* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
… Fernhoffer’s a man in love with our art, a man who sees higher and farther than other painters. He’s meditated on the nature of color, on the absolute truth of line, but by dint of so much research, he has come to doubt the very object of his investigations. In moments of despair, he claims that drawing doesn’t exist and that lines are only good for rendering geometrical figures, which is far from the truth, since with line and with black, which is not a color, we can create a human figure. There’s your proof that our art is like nature itself, composed of an infinity of elements: drawing accounts for the skeleton, color supplies life, but life without a skeleton is even more deficient than a skeleton without life. Lastly, there’s something even truer than all this, which is that practice and observation are everything to a painter; so that if reasoning and poetry argue with our brushes, we wind up in doubt, like our old man here, who’s as much a lunatic as he is a painter — a sublime painter who had the misfortune to be born into wealth, which has allowed him to wander far and wide. Don’t do that to yourself! A painter should philosophize only with a brush in his hand!
Honore Balzac in The Unknown Masterpiece
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A: I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.” I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel. I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist. Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands.
In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland. In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research. He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA. I still own the chair and the house. I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting. I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2. Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.
“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria. I have not seen it since 1990. (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).
Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband. She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce. Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now. She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.
I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan. He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty. At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.
My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation. In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others. This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally. I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.
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Q: Would you talk about your use of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art as a convenient way to study formal properties such as color, shape, pattern, composition, etc. in your pastel paintings?
A: For me an interesting visual property of these objects is that they readily present themselves as a vehicle for exploring formal artistic properties, like color, pattern, shape, etc. especially compared to my earlier subject matter: hyper-realistic portraits and still-lifes. Intent as I was on creating verisimilitude in the earlier work, there was little room for experimentation.
Many Mexican and Guatemalan folk art objects are wildly painted and being a lover of color, their brilliant colors and patterns are what initially attracted me. As a painter I am free to use their actual appearance as my starting point. I photograph them out-of-focus and through colored gels in order to change their appearance and make them strange, enacting my own particular version of “rendering the familiar strange.” Admittedly these objects are not so familiar to begin with.
When I make a pastel painting I look at my reference photograph and I also look at the objects, positioning them within eye-shot of my easel. There is no need whatsoever to be faithful to their actual appearance so my imagination takes over. As I experiment with thousands of soft pastels, with shape, with pattern, with composition, and all the rest, I have one goal in mind – to create the best pastel-on-sandpaper painting I am capable of making.
Comments are welcome!