Blog Archives

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: How would you describe your personal artistic style?

Barbara'a pastels

Barbara’a pastels

A:  Regardless of what medium I am using, I am first and foremost a colorist.  Everything I create is vibrant with color.

The Navy taught me to be organized, goal-oriented and focused, to love challenges, and in everything I do, to pay attention to the details.  Trying to make it as an artist in New York is nothing BUT challenges, so these qualities serve me well, whether I am creating paintings, shooting and making photographs, or trying to understand the art business, keep up with social media, and manage all the tasks required of a busy artist with a New York studio, a business, and two residences to maintain.  It’s a lot, but it forces me to continually learn and grow.  As Helen Keller famously said, “Life is an adventure or it is nothing.”

These days I am rarely bored.  I thoroughly enjoy spending long, solitary hours working to become a better artist.  I am meticulous about craft and will not let work out of my studio until it is as good as I can make it.  My creative process is more exciting than ever.  It’s thrilling and energizing to continually push soft pastel to its limits and use it in ways that no other artist has done before!  

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: Please speak about your background as a Naval officer and aviator and how that has informed your sensibility as an artist.

The studio yesterday

The studio yesterday

A:  At the age of 25 I got my private pilot’s license before spending the next two years amassing thousands of hours of flight time as I earned every flying license and rating I could, ending with a Boeing-727 flight engineer certificate. I joined the Navy when I was 29. I used to think that the 7 years I spent on active duty were wasted – during those 7 years I should have been working on my art – but I see things differently now. The Navy taught me to be disciplined, to be goal-oriented and focused, to love challenges, and in everything I do, to pay attention to the details. Trying to make it as an artist in New York is nothing BUT challenges so these qualities serve me well, whether I’m creating paintings, shooting and printing photographs, or trying to understand the art business and keep up with social media.  I enjoy spending long solitary hours working to become a better artist. I am meticulous about craft and will not let a work out of my studio or out of the darkroom until it is as good as I can make it.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you listen to music while you work?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  I always have the stereo on when I work in my studio, either tuned in to WBGO (the Newark-based jazz station), WNYC (for news and talk radio; Leonard Lopate, Fresh Air, etc.), WFMU (Fordham University’s radio station, to learn what college kids are listening to) and other local radio stations.  I still listen to cd’s, I read the lyrics and the liner notes, and I prefer to listen to music the way artists intended it, meaning that I listen to entire albums from start to finish instead of jumping around between single tracks by different artists.  When it comes to music, I’m interested in everything:  jazz (especially classic jazz artists like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakely, etc.), blues, classical, pop, rock, world music (especially artists from Brazil, Cuba, and any country in Africa), electronic, indy, experimental, ancient music, etc.  You name it, I probably listen to it, and if I don’t, I’m eager to learn all about it.  When I’m working, certain artists are better to listen to at particular points in a painting.  For example, one of my favorite artists to start a new painting with is Lady Gaga.  The beat, her energy, and sheer exuberance are perfect when I’m standing in  front of my easel with a blank piece of sandpaper in front of me.  Gaga’s music gets me moving and working fast, putting down colors instinctively without thinking about them, just feeling everything.   

It’s a different story when I am at my apartment and am shooting a photo setup.  Then I might or might not listen to music. Lately it’s more about working fast (I shoot 24 images in about 15 minutes), choosing a variety of interesting vantage points, getting surprising effects, etc.

Comments are welcome!