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Q: How do you select a photograph to use as reference material to make a pastel painting?

Photograph, left, and work in progress

Photograph, left, and work in progress

A:  Like everything else associated with my studio practice, my use of photographs from which to work has changed considerably. Beginning in the early 1990s all of the paintings in my first series, “Domestic Threats,” started out as elaborately staged, well-lit scenes that either my husband, Bryan, or I photographed with Bryan’s Toyo Omega 4 x 5 view camera using a wide-angle lens.   Depending on where I was living at the time, I set up the scenes in one of three places:  our house in Alexandria, VA, a six-floor walkup apartment on West 13th Street in New York, or my current Bank Street condominium.  Then one of us shot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I’d usually select the more detailed one to be made into a 20″ x 24″ photo to use as a reference.  

Just as the imagery in my paintings has simplified and emptied out over the years, my creative process has simplified, too.  I often wonder if this is a natural progression that happens as an artist gets older.  More recently I have been shooting photos independently of how exactly I will use them in my work.  Only later do I decide which ones to make into paintings; sometimes it’s YEARS later.  For example, the pastel painting that is on my easel now is based on a relatively old (2002) photograph that I have always liked, but only now felt ready to tackle in pastel.

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 18

West Village

West Village

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

Those who would make art might well begin by reflecting on the fate of those who preceded them:  most who began, quit.  It’s a genuine tragedy.  Worse yet, it’s an unnecessary tragedy.  After all, artists who continue and artists who quit share an immense field of common emotional ground.  (Viewed from the outside, in fact, they’re indistinguishable).  We’re all subject to a familiar and universal progression of human troubles – troubles we routinely survive, but which are (oddly enough) routinely fatal to the art-making process.  To survive as an artist requires confronting these troubles.  Basically, those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue – or more precisely, have learned how to not quit.

But curiously, while artists always have a myriad of reasons to quit, they consistently wait for a handful of specific moments to quit.  Artists quit when they convince themselves that their next effort is already doomed to fail.  And artists quit when they lose the destination for their work – for the place their work belongs.

Virtually all artists encounter such moments.  Fear that your next work will fail is a normal, recurring, and generally healthy part of the art-making cycle.  It happens all the time:  you focus on some new idea in your work, you try it out, run with it for awhile, reach a point of diminishing returns, and eventually decide it’s not worth pursuing further.  Writers even have a phrase for it – “the pen has run dry” – but all media have their equivalents.  In the normal artistic cycle this just tells you that you’ve come full circle, back to that point where you need to begin cultivating the next new idea.  But in artistic death it marks the last thing that happens:  you play out an idea, it stops working, you put the brush down… and thirty years later you confide to someone over coffee that, well, yes, you had wanted to paint when you were much younger.  Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping.  The latter happens all the time.  Quitting happens once.  Quitting means not starting again – and art is all about starting again.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Comments are welcome!  

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