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Q: Is there a pastel painting that you are most proud of?

"She Embraced It and Grew Stronger," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58," 2003

“She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38,” 2003

A:  Without a doubt I am most proud of “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger.” 

After Bryan was killed on 9/11, making art again seemed an impossibility.  When he was alive I would spend weeks setting up and lighting the tableau I wanted to paint.  Then Bryan would shoot two negatives using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera.  I would select one and order a 20″ x 24″ reference photo to be printed by a local photography  lab.  

“She Embraced It…” is the first large pastel painting that I created without using a photograph taken by Bryan.  This painting proved that I had learned to use his 4 x 5 view camera to shoot the reference photographs that were (and still are) integral to my process.  My life’s work could continue!

Certainly the title is autobiographical.  ‘She’ in “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger” is me and ‘It’ means continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.

Comments are welcome!   

Q: What was the first painting you ever sold?

“Bryan’s Ph.D.”, 11″ x 13 1/2″, soft pastel on sandpaper

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.  

Comments are welcome!     

Q: Do you have any advice for a young painter or someone just starting out as an artist?

Studio

Studio

A:  As artists each of us has at least two important responsibilities:  to express things we are feeling for which there are no adequate words and to communicate to a select few people, who become our audience.  By virtue of his or her own uniqueness, every human being has something to say.  But self-expression by itself is not enough.  As I often say, at it’s core art is communication.  Without this element there is no art.  When artists fail to communicate, perhaps they haven’t mastered their medium sufficiently so are unsuccessful in the attempt, or they may be being self-indulgent and not trying.  Admittedly there is that rare and most welcome occurrence when an artistic statement – such as a personal epiphany – happens for oneself alone. 

Most importantly, always listen to what your heart tells you.  It knows and speaks the truth and becomes easier to trust as you mature.  If you get caught up in the art world, step back and take some time to regain your bearings, to get reacquainted with the voice within you that knows the truth.  Paint from there.  Do not ever let a dealer or anyone else dictate what or how you should paint. 

With perhaps the singular exception of artist-run cooperative galleries, be very suspicious of  anyone who asks for money to put your work in an exhibition.  These people are making money from desperate and confused artists, not from appreciative art collectors.   With payment already in hand there is no financial incentive whatsoever for these people to sell your paintings and they won’t. 

Always work in a beautiful and special place of your own making.  It doesn’t need to be very large, unless you require a large space in which to create, but it needs to be yours.  I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf’s “a room of one’s own” here.  A studio is your haven, a place to experiment, learn, study, and grow.  A studio should be a place you can’t wait to enter and once you are there and engaged, are reluctant to leave. 

Be prepared to work harder than you ever have, unrelentingly developing your special innate gifts, whether you are in the mood to do so or not.  Most of all remember to do it for love, because you love your medium and it’s endless possibilities, because you love working in your studio, and because you feel most joyously alive when you are creating.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you discuss your process, including how you actually use Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures in your art?

A corner of Barbara's studio

A corner of Barbara’s studio

A:  When I set up the figures to photograph for a painting, I work very intuitively, so how I actually cast them in an artwork is difficult to say. Looks count a lot – I select an object and put it in a particular place, look at it, move it or let it stay, and sometimes develop a storyline. I spend time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. With my first “Domestic Threats” series, all of this was done so that Bryan, my late husband, or I could shoot a couple of negatives with his Toyo Omega 4″ x 5″ view camera.  For  my “Black Paintings” series, begun in 2007, I shoot medium format negatives with a Mamiya 6 camera.

I always look at a 20″ x 24″ photograph for reference as I make a pastel-on-sandpaper painting, plus I also work from the ‘live’ objects.  The photograph is mainly a catalyst because finished paintings are always quite different from their associated reference photos.  Also, since I spend months creating them, the paintings’ interpretative development goes way beyond that of the photo.   

I once completed 6 large (58” x 38”) pastel paintings in a single year, but more recently 4 or 5 per year is common.  It takes approximately 3 months to make each one.  During that time I layer and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pastel. Of course, the colors get more intense as the painting progresses and the pigment accumulates on the sandpaper.

Comments are welcome!

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!  

Q: How do you begin a photograph?

Untitled chromogenic print, 24" x 24", edition of 5

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x 24″, edition of 5

A:  It always begins in my mind long before I actually start making it.  By the time I take the photograph, I’ve already thought deeply about the possibilities, the formal arrangements, meanings, etc. so that setting up the objects, lighting them, and clicking the shutter feels like a reward after a long thought process.  My fine art photographs are  finished works in themselves.  However, when I select one to use as reference for a pastel painting, a different but related process of working out my ideas and translating them into pastel occurs over the next several months spent in the studio.  Of course, in that case the photo becomes only the starting point for an entirely new artwork.  

Comments are welcome!