Blog Archives

Q: What historical art movement do you most identify with?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I’d have to say that I identify most with surrealism, although my work does not exactly fit into any particular art historical movement.  When I was first finding my way as an artist, I read everything I could find about surrealism in art and in literature.  This research still res0nates deeply and is a tremendous influence on my studio practice.  Elements of surrealism DO fit my work.  Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 20s and is best known for its visual artworks and writings.  The aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.”  Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself.  

Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; however, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, with the works being an artifact.  Leader Andre Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement.

I hope to expand on this in a future post.

Comments are welcome!            

Q: Do you have any unfinished pastel paintings?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  It has been roughly 20 years since I started a painting that I couldn’t resolve and finish.  This may or may not be a good thing.  It could mean that I am not experimenting or pushing myself enough.  On the other hand, having worked as a professional artist for nearly thirty years, I am confident of my ability to think through and find solutions for finishing each painting, regardless of the difficulties encountered along the way.

Comments are welcome!       

Q: How many pastel paintings do you have in progress now?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  Making pastel-on-sandpaper paintings is a slow and meticulous process.  I work full-time in my studio so that in a good year I can produce five finished pieces.  Typically two are in progress at a time so that I can switch off when problems develop.

A downside to looking at a painting for months is that there comes a point when I can’t see the flaws any more.  Then it’s definitely time to take a break.  

When I put a painting that has been resting back onto my easel, I see it with fresh eyes again.  Areas that need work immediately stand out.  Problem areas become easily resolvable because I have continued to think about them while the painting was out of my sight. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are very labor intensive. Do you typically have just one in progress at any given time?

Works in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

Works in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  For many years I always worked on one at a time because I have only one or two ideas – never more than that – about what I will make next.  Also, I believe that “all art is the result of one’s having gone through an experience to the end.”  (It’s on a note taped to the wall near my easel).  So I would work on one painting at a time until all of the problems in it were resolved.  Each piece that I undertake represents an investment of several months of my life and after nearly three decades as an artist, I know that once I start a piece I will not abandon it for any reason.  When it is the best painting that I can make – when adding or subtracting anything would be a diminishment – I pronounce it “finished.”  In the past I would start the next one only when the completed piece was out of my sight and at the frame shop.

But a few years ago I began working on two pastel paintings at a time.  When I get stuck – or just need a break from looking at the same image day after day (I am in my studio 5 days a week) – I switch to the other one.  This helps me work more efficiently.  The two paintings interact with each other; they play off of each other and one suggests solutions that help me to resolve problem areas in the other.  I’m not sure exactly how this happens – maybe putting a piece aside for awhile alerts my unconscious to begin working deeply on it – but having two in progress at the same time is my preferred way of working now.

A note about the painting on the left above, which was previously called, “Judas.”  I happen to be reading “Cloud Atlas,” by David Mitchell and came across the word “judasing” used as a verb meaning, “doing some evil to a person who profoundly trusted you.”  I’d never heard the word before, but it resonated with an event in my personal life.  So the new title of my painting is “Judasing.”  This is a good reminder that work and life are inextricably (and inexplicably) woven together and that titles can come from anywhere!  

Comments are welcome!

Q: Have you ever worked outside?

Reproductions of "Cardinal Rule" (top) and "Blue Ego," originals are soft pastel on sandpaper, 30" x 38"

Reproductions of “Cardinal Rule” (top) and “Blue Ego,” originals are soft pastel on sandpaper, 30″ x 38″

A:  As a pastel artist I’ve never worked outside – with so many pastels, it’s just not practical – but early on in the “Domestic Threats” series, I created two outdoor setups.  Works in the series derived from elaborate scenes that I arranged and then photographed.  

I used to take long walks along the Potomac River in Alexandria, VA, and there was a tree stump that was fascinating.  It was mostly twisted roots, knotty branches, dark hidden spaces, etc. (top painting in photo).  One morning I took several hand puppets and stuffed animals (my subject matter at the time) and carefully arranged them on the tree.  Around me people were busy exercising their dogs.  Soon I attracted quite a bit of attention – a tall blonde woman playing with puppets on a tree stump!  Dogs came over to sniff.  Their owners came over, too, and I was pressed into explaining, again and again, that I was an artist, that I was photographing this scene so I could paint it, etc.  The interruptions were very annoying.

