Blog Archives

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I’m working on a large pastel painting based on a photograph shot when I was vacationing recently in La Paz, Bolivia.  How fortuitous to stumble upon a mask exhibition at The National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore!  It felt as though the exhibition somehow was staged for me, just waiting for me to come along and photograph it. 

Incredibly, I returned to New York, after a spectacular trip to Bolivia, and found myself with photographs that are inspiring a new series.  Certainly this has never happened before!  The series is tentatively called, “Bolivianos.”             

Comments are welcome!

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. 

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!  

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in pogress

Work in pogress

A:  I am working on a 38″ x 58″ pastel painting.  Rather than create and photograph a new setup each time, I sometimes search through older photographs to find ones that might spark a compelling painting.  Photos that I haven’t seen in a while often have new lessons to teach.  The one clipped to my easel above is from 2009. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you document your work?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  I have been a professional artist for thirty years so some things have changed and some haven’t.  I have a portfolio book of 8 x 10 photographs of all my pastel paintings.  Since my process is slow and meticulous, the latest, “Troublemaker,” is pastel painting number 124.  

I have always gotten my work professionally photographed.  Until 2001 my husband Bryan was my photographer and since then I have hired three people.  To document older work I have slides, 4 x 5 transparencies, and color and black and white 4 x 5 negatives.  I continued with slides and film longer than many artists, but finally switched to digital files a few years ago when buying film and processing it became difficult.

Comments are welcome!            

Q: Would you talk about your use of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art as a convenient way to study formal properties such as color, shape, pattern, composition, etc. in your pastel paintings?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  For me an interesting visual property of these objects is that they readily present themselves as a vehicle for exploring formal artistic properties, like color, pattern, shape, etc. especially compared to my earlier subject matter:  hyper-realistic portraits and still-lifes.  Intent as I was on creating verisimilitude in the earlier work, there was little room for experimentation.  

Many Mexican and Guatemalan folk art objects are wildly painted and being a lover of color, their brilliant colors and patterns are  what initially attracted me.  As a painter I am free to use their actual appearance as my starting point.  I photograph them out-of-focus and through colored gels in order to change their appearance and make them strange, enacting my own particular version of “rendering the familiar strange.”  Admittedly these objects are not so familiar to begin with. 

When I make a pastel painting I look at my reference photograph and I also look at the objects, positioning them within eye-shot of my easel.  There is no need whatsoever to be faithful to their actual appearance so my imagination takes over.  As I experiment with thousands of soft pastels, with shape, with pattern, with composition, and all the rest, I have one goal in mind – to create the best pastel-on-sandpaper painting I am capable of making. 

Comments are welcome!         

Q: Why do you call the small paintings in your “Domestic Threats” series, “Scenes?”

"Scene Thirteen: Bathroom," 26" x 20", soft pastel on sandpaper

“Scene Thirteen: Bathroom,” 26″ x 20″, soft pastel on sandpaper

"He Urged Her to Abdicate," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper

“He Urged Her to Abdicate,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  At first I didn’t know what to call them.  I was looking for a word that meant “a piece of some larger whole.”  Initially the word “shard” – a fragment of pottery – came to mind.  However, that didn’t capture the meaning I was seeking, since my paintings have little to do with pottery. 

My large “Domestic Threats” paintings are theatrical.  There is substantial labor and much thought involved in their creation, so I often think of myself as a director and each image as a play. 

Small “Domestic Threats” paintings are made from a portion of a photograph that I use as reference  for a larger painting.  For example, “Scene Thirteen:  Bathroom” (above, top) is a small version of “He Urged Her to Abdicate” (above, bottom). 

A “portion” of a play is a “Scene” so that’s what I finally named them.  Additionally, I numbered the paintings in order of their creation and added the room where each takes place.

Comments are welcome! 

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

 

A:  I am in the early stages – only 3 or 4 layers of pastel applied so far – on a large pastel painting with the working title, “He and She.”  The figures are two favorites –  a four-foot tall male and female couple, made of carved wood and silver and gold-leaf.  I found them years ago at Galerie Eugenio in Mexico City. 

These are the largest heads I have ever painted.  As I work on this piece I remember one of my teachers saying, “Never paint a head larger than life-size.”  Well, here’s to breaking rules.     

For reference I am looking at a digital photograph shot with my Canon T3i.  My usual practice is to make a c-print from a negative made with my Mamiya 6, but the photo clipped to my easel above is from a high resolution JPEG.  Typically I set up a scene at home on a black cloth and photograph it, but my reference photo was taken in my studio without rearranging anything.  In  this painting I am breaking a few rules, while my creative process is perhaps evolving towards  greater simplicity.         

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!    

Q: How did you happen to have a photograph published in The Wall Street Journal?

Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt

Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt

   A.  That is a long story.  To get far away from New York for the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, my friend, Donna Tang, and I planned a two-week road trip to see land art sites in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. (Donna did excellent research).                                                      

We hoped for a private tour of Roden Crater with James Turrell, which is not easy to arrange.  I had also invited my friend Ann Landi, an art critic and arts writer, to join us, hoping she might get an interview with Turrell and write an article for Artnews.  Turrell has been working on Roden Crater for 30+ years so Ann was interested in seeing it too!  Ann contacted Turrell’s gallery – Gagosian – but they later relayed Turrell’s refusal.  

We were planning to see other land art sites.  As an alternative to Roden Crater and Turrell, Ann pitched a story to The Wall Street Journal about Sun Tunnels and Nancy Holt (Robert Smithson’s wife, who as the only woman in the land art movement, has never been given her due).   The Journal said yes, so Ann made plans to join Donna and me in Salt Lake City.  

The three of us visited Sun Tunnels, Spiral Getty, and other sites together.  Ann had a brand new point-and-shoot camera that she hadn’t yet learned how to use.  I always take lots of photos whenever I travel.  After we returned home, I sent Ann a few images and she asked permission to submit them with her article.  I was thrilled when The Wall Street Journal requested JPEGs.  It was the first time I’ve had a photograph published in a major newspaper.

Comments are welcome!