Blog Archives

Q: Do your materials have properties that allow you to maximize what you depict in your work?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

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

The sandpaper support allows the build up 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.

Comments are welcome!

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.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you discuss your process, including how you actually use Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures in your art?

A corner of Barbara's studio

A corner of Barbara’s studio

A:  When I set up the figures to photograph for a painting, I work very intuitively, so how I actually cast them in an artwork is difficult to say. Looks count a lot – I select an object and put it in a particular place, look at it, move it or let it stay, and sometimes develop a storyline. I spend time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. With my first “Domestic Threats” series, all of this was done so that Bryan, my late husband, or I could shoot a couple of negatives with his Toyo Omega 4″ x 5″ view camera.  For  my “Black Paintings” series, begun in 2007, I shoot medium format negatives with a Mamiya 6 camera.

I always look at a 20″ x 24″ photograph for reference as I make a pastel-on-sandpaper painting, plus I also work from the ‘live’ objects.  The photograph is mainly a catalyst because finished paintings are always quite different from their associated reference photos.  Also, since I spend months creating them, the paintings’ interpretative development goes way beyond that of the photo.   

I once completed 6 large (58” x 38”) pastel paintings in a single year, but more recently 4 or 5 per year is common.  It takes approximately 3 months to make each one.  During that time I layer and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pastel. Of course, the colors get more intense as the painting progresses and the pigment accumulates on the sandpaper.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What is it about soft pastel that you find so intriguing that you use it as your primary fine art medium?

Some of Barbara's pastels

Some of Barbara’s pastels

A:  For starters it’s the medium that I fell in love with many years ago.  I recently read this article online, “What is Pastel?” by Mike Mahon, and will quote it because it neatly sums up  what I love about working with pastel.

Pastel is the most permanent of all media when applied to conservation ground and properly framed. Pastel has no liquid binder that may cause it to oxidize with the passage of time as oftentimes happens with other media.

In this instance, Pastel does not refer to pale colors, as the word is commonly used in cosmetic and fashion terminology. The pure, powdered pigment is ground into a paste with a minimum amount of gum binder, rolled into sticks and dried. The infinite variety of colors in the Pastel palette range from soft and subtle to hard and brilliant.

An artwork is created by stroking the stick of dry pigment across an abrasive ground, embedding the color in the “tooth” of the ground. If the ground is completely covered with Pastel, the work is considered a Pastel painting; whereas, leaving much of the ground exposed produces a Pastel sketch. Techniques vary with individual artists. The Pastel medium is favored by many artists because it allows a spontaneous approach. There is no drying time, therefore, no change in color occurs after drying as it does in other media.

Did you know that a particle of Pastel pigment seen under a microscope looks like a diamond with many facets? It does! Therefore, Pastel paintings reflect light like a prism. No other medium has the same power of color or stability.

Historically, Pastel can be traced back to the 16th century. Its invention is attributed to the German painter, Johann Thiele. A Venetian woman, Rosalba Camera, was the first to make consistent use of Pastel. Chardin did portraits with an open stroke, while La Tour preferred the blended finish. Thereafter, a galaxy of famous artists—Watteau, Copley, Delacroix, Millet, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, Vuillard, Bonnard, Glackens, Whistler, Hassam, William Merritt Chase—used Pastel for a finished work rather than for preliminary sketches.

Pastels from the 16th century exist today, as fresh as the day they were painted. Edgar Degas was the most prolific user of Pastel and its champion. His protégé, Mary Cassat, introduced Pastel to her friends in Philadelphia and Washington, and thus to the United States. In the Spring of 1983, Sotheby Parke Bernet sold at auction, two Degas Pastels for more than $3,000,000 each! Both Pastels were painted about 1880.

Note: Do not confuse Pastel with “colored chalk.” Chalk is a porous, limestone substance impregnated with dyes, whereas, Pastel is pure pigment—the same as is used in other permanent painting media.

Today, Pastel paintings have the stature of oil and watercolor as a major fine art medium. Many of our most renowned, living artists have distinguished themselves in Pastel and have enriched the art world with this beautiful medium.

So knowing all this, I often wonder, why don’t more artists use pastel?  Is it because framing is a big issue?  Works on paper need to be framed and pastel paintings have unique problems (see my April 27, 2013 blog post).  Second only to the cost of maintaining a studio in New York City, frames are my single largest business expense.  Sometimes I am grateful that pastel is a very slow medium.  I typically finish 4 or 5 paintings in a year, which means I only have to pay for 4 or 5 frames!

Comments are welcome!

Q: When and why did you start working on sandpaper?

