Q: Your work is unlike anyone else’s. There is such power and boldness in your pastels. What processes are you using to create such poignant and robustly colored work?
A: For thirty-three 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 using 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 about four months and hundreds of hours to complete.
I 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 singular. 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.
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Q: Can you discuss your process, including how you actually use Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures in your art?
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.
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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.
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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?
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!