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Pearls from artists* # 153

“So What?”, soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

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

Ours is an excessively conscious age.  We know so much, we feel so little.  I have lived enough around painters and around studios to have had all the theories – and how contradictory they are – rammed down my throat.  A man has to have a gizzard like an ostrich to digest all the brass tacks and wire nails of modern art theories.  Perhaps all the theories, the utterly indigestible theories, like nails in an ostrich’s gizzard, do indeed help to grind small and make digestible all the emotional and aesthetic pabulum that lies in an artist’s soul.  But they can serve no other purpose.  Not even corrective.  The modern theories of art make real pictures impossible.  You only get these expositions, critical ventures in paint, and fantastic negations.  And the bit of fantasy that may lie in the negation – as in a Dufy or a de Chirico – is just the bit that has escaped theory and perhaps saves the picture.  Theorise, theorise all you like – but when you start to paint, shut your theoretic eyes and go for it with instinct and intuition.

D.H. Lawrence:  Making Pictures in The Creative Process, edited by Brewster Ghiselin

Comments are welcome! 

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am working on a small pastel painting, a portrait of my favorite Mexican Judas figure.

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Why do you call the small paintings in your “Domestic Threats” series, “Scenes?”

"Scene Thirteen: Bathroom," 26" x 20", soft pastel on sandpaper

“Scene Thirteen: Bathroom,” 26″ x 20″, soft pastel on sandpaper

"He Urged Her to Abdicate," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper

“He Urged Her to Abdicate,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  At first I didn’t know what to call them.  I was looking for a word that meant “a piece of some larger whole.”  Initially the word “shard” – a fragment of pottery – came to mind.  However, that didn’t capture the meaning I was seeking, since my paintings have little to do with pottery. 

My large “Domestic Threats” paintings are theatrical.  There is substantial labor and much thought involved in their creation, so I often think of myself as a director and each image as a play. 

Small “Domestic Threats” paintings are made from a portion of a photograph that I use as reference  for a larger painting.  For example, “Scene Thirteen:  Bathroom” (above, top) is a small version of “He Urged Her to Abdicate” (above, bottom). 

A “portion” of a play is a “Scene” so that’s what I finally named them.  Additionally, I numbered the paintings in order of their creation and added the room where each takes place.

Comments are welcome! 

Q: What’s on the easel today?

 

"Troublemaker" in progress

“Troublemaker” in progress

A:  I’m working on a small 20″ x 26″ pastel painting called, “Troublemaker.”  The reference photo is a favorite that I shot with Bryan’s old Nikon F1 in 2002, when I first began studying in earnest at the International Center of Photography.  The painting is very similar to the photo because I think the photo is quite good.

Comments are welcome!

 

Pearls from artists* # 129

 

Chalcatzingo, Mexico

Chalcatzingo, Mexico

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

A painter friend of mine once told me that he thought of sound as an usher for the here and now.  When he was a small child, Adam suffered an illness that left him profoundly deaf for several months.  His memories of that time are vivid and not, he insists, at all negative.  Indeed, they opened a world in which the images he saw could be woven together with much greater freedom and originality than he’d ever known.  The experience was powerful enough that it helped steer him toward his lifelong immersion in the visual arts.  “Sound imposes a narrative on you,” he said, “and it’s always someone else’s narrative.  My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.”

George Prochnik in In Pursuit of Silence:  Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise 

Comments are welcome! 

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am putting finishing touches on a small pastel painting called, “Spectral.”  I worked on it before and after Halloween.  Somewhat atypical for my pastel paintings, it clearly reflects the time of year that it was created.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: When you left the Navy you worked on commission as a portrait artist. Why don’t you accept commissions now?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  As I have often said, I left the active duty Navy in 1989, but stayed in the Reserves. The Reserves provided a small part-time income and the only requirement was that I work one weekend a month and two weeks each year.  Plus, I could retire after 13 more years and receive a pension.  (In 2003 I retired from the Navy Reserve as a Commander).  The rest of the time I was free to pursue my studio practice. 

For a short time I made a living making commissioned photo-realist portraits in soft pastel on sandpaper.  However, after a year I became very restless.  I remember thinking, “I did not leave a boring job just to make boring art!”  I lost interest in doing commissions because what I wanted to accomplish personally as an artist did not coincide with what portrait clients wanted.  I finished my final portrait commission in 1990 and never looked back. 

To this day I remain reluctant to accept a commission of any kind.  So I am completely free to paint whatever I want, which is the only way to evolve as a serious, deeply committed artist.      

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 108

At work on a pastel painting

At work on a pastel painting

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

Artists generally need privacy in order to create, and as I’ve noted, what constitutes adequate privacy varies by person and time.  Solitude quickly becomes isolation when it oversteps one’s desires.  But most artists need to feel that they and their work won’t be examined prematurely and, certainly, won’t be ambushed unfinished by ridiculing eyes.  You might go out and invite various people to critique a piece in progress, even knowing they’re unlikely to view it with sympathy, exactly because you feel there’s necessary information in their opinion.  But, if you’ve invited them, however unpleasant the response, your experience is likely preferable to what you would feel if they impulsively offered up the same critiques unsolicited.

Someone making art needs privacy in part because the process of creation makes many people feel vulnerable, sometimes exquisitely so, particularly since the work frequently emerges in a jumble of  mixed-up small parts that you can only assemble gradually, or in a wet lumpy mound that requires patient sculpting.  When people feel prematurely revealed or exposed, they often experience great discomfort and find themselves babbling apologetically, seeking to reassure by laying out the distance they have yet to travel.  It is in part this babble-as-smoke-screen to cover exposure resulting, distracting, unhappy self-consciousness that privacy seeks to shelter.

But even more significantly, privacy grants us permission to turn our attention inward without interruption.  As I described earlier, in order to concentrate, think, and fantasize, we need to feel we’re in a safe enough space that we can lower our vigilance, stop monitoring our environment, and allow ourselves to refocus on the happenings within our own minds.  There are times interruptions feel merciful, but many more when they disrupt our effort to flesh out an inchoate notion.

Janna Malamud Smith in an absorbing errand:  How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery 

Comments are welcome!  

Q: What does your creative process look like when you are ready to begin a new painting?

 

Preliminary sketch

Preliminary sketch

A:  My working methods have changed dramatically over the years with my current process being a much-simplified version of how I used to work.  In other words as I pared down my imagery in the “Black Paintings,” my process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite logically to the next.  Another is that I always have set up a scene, lit and photographed it, and worked with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material.  In the “Domestic Threats” series I shot with a 4″ x 5″ view camera.  Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of images to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images and uses film) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  I get the print made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  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.  For example, in the photograph above I had originally thought about creating a vertical painting, but changed to horizontal format after discovering spatial problems in my sketch.  

Also, I decided to make a small painting now because it has been two years since I last worked in a smaller (than my usual 38″ x 58″) size.  I am re-using the photograph on which “Epiphany” is based.  Using a photograph a second time lets me see how my working methods have evolved over time.     

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 80

New York, NY

New York, NY

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

Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important:  whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair.  But the painting [“The Goldfinch,” 1654, by C. Fabritius] has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time.  And I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you.  That life – whatever else it is – is short.  That fate is cruel but maybe not random.  That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it.  That maybe if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway:  wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.  And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.  For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time – so too has love.  Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality.  It exists; and it keeps on existing.  And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.

Donna Tartt in The Goldfinch 

Comments are welcome!