Q: How long does it take you to complete a pastel-on-sandpaper painting?
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 do you select a photograph to use as reference material to make a pastel painting?
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: Do you listen to music while you work?
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!