The second time I tried an outdoor setup was again along the Potomac River, but this time I selected a secluded strip of beach where I was undisturbed.  I had forgotten to consider the light and inadvertently chose a cloudy day.  I remember being disappointed that the light was flat and lacking shadows.  The painting (bottom in photo) turned out to be one of my least favorites. 

I resolved from then on to focus on interiors.  Alfred Hitchcock famously used rear projection so that he could work in a studio rather than on location.  One reason, he said, was that in a studio he had total control.  I know what he meant.  When I set up an interior scene and position the lights to make interesting shadows, indeed, I have control over the whole look.  No aspect is left to chance.   The accidents – improvements! – happen later when I work on the painting.  

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Why do you need to use a photograph as a reference source to make a pastel painting?

One of Barbara's reference photos

One of Barbara’s reference photos

A:  When I was about 4 or 5 years old I discovered that I had a natural ability to draw anything that I could see.  It’s the way my brain is wired and it is a gift!  One of my earliest memories as an artist is of copying the Sunday comics.  Always it has been much more difficult to draw what I CANNOT see, i.e., to recall how things look solely from memory or to invent them outright.

The evolution of my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings has been the opposite of what one might expect.  I started out making extremely photo-realistic portraits.  I remember feeling highly unflattered when after months of hard work, someone would look at my completed painting and say, “It looks just like a photograph!”  I know this was meant as a compliment, but to me it meant that I had failed as an artist.   Art is so much more than copying physical appearances.

So I resolved to move away from photo-realism.  It has been slow going and part of me still feels like a slacker if I don’t put in all the details.  But after nearly three decades I have arrived at my present way of working, which although still highly representational, contains much that is made up, simplified, and/or stylized.  As I have always done, I continue to work from life and from photographs, but at a certain point I put everything aside and work solely from memory.

Comments are welcome!

Q: When and why did you start working on sandpaper?

Raw sandpaper

Raw sandpaper

A:  In the late 1980s when I was studying at the Art League in Alexandria, VA, I took 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 (I’d completed my first class with Diane Tesler) and was still experimenting with paper.  Handel suggested I try Ersta fine sandpaper.  I did and nearly three decades later, I’ve never used anything else. 

The paper (UArt makes it now) is acid-free and accepts dry media, especially pastel and charcoal.   It allows me to build up layer upon layer of pigment, blend, etc. without having to use a fixative.  The tooth of the paper almost never gets filled up so it continues to hold pastel.  If 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 (occupational hazard:  rubbed-raw fingers, especially at the beginning of a painting as I mentioned in last Saturday’s blog post), making countless corrections and adjustments, looking for the best and/or most vivid colors, etc. – 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 from ASW (Art Supply Warehouse) 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 laid 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: What’s on the easel today?

"Stalemate" in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper

“Stalemate” in progress, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  A large pastel painting with the working title, “Stalemate.”  For this one I went back and looked at some of my older 35 mm negatives.  I selected one from 2002 and made the photographic print you see above, clipped to the left side of my easel.  This piece is unusual because I’m painting the figures much larger than life size.  I like what’s happening, but it’s slow going.

The title, “Stalemate,” is one I thought of some twenty-odd years ago, when I worked on a very different pastel painting – a table top still life – by that name.  Somehow I couldn’t resolve some problems in the composition so I never finished it.  I haven’t seen it in years, but it’s probably sitting in my Alexandria basement someplace. 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 21

Apartment building, New York City

Apartment building, New York City

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

It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away.

A painting covers its tracks.  Painters work from the ground up.  The latest version of a painting overlays earlier versions, and obliterates them.  Writers, on the other hand, work from left to right.  The discardable chapters are on the left.  The latest version of a literary work begins somewhere in the work’s middle, and hardens toward the end.  The earlier version remains lumpishly on the left; the work’s beginning greets the reader with the wrong hand.  In those early pages and chapters anyone may find bold leaps to nowhere, read the brave beginnings of dropped themes, hear a tone since abandoned, discover blind alleys, track red herrings, and laboriously learn a setting now false.

Several delusions weaken the writer’s resolve to throw away work.  If he has read his pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry known by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms.  He will retain them.  He may retain those pages if they possess some virtues, such as power in themselves, though they lack the cardinal virtue, which is pertinence to, and unity with, the book’s thrust.  Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again the blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared – relief that he was writing anything at all.  That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork.  But no.

Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment.  Every year the old man studied the prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good.  Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack.  At length he turned to the young man:  “You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it in the bad stack.  Why do you like it so much?”  The young photographer said, “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.”      

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life 

Comments are welcome!