Blog Archives

Pearls from artists* # 494

Shamans, Tiwanaku, Bolivia

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

Emile Cartailhac was a man who could admit when he was wrong. This was fortunate, because in 1902 the French prehistorian found himself writing an article for L’Anthropolgie in which he did just that. In “Mea culpa d’un sceptique” he recanted the views he had spent the previous 20 years forcefully and scornfully maintaining: that prehistoric man was incapable of fine artistic expression and that the cave paintings found in Altmira, northern Spain, were forgeries.

The Paleothithic paintings at Altamira, which were produced around 14,000 B.C., were the first examples of prehistoric cave art to be officially discovered. It happened by chance in 1879, when a local landowner and amateur archaeologist was busily brushing away at the floor of the caves, searching for prehistoric tools. His nine-year-old daughter, Maria Sanz de Sautuola – a grave little thing with cropped hair and lace-up booties – was exploring farther on when she suddenly looked up, exclaiming, “Look, Papa, bison!” She was quite right: a veritable herd, subtly colored with black charcoal and ocher, ranged over the ceiling. When her father published the finding in 1880, he was met with ridicule. The experts scoffed at the very idea that prehistoric man – savages really – could have produced sophisticated polychrome paintings. The esteemed Monsieur Cartailhac and the majority of his fellow experts, without troubling to go and see the cave for themselves, dismissed the whole thing as a fraud. Maria’s father died, a broken and dishonored man, in 1888, four years before Cartailhac admitted his error.

After the discovery of many more caves and hundreds of lions, handprints, horses, women, hyenas, and bison, the artistic abilities of prehistoric man are no longer in doubt. It is thought that these caves were painted by shamans trying to charm a steady supply of food for their tribes. Many were painted using the pigment most readily available in the caves at the time: the charred stick remnants of their fires. At its simplest, charcoal is the carbon-rich by-product of organic matter – usually wood – and fire. It is purest and least ashy when oxygen has been restricted during it’s heating.

In The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

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Q: What’s on the easel today?

Reference photo, preliminary charcoal drawing, pastel painting

A: (Foreground) “The Enigma,” soft pastel on sandpaper, “26” x 20” is awaiting finishing touches.

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Q: What’s on the easel today?

Preliminary sketch

Preliminary sketch

A:  I’m working on a preliminary charcoal drawing for my next large pastel painting.  It will be number seven in the “Bolivianos” series.

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Start/Finish of “Poker Face,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″image, 50″ x 70″ framed

Preliminary charcoal sketch

Preliminary charcoal sketch

Finished

Finished

Start/Finish of “Incognito,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″ image, 50″ x 70″ framed

C-print and preliminary charcoal sketch

C-print and preliminary charcoal sketch

Finished and signed (lower left)

Finished

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Start/Finish of “Judasing,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

Preliminary charcoal sketch on sandpaper

Preliminary charcoal sketch on sandpaper

Finished painting, before signing

Finished painting, before signing

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Start/Finish of “The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

Preliminary charcoal sketch on white drawing paper. The white bits are masking tape used to tape several pieces of paper together to make a large sheet.

Preliminary charcoal sketch on white drawing paper.  The white bits are masking tape joining small sheets of paper together to make one that’s 60″ x 40″.

 

Finished and signed

Finished and signed, lower left

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Q: Do you have any favorites among the Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures that you depict in your work?

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

A:  I suppose it seems that way, since I certainly paint some figures more than others.  My favorite characters change, depending on what is happening in my work.  My current favorites are a figure I have never painted before (the Balinese dragon above) and several Mexican and Guatemalan figures last painted years ago.  All will make an appearance in a pastel painting for which I am still developing preliminary ideas (above).

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Q: How do you decide how much realism and how much imagination to put into a pastel painting?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  I wouldn’t say “decide” is the right word because creating a painting is not strictly the result of conscious decisions.  I think of my reference photograph, my preliminary sketch, and the actual folk art objects I depict as starting points.  Over the months that it takes to make a pastel painting, the resulting interpretive development pushes the painting far beyond this source material.  When all goes well, the original material disappears and characters that belong to the painting and nowhere else emerge.  

It is a mysterious process that I am still struggling to understand.  This is the best way I can describe what it feels like from the inside, as the maker.  

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Q: If you knew that you would never sell another pastel painting, would you still make them?

Preliminary sketch and photo

Preliminary sketch and photo

A:  This is an interesting question to ponder in August when the art world is on vacation.

Certainly I would continue (reread my blog post of July 25th), but I wouldn’t bother to make them if one unrelated thing were true:  that I knew beforehand what they would look like.  Then the process just wouldn’t be very interesting.

Each pastel painting is an exploration, a journey with a point of departure.  My reference photo and preliminary sketch serve as guides, but creating a painting is like making a voyage with only the roughest of maps.  As I work, new possibilities open up that take the painting  – and me – to places that could not have been imagined.      

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