my painting is “Judasing.”  This is a good reminder that work and life are inextricably (and inexplicably) woven together and that titles can come from anywhere!  

Comments are welcome!

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