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Pearls from artists* # 199

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

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

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Writers, like all artists, are concerned to represent reality, to create a more absolute and complete reality than reality itself.  They must, if they are to accomplish this, assume a moral position, a clearly conceived political, social, and philosophical attitude; in consequence, their beliefs are, of course, going to find their way into their work.  What artists believe, however, is of secondary importance, ancillary to the work itself.  A writer survives in spite of his beliefs.  Lawrence will be read whatever one thinks of his notions on sex.  Dante is read in the Soviet Union.

A work of art, on the other hand, has a representative and expressive function.  In this representation the author’s ideas, his judgments, the author himself, are engaged with reality.   

Alberto Moravia in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews First Series, edited and with an introduction by Malcolm Cowley

Comments are welcome!

Q: Have you ever worked outside?

Reproductions of "Cardinal Rule" (top) and "Blue Ego," originals are soft pastel on sandpaper, 30" x 38"

Reproductions of “Cardinal Rule” (top) and “Blue Ego,” originals are soft pastel on sandpaper, 30″ x 38″

A:  As a pastel artist I’ve never worked outside – with so many pastels, it’s just not practical – but early on in the “Domestic Threats” series, I created two outdoor setups.  Works in the series derived from elaborate scenes that I arranged and then photographed.  

I used to take long walks along the Potomac River in Alexandria, VA, and there was a tree stump that was fascinating.  It was mostly twisted roots, knotty branches, dark hidden spaces, etc. (top painting in photo).  One morning I took several hand puppets and stuffed animals (my subject matter at the time) and carefully arranged them on the tree.  Around me people were busy exercising their dogs.  Soon I attracted quite a bit of attention – a tall blonde woman playing with puppets on a tree stump!  Dogs came over to sniff.  Their owners came over, too, and I was pressed into explaining, again and again, that I was an artist, that I was photographing this scene so I could paint it, etc.  The interruptions were very annoying.

The second time I tried an outdoor setup was again along the Potomac River, but this time I selected a secluded strip of beach where I was undisturbed.  I had forgotten to consider the light and inadvertently chose a cloudy day.  I remember being disappointed that the light was flat and lacking shadows.  The painting (bottom in photo) turned out to be one of my least favorites. 

I resolved from then on to focus on interiors.  Alfred Hitchcock famously used rear projection so that he could work in a studio rather than on location.  One reason, he said, was that in a studio he had total control.  I know what he meant.  When I set up an interior scene and position the lights to make interesting shadows, indeed, I have control over the whole look.  No aspect is left to chance.   The accidents – improvements! – happen later when I work on the painting.  

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!

Pearls from artists* # 28

Flower sellers in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Flower sellers in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

We have talked a good deal about our duty, and how we could attain the right goal, and we came to the conclusion that in the first place our aim must be to find a steady position and a profession to which we can entirely devote ourselves.  It is wise to do so, for life is but short and time passes quickly; if one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time insight into and understanding of many things.

One must especially have the end in mind, and the victory one would gain after a whole life of work and effort is better than one that is gained earlier.  Whoever lives sincerely and encounters much trouble and disappointment, but is not bowed down by them, is worth more than one who has always sailed before the wind and has only relative prosperity.  One must never trust the occasion when one is without difficulties.  

Irving Stone with Jean Stone, editors, Dear Theo:  The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh

Comments are welcome!