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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: How long does it take you to complete a pastel-on-sandpaper painting?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Mine is a slow and labor-intensive process.  First, there is foreign travel to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  If they are heavy I ship them home.  

Next comes planning exactly how to photograph them, lighting and setting everything up, and shooting a roll of 220 film with my Mamiya 6 camera.  I still like to use an analog camera for my fine art work, although I am rethinking this.  I have the film developed, decide which image to use, and order a 20” x 24” reference photograph from Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street.  

Then I am ready to start.  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I am in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week.  During that time I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have 8 tables-worth to choose from!), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper.  A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel.  My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?”  I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done.

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! 

Q: Can you speak about what draws you to the Mexican and Guatemalan figures that you collect?

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo:  Donna Tang

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo: Donna Tang

A:  I search the markets and bazaars of Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere for folk art objects – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, children’s toys – to bring back to New York to paint and photograph. Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the patterns are on these objects the better – plus they must be unique and have lots of personality. I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for the tourist trade. The objects must have been used or otherwise look like they’ve had a life (i.e., been part of religious festivities) to draw my attention. How and where each one comes into my possession is an important part of my creative process.

Finding, buying, and getting them back to the U.S. is always circuitous, but that, too, is part of the process, an adventure, and often a good story. Here’s an example. In 2009 I was in a small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, called Panajachel. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we discovered a wonderful mask store. I spent some time looking around, made my selections, and was ready to buy five exquisitely-made standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no, I’ll have to leave them behind.” However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish is much more fluent than mine, the three of us brain-stormed until finally, Tomas had an idea. I could pay for the figures at the hotel up the block and in a few days when the hotel was paid by the credit card company, the hotel would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was made and the first hurdle was overcome. Working out the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour or two, but during that time Tomas and I became friends and exchanged telephone numbers (the store didn’t even have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door!). Most surprisingly, the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 53

"Art and Beer," a roadside bar and sculpture garden in Baja del Sur, Mexico

“Art and Beer,” a roadside bar and sculpture garden in Baja del Sur, Mexico

* 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 do treat books surprisingly lightly in contemporary culture.  We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once.  Books and music share more in terms of resonance than just a present-tense correlation of heard note to read word.  Books need time to draw us in, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them , because books are produced by books more than by writers; they’re a result of all the books that went before them.  Great books are adaptable; they alter with us as we alter in life, they renew themselves as we change and re-read them at different times in our lives.  You can’t step into the same story twice – or maybe it’s that stories. books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, and maybe it’s this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to more transient art, which is real too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us  and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and goings.  Because come then go we will, and in that order.

Ali Smith in Artful  

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you organize your studio?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Of course, my studio is first and foremost set up as a work space.  The easel is at the back and on either side are two rows of four tables, containing thousands of soft pastels.

Enticing busy collectors, critics, and gallerists to visit is always difficult, but sometimes someone wants to make a studio visit on short notice so I am ready for that.  I have a selection of framed recent paintings and photographs hanging up and/or leaning against a wall.  For anyone interested in my evolution as an artist, I maintain a portfolio book with 8″ x 10″ photographs of all my pastel paintings, reviews, press clippings, etc.  The portfolio helps demonstrate how my work has changed during my nearly three decades as a visual artist.  

Comments are welcome!        

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