Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?
A: My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive.
First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter. I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice.
My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work. As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too.
One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next. Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material.
In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows. Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.
In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera. In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.
Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper. They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York. Now I go to Duggal. Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.
Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper. The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead.
Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting.
Comments are welcome!
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!
A: I shot more than 2200 images so I am still sorting through them. Here are a few from the beginning of the trip.
Q: Your “Gods and Monsters” series consists of tableaux of Mexican and Guatemalan figures that are photographed in a way that blurs certain elements to abstraction while others are in clear focus. Can you please speak more about this work?
A: When I depict the Mexican and, more recently, Guatemalan figures in my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, they are hard-edged, vibrant, and in-your-face. That’s a result of the way I work in pastel. I slowly and meticulously build up layers of pigment, blend them with my fingers, continually refine and try to find the best, most eye-popping colors. It’s a very slow process that takes months of hard work. An aside… One frustration I have as an artist – I am hardly unique in this – is that my audience only sees the finished piece and they look at it for perhaps ten seconds. They rarely think about how their ten-second experience took me months to create!
In 2002 when I began photographing these figures, I wanted to take the same subject matter and give it an entirely different treatment. So these images are deliberately soft focus, dreamy, and mysterious. I use a medium format camera and shoot film. I choose a narrow depth of field. I hold gels in front of the scene to blur it and to provide unexpected areas of color. Even as a photographer I am a colorist.
I want this work to surprise me and it does, since I don’t usually know what images I will get. Often I don’t even look through the viewfinder as I position the camera and the gels and click the shutter. I only know what I’ve shot after I’ve seen a contact sheet, usually the next day.
The “Gods and Monsters” series began entirely as a reaction to my pastel paintings. The latter are extremely meticulous and labor intensive. At a certain point in the process I know more or less what the finished painting will look like, but there are still weeks of slow, laborious detail work ahead. So my photographic work is spontaneous, serendipitous, and provides me with much-needed instant gratification. I find it endlessly intriguing to have two diametrically opposed ways of working with the same subject.
Comments are welcome!
* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
February 21, 1924. A hell of a day yesterday. Bitter disappointment awaits the worker in photography.
After risking my neck to get the 8 x 10 camera on la azotea – flat roof – over Tina’s room, the highest vantage point of Lucerna 12, and after straining my back and stripping my nerves to capture a sweep of scurrying cloud forms, development revealed fog – ruinous fog – unmistakably from extraneous light – and a beautiful negative it was, or might have been!
The demon fog can play such uncanny tricks – always I am confounded, disconcerted, mystified until the trouble has been located. All morning I squinted and poked and probed, finally patching with felt the supposed leak due to a warped back, but I lost my negative, as fine a one as any of clouds I have done.
In a blue funk, I was ready to quit, and when Galvan called, accepted his suggestion that we ride into the country and then walk for a while.
North, and out of el distrito federal, he took us to a barranca – gorge – close by – in fact, hardly twenty minutes drive away, yet, from the desolation of this cactus covered gulch we seemed a hundred miles away from any city street. Cactus and rock and the tortuous curves of el arroyo seco – the dry gulch – a bleakness to the spot intensified by a lowering sky, black wrathful clouds, angrily unable to spill their burden of rain. We climbed, we shot, we lay on the dead grass and watched the sunset edge the clouds with rose, and all around stiff cacti in spreading silhouette. Tea with Galvan, his three old aunts and Don pepe – cajeta de Celaya, te, pasas – jelly from Celaya, tea, raisins, and sweet bread.
I feel better, to hell with photography, art, women and all.
Yet – I wished for my camera today. Those serrated stalks of the maguey, their bold uncompromising leaves cutting the horizon, they would make a fine jagged base to a typical Mexican sky.
Nancy Newhall, editor, The Daybooks of Edward Weston: Two Volumes in One: I. Mexico II. California
Comments are welcome!