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Q: When did you start using the sandpaper technique and why (Question from “Arte Realizzata”)

The start of a new pastel-on-sandpaper painting

A: In the late 1980s when I was studying at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, I enrolled in  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 and was experimenting with paper.  Handel suggested I try Ersta fine sandpaper.  I did and nearly three decades later, I’ve never used anything else. 

This paper is acid-free and accepts dry media, mainly pastel and charcoal.   It allows me to build up layer upon layer of pigment and blend, without having to use a fixative.  The tooth of the paper almost never gets filled up so it continues to hold pastel.  (On the rare occasion when 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, making countless corrections and adjustments, rendering minute details, looking for the best and/or most vivid colors – 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 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 would lay the paper out on the floor for weeks before the curl would give way and it was flat enough to work on.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do you make a preliminary drawing before you begin a pastel painting?

Preliminary charcoal drawing for “Enigma,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26” x 20”

A: I make a preliminary charcoal drawing because that’s how I like to begin thinking about and planning a new pastel painting. I always make preliminary drawings the same size as the upcoming pastel painting. While I draw, I make decisions about the overall composition, decide where the major light and dark shapes will be, and envision the likely problem areas that lie ahead. These drawings are done quickly. I spend perhaps an hour on them.

Once the drawing is in my head I no longer need it. So I put it away and when it’s time to begin a subsequent pastel painting, I erase it. I wipe it out with a paper towel and make the next preliminary charcoal drawing directly on top. These are ephemeral tools, existing only for as long as I need them.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 466

"Between," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"
“Between,” 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.

Within the initial artistic response to something is a core idea or feeling and most of our work comes from stripping away everything that is extraneous to it. To translate that vision means “to get across” the idea or feeling. How cleanly can that idea be isolated and honed, how much can be stripped away? Everything superfluous and tangential needs to be eliminated. Otherwise the idea may get buried and our intention deflected. And the viewer’s will also. The problem is seldom that an idea is too simple. Power comes from something deeply felt and simply stated. “Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing. All great actions have been simple, and all great pictures are.” (Quote from Ken Weber, The Eye of the Spirit, Shambala, 1998, p. 136).

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity: 16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 423

"Epiphany," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

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

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

I’ve mentioned that Kenneth Clark, the British art historian, said you could take the four best paintings of any artist in history and destroy the rest and the artist’s reputation would still be intact.  This is because in any artist’s life there are moments when everything goes right.  The artist is so in tune with his or her inner vision that there is no restriction.  The divine is being expressed.  Each mark becomes like a note of music in a divine order.

That experience, that prayer of expression, transcends its material and becomes spiritual.  The experience is overwhelming, the joys it communicates explosive.

When on another occasion we can’t find that spiritual level of experience, and so can’t repeat it, the frustration can be cruel and the separation painful.  Here lies the myth of the suffering artist.  It isn’t the art making when it goes well that has any suffering in it.  That is the union with the beloved.  It’s the loss that causes the suffering.  And the problem isn’t something we can necessarily control.  We are instruments, conduits for that expression.  It comes through us by grace.

The idea that we “make” art is perhaps a bit misleading.  The final product is at its best the result of a collaboration with spirit.  We may be separated from a flow within our spirit for weeks.  We continue to paint because there is no knowing at what precise moment it will return.  And when it does we need our faculties alert and our skills honed.  Then the poetry is everywhere.    

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 357

Udaipur, India

Udaipur, India

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

The term hermeneutics has been used to describe the task of understanding and interpreting ideas and texts.  In a similar way, we need to set for ourselves the task of developing a hermeneutic of the visible, addressing the problem of how we understand and interpret what we see, not only in the classical images and art forms created by the various religious traditions, but in the ordinary images of people’s traditions, rites, and daily activities which are presented to us through the film-image.

