Blog Archives

Q: Pastel painting is the cornerstone of your practice. What attracted you to this medium?

Barbara's studio with "White Star" in progress

Barbara’s studio with “White Star” in progress

A:  For starters soft pastel is the medium that I fell in love with many years ago.  I am fond of this article, “What is Pastel?” by Mike Mahon, and quote it here 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 expense? 

Works on paper need to be framed and pastel paintings do have some unique problems.  Third after the cost of maintaining a studio in New York City and marketing, 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: What historical art movement do you most identify with?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I’d have to say that I identify most with surrealism, although my work does not exactly fit into any particular art historical movement.  When I was first finding my way as an artist, I read everything I could find about surrealism in art and in literature.  This research still res0nates deeply and is a tremendous influence on my studio practice.  Elements of surrealism DO fit my work.  Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 20s and is best known for its visual artworks and writings.  The aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.”  Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself.  

Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; however, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, with the works being an artifact.  Leader Andre Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement.

I hope to expand on this in a future post.

Comments are welcome!            

Q: Why don’t you teach or conduct pastel workshops?

Barbara in her studio

Barbara in her studio

A:  I am often asked to teach, but I never have had the desire to do so.  Because my work is extremely labor intensive, I am reluctant to give up precious studio time, either for teaching or for any activities that could be deemed a distraction.  Consistent in my creative practice, I typically work in my studio five days a week, seven or more hours a day and am able to complete four or five pastel-on-sandpaper paintings in a year.     

Teaching would divert time, attention, and energy away from my practice.  Certainly it can be rewarding in many ways but since my process is slow and meticulous, I prefer to focus on making new work.  

Comments are welcome!       

Q: Is it possible to sum up your creative practice in seven words?

“Motley,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

A:  Steadily striving to become a better artist.  Of course, others determine how successful we have been in this regard.

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Do you have a daily artistic practice?

Studio entrance

Studio entrance

A:  In one way or another I suppose I do.  Of course, I don’t go to the studio six days a week like I used to, but I generally work five days, about seven to eight hours per day.  When I am not actually in the studio working at my easel, I try to make use of my time in ways that, hopefully, will make me a better artist.  I am usually reading, studying, looking at art, talking to friends who are artists, thinking about my creative practice, etc.  Art and everything related to it are naturally the focus of my life.

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!

Pearls from artists* # 120

In the studio, Photo: Britta Konau

In the studio, Photo: Britta Konau

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

In solitude artists can experiment, make a mess, sustain notes for the joy of it, imagine themselves on any stage in any play.  In the studio or practice room, they are not on display and need not wear their public face.  They can be their silent selves, their worst selves. If there is unfreedom on the stage or in the gallery, there is freedom in the studio.  As the visual artist Allen Kaprow put it, “Artists’ studios do not look like galleries, and when an artist’s studio does, everyone is suspicious.”  Galleries are for show; studios are where messes are made and where the real work happens.

Eric Maisel in A Life in the Arts

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 117

At work on a pastel painting

At work on a pastel painting

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

Rote practice is not deep practice.  Deep practice is slow, demanding, and uncomfortable.  To practice deeply is to live deliberately in a space that is uncomfortable but with the encouraging sense that progress can happen.  Deep practice is not rushed.  Constant critical feedback is essential.  Over time the effort alters neural pathways and increases skill.

Anne Bogart in What’s the Story:  Essays about art, theater, and storytelling

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!    

Pearls from artists* # 106

Road delay, Arizona

Road delay, Arizona

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

Yet even I, who track the hours closely, understand that one pleasure of art-making is its resolute inefficiency.  It resists the sweep of the second hand; it is opposite to my daily muster of punch lists, telephone calls, day job requirements, family life, and errands.  The necessary thought may come today or next week.  Yet it’s not the same as leisure.  The struggle toward the next thought is rigorous, held within an isometric tension.  The poet Richard Wilbur writes about laundry drying on the line, “moving and staying like white water.”  Moving and staying.  Such water, familiar to anyone who has watched a brook rush over rocks, captures the way a creative practice insists you bear time.  You must hold still and wait, and yet you must push forward.   

Janna Malamud Smith in An Absorbing Errand:  How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery 

Comments are welcome!