Raw sandpaper

Raw sandpaper

A:  In the late 1980s when I was studying at the Art League in Alexandria, VA, I took 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 (I’d completed my first class with Diane Tesler) and was still experimenting with paper.  Handel suggested I try Ersta fine sandpaper.  I did and nearly three decades later, I’ve never used anything else. 

The paper (UArt makes it now) is acid-free and accepts dry media, especially pastel and charcoal.   It allows me to build up layer upon layer of pigment, blend, etc. without having to use a fixative.  The tooth of the paper almost never gets filled up so it continues to hold pastel.  If 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 (occupational hazard:  rubbed-raw fingers, especially at the beginning of a painting as I mentioned in last Saturday’s blog post), making countless corrections and adjustments, looking for the best and/or most vivid colors, etc. – 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 from ASW (Art Supply Warehouse) 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 laid 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: Your “Gods and Monsters” series consists of tableaux of Mexican and Guatemalan figures that are photographed in a way that blurs certain elements to abstraction while others are in clear focus. Can you please speak more about this work?

Untitled chromogenic print, 24" x 24", edition of 5

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x 24″, edition of 5

A:  When I depict the Mexican and, more recently, Guatemalan figures in my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, they are hard-edged, vibrant, and in-your-face. That’s a result of the way I work in pastel. I slowly and meticulously build up layers of pigment, blend them with my fingers, continually refine and try to find the best, most eye-popping colors. It’s a very slow process that takes months of hard work.  An aside…  One frustration I have as an artist – I am hardly unique in this – is that my audience only sees the finished piece and they look at it for perhaps ten seconds.  They rarely think about how their ten-second experience took me months to create! 

In 2002 when I began photographing these figures, I wanted to take the same subject matter and give it an entirely different treatment.  So these images are deliberately soft focus, dreamy, and mysterious. I use a medium format camera and shoot film.  I choose a narrow depth of field.  I hold gels in front of the scene to blur it and to provide unexpected areas of color.  Even as a photographer I am a colorist.

I want this work to surprise me and it does, since I don’t usually know what images I will get.  Often I don’t even look through the viewfinder as I position the camera and the gels and click the shutter.  I only know what I’ve shot after I’ve seen a contact sheet, usually the next day. 

The “Gods and Monsters” series began entirely as a reaction to my pastel paintings.  The latter are extremely meticulous and labor intensive.  At a certain point in the process I know more or less what the finished painting will look like, but there are still weeks of slow, laborious detail work ahead.  So my photographic work is spontaneous, serendipitous, and provides me with much-needed instant gratification. I find it endlessly intriguing to have two diametrically opposed ways of working with the same subject.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you know when a pastel painting is finished?

"Big Wow," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Big Wow,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  During the several months that I work on a pastel painting, I search for the best, most eye-popping colors, as I build up and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pigment.  I am able to complete some areas, like the background, fairly easily –  maybe with six or seven layers – but the more realistic parts take more applications because I am adding details.  Details always take time to perfect.  No matter how many pastel layers I apply, however, I never use fixatives.  It is difficult to see this in reproductions of my work, but the finished surfaces achieve a texture akin to velvet.   My technique involves blending each layer with my fingers, pushing pastel deep into the tooth of the sandpaper.  The paper holds plenty of pigment and because the pastel doesn’t flake off, there is no need for fixatives.

I consider a given painting complete when it is as good as I can make it, when adding or subtracting anything would diminish what is there.  I know my abilities and I know what each individual stick of pastel can do.  I continually try to push myself and my materials to their limits.              

Comments are welcome.

Q: Do you have air filters in your work space?

Pastel dust

Pastel dust

A:  No, but I wear a surgical mask when I work, to prevent breathing the pastel dust.  Also, on my hands I use a barrier cream, called Artgard, to prevent pigment being absorbed into my skin through cuts.  I take care that my head is always higher than my hand as I work, so the dust is below my mouth and nose.  It may be hard to tell from the photo but my easel is tilted forward, allowing pastel dust to fall onto the easel and floor.  I am well aware of the toxicity of pastel and believe I take the proper precautions.  After twenty-six years working with soft pastel, so far I’ve managed to stay healthy.

Comments are welcome.

Q: What does a pastel feel like in your hand?

At work on "False Friends" photo by Diana Feit;

At work on “False Friends”; photo by Diana Feit

A: Each manufacturer uses distinct binders to hold the raw pigment together to form a pastel stick. Due mainly to this binder, each pastel feels slightly different. In general my favorites are ones like Unison that feel “buttery” as I apply them to the sandpaper. My least favorites are ones that feel hard and scratchy, but these too have their uses. For example, Henri Roche makes gorgeous colors, but they are very hard. I use them for the final pastel layer, the “icing on the cake.” Every stick of pastel has its own particular qualities and a pastel artist spends many years experimenting and learning it all.