Rudolph Arnheim, in his extensive work on visual perception, has shown that the dichotomy between seeing and thinking which runs through much of the Western tradition, is a  very problematic one.  In Visual Thinking, he contends that visual perception is integrally related to thought.  It is not the case, according to Arnheim, that the eyes present a kind of raw data to the mind which, in turn, processes it and refines it by thought.  Rather, those visual images are the shapers and bearers of thought.  Jan Gonda, in writing on the Vedic notion dhi, sometimes translated as “thought,” finds similarly that the semantic fields of the word in Vedic literature does not correspond as much to our words for “thinking” as it does to our notions of “insight,” “vision,” and “seeing.”  Suzanne Langer has also written of the integral relation of thought to the images we see in the “mind’s eye.”  The making of all of those images is the fundamental “imaginative” human activity.  One might add that it is the fundamental activity of the religious imagination as well.  She writes, “Images are, therefore, our readiest instruments for abstracting concepts from the tumbling streams of actual impressions.”            

Diana L. Eck in Darsan:  Seeing the Divine Image in India

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Pearls from artists* # 354

"Epiphany," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

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

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

My earlier work had taught me that artistic activity is a form of reasoning, in which perceiving and thinking are indivisibly intertwined.  A person who paints, writes, composes, dances, I felt compelled to say, thinks with his senses.  This union of perception and thought turned out to be not merely a specialty of the arts.  A review of what is known about perception, and especially about sight, made me realize that the remarkable mechanisms by which the senses understand the environment are all but identical with the operations described by the psychology of thinking.  Inversely, there was much evidence that truly productive thinking in whatever area of cognition takes place in the realm of imagery.  This similarity of what the mind does in the arts and what it does elsewhere suggested taking a new look at the long-standing complaint about the isolation and neglect of the arts in society and education.  Perhaps the real problem was more fundamental:  a split between sense and thought, which caused various deficiency diseases in modern man.      

Rudolph Arnheim in Visual Thinking 

Comments are welcome!

Q: For many artists the hardest thing is getting to work in the morning. Do you have any rituals that get you started?

Entering Barbara’s studio

Entering Barbara’s studio

A:  That has rarely been a problem because I love to work.  The highlight of my day is time spent in the studio.  After arriving, I begin working immediately or I read about art for a short time.  When I pick up a pastel, it’s to begin working on something left unfinished from the day before.

Generally, I keep regular hours and strive to use studio time well.  As a professional artist, one absolutely must be a self-starter!  No one else cares about our work the way we do. Really why would they, when only the maker has invested so much love, knowledge, craftsmanship, experience, devotion, insight, money, etc. in the effort to evolve and improve.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 209

"So What?", soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“So What?”, 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.

For a young painter, life is difficult.  If he’s sincere, if he’s entirely taken up with what he’s researching, he can’t do painting that flatters art lovers.  If he’s concerned with success, he works with just the one idea:  pleasing people and selling.  He loses the support of his own conscience and is dependent on how others are feeling. He neglects his gifts and eventually loses them.

For us, the problem was simple:  the buyer simply didn’t exist.  We were working for ourselves.  We were in a trade that offered no hope at all.  So we had fun with any little thing.  I suppose people shipwrecked on a desert island must find it very jolly – all their problems have ceased to exist.  Nothing left to do but have a laugh, tell jokes, and play jokes.  Painters?  How could they ever expect to sell anything? 

Chatting with Henri Matisse:  The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, translated by Chris Miller

Comments are welcome! 

   

Pearls from artists* # 207

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

More than in any other vocation, being an artist means always starting from nothing.  Our work as artists is courageous and scary.  There is no brief that comes along with it, no problem solving that’s given as a task… An artist’s work is almost entirely inquiry based and self-regulated.  It is a fragile process of teaching oneself to work alone, and focusing on how to hone your quirky creative obsessions so that they eventually become so oddly specific that they can only be your own.

 
“What It Really Takes to Be an Artist:  MacArthur Genius Teresita Fernandez’s Magnificent Commencement Address,” by Maria Popova in “brainpickings”

Comments are welcome! 

 

Pearls from artists* # 198

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

“Troublemaker,” 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.

The writer doesn’t need economic freedom.  All he needs is a pencil and some paper.  I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money.  The good writer never applies to a foundation.  He’s too busy writing something.  If he isn’t first rate he fools himself by saying he hasn’t got time or economic freedom.  Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes.  People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand.  They are afraid to find out how tough they are.  Nothing can destroy the good writer.  The only thing that can alter the good writer is death.  Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich…

Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer.  If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything that can help it much.  The problem does not apply if he is not first-rate, because he has already sold his soul for a swimming pool.

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

Comments are welcome!

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