Blog Archives

Q: Why do you make art?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  This is an excellent question and one I like to revisit because with all the day-to-day frustrations and disappointments that are a normal part of an artist’s life, it is easy to forget what is important.  

First, I make art because I have a gift and a desire to share it with others.  To not develop, express, and share all that I have to say through my work is unthinkable.

Second, I make art because it is what gives my life direction and purpose.  I believe that each human being has his or her own quest, driven by passion, to fulfill a certain duty. Recall Joseph Campbell’s, “The Hero’s Journey.”  I need to make art in order to feel that I am living up to my highest potential. 

Third, for inexplicable reasons (to me, anyway) soft pastel is an undervalued medium.  I fell in love with pastel above all other media and hope to demonstrate that great art can be created with it.  This is one of the drives that keeps me steadily working.

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 123

"Quartet" with self-portrait

“Quartet” with self-portrait

 

* 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 artists should not underestimate the importance of the stories we tell ourselves about how our art will make a difference.  These motivational fictions describe the ways a work might interact with the world to justify our extravagant, and potentially narcissistic labors:  that our art has transformational potential.  A work might be understood as being critical of society or sanctuary from it, for instance, or a Trojan horse sent to the enemy as a nasty gift to unsettle their deeply entrenched frames of mind.  We need renewable encouragement to make fresh work year after year in the face of uncertain rewards.

David Humphrey quoted in THE ART LIFE:  On Creativity and Career by Stuart Horodner

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: What does your creative process look like when you are ready to begin a new painting?

 

Preliminary sketch

Preliminary sketch

A:  My working methods have changed dramatically over the years with my current process being a much-simplified version of how I used to work.  In other words as I pared down my imagery in the “Black Paintings,” my process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite logically to the next.  Another is that I always have set up a scene, lit and photographed it, and worked with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material.  In the “Domestic Threats” series I shot with a 4″ x 5″ view camera.  Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of images to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images and uses film) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  I get the print made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  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.  For example, in the photograph above I had originally thought about creating a vertical painting, but changed to horizontal format after discovering spatial problems in my sketch.  

Also, I decided to make a small painting now because it has been two years since I last worked in a smaller (than my usual 38″ x 58″) size.  I am re-using the photograph on which “Epiphany” is based.  Using a photograph a second time lets me see how my working methods have evolved over time.     

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 27

Broken Bridge II, by El Anatsui, on the High Line

Broken Bridge II, by El Anatsui, on the High Line

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

Of course, when people said a work of art was interesting, this did not mean that they necessarily liked it – much less that they thought it beautiful.  It usually meant no more than that they thought they ought to like it.  Or that they liked it, sort of, even though it wasn’t beautiful.

Or they might describe something as interesting to avoid the banality of calling it beautiful.  Photography was the art where “the interesting” first triumphed, and early on:  the new, photographic way of seeing proposed everything as a potential subject for the camera.  The beautiful could not have yielded such a range of subjects; and it soon came to seem uncool to boot as a judgment.  Of a photograph of a sunset, a beautiful sunset, anyone with minimal standards of verbal sophistication might well prefer to say, “Yes, the photograph is interesting.”

What is interesting?  Mostly, what has not previously been thought beautiful (or good).  The sick are interesting, as Nietzsche points out.  The wicked, too.  To name something as interesting implies challenging old orders of praise; such judgments aspire to be found insolent or at least ingenious.  Connoisseurs of “the interesting” – whose antonym is “the boring” – appreciate clash, not harmony.  Liberalism is boring, declares Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political, written in 1932.  (The following year he joined the Nazi Party).  A politics conducted according to liberal principles lacks drama, flavor, conflict, while strong autocratic politics – and war – are interesting.   

Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump, editors, Susan Sontag:  At the Same Time

Comments  are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 6

"Quartet," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38" image, 70" x 50" framed

“Quartet,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″ image, 70″ x 50″ framed

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

After we have responded to a work of art, we leave it, carrying in our consciousness something which we didn’t have before.  This something  amounts to more than our memory of the incident represented, and also more than our memory of the shapes and colours and spaces which the artist used and arranged.  What we take away with us – on the most profound level – is the memory of the artist’s way of looking at the world.  The representation of a recognizable incident (an incident here can simply mean a tree or a head) offers us the chance of relating the artist’s way of looking to our own.  The forms he uses are the means by which he expresses his way of looking.  The truth of this is confirmed by the fact that we can often recall the experience of a work, having forgotten both its precise subject and its precise formal arrangement.

Yet why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us?  Because, I believe, it increases our awareness of our own potentiality.  Not of course our awareness of our potentiality as artists ourselves.  But a way of looking at the world implies a certain relationship with the world, and every relationship implies action.  The kind of actions implied vary a great deal.  A classical Greek sculpture increases our awareness of our own potential physical dignity; a Rembrandt of our potential moral courage; a Matisse of our potential sensual awareness.  Yet each of these examples is too personal and too narrow to contain the whole truth of the matter.  A work can, to some extent, increase an awareness of different potentialities in different people.  The important point is that a valid work of art promises in some way or another the possibility of an increase, an improvement.  Nor need the work be optimistic to achieve this; indeed, its subject may be tragic.  For it is not the subject matter that makes the promise, it is the artist’s way of viewing his subject.  Goya’s way of looking at a massacre amounts to the contention that we ought to be able to do without massacres.         

John Berger, Selected Essays

Comments are welcome.

%d bloggers like this: