Blog Archives

Pearls from artists* # 337

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

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

I think society did a great disservice to artists when we started saying they were geniuses, instead of saying they had geniuses.  That happened around the Renaissance, with the rise of a more rational and human-centered view of life.  The gods and the mysteries fell away, and suddenly we put all credit and blame for creativity on the artists themselves – making the all-too-fragile humans completely responsible for the vagaries of inspiration.

In the process, we also venerated art and artists beyond their appropriate stations.  The distinction of “being a genius” (and the rewards and status often associated with it) elevated creators into something like a priestly cast – and perhaps even into minor deities – which I think is a bit too much pressure for mere mortals, no matter how talented.  That’s when artists start to really crack, driven mad and broken in half by the weight and weirdness of their gifts.       

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear

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Pearls from artists* # 203

"Palaver,"soft pastel on sandpaper, 26" x 20"

“Palaver,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″

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

One day, looking for something that might interest those few buyers there were, Marquet and I decided to reconnoiter.  So we went to the Pavillon de Rohan, to the Galeries de Rivoli, where there were dealers in engraving and in all kinds of curiosities that might attract foreign customers.  We each came back with an idea:  mine was to do  a park landscape with swans.  I went to the Bois de Boulogne to do a study of the lake.  Then I went to buy a photo showing swans and tried to combine the two.  Only it was very bad; I didn’t like it – in fact nobody liked it; it was impossible; it was stodgy.  I couldn’t change; I couldn’t counterfeit the frame of mind of the customers on the rue de Rivoli or anywhere else.  So I put my foot through it.  

I understood then that I had no business painting to please other people; it wasn’t possible. Either way, when I started a canvas, I painted it the way I wanted with things that interested me.  I knew very well that it wouldn’t sell, and I kept putting off the confection of a picture that would sell.  And then the same thing would happen the next time.

There are plenty of artists who think it’s smart to make paintings to sell.  Then – when they have acquired a certain reputation, a degree of independence – they want to paint things for themselves.  But that simply isn’t possible.  Painting’s an uphill task and if you want to find out what you’re capable of, you can’t dillydally on the way.  

Chatting with Henri Matisse:  The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, translated by Chris Miller

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Pearls from artists* # 202

 

Soft pastels

Soft pastels

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

When you’re working on something, you always wonder, “Can I get away with this?  Is it working?”  It’s the space between that I’ve been interested in for a long time.  I think that when I started to make, say, a triptych that came from an observation of a little Picasso drawing, the spaces in between became as important as the three actual pieces.  It’s especially true of the Wallpaper piece.  But most of the changes in my own work really evolve from one piece to the next:  from looking at my own work, the works of others, and things in my studio.  It happens when you see something that you didn’t see previously, like those scraps of clay that became the wall pieces.  It’s similar to the space that I’ve explored for years and years between artist and craftsperson, which is both interesting and challenging, and I don’t think that one thing is inferior to the other.  Each has a different goal, a different function.  Its my responsibility how nd where my work is viewed in different contexts.

In Conversation:  Betty Woodman with Phong Bui, The Brooklyn Rail, April 2016

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Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A: I have just started working on a small (20″ x 26″) pastel painting.  The figure is a Balinese dragon I found last summer at “Winter Sun & Summer Moon” in Rhinebeck, New York.  

Preferring to collect these figures while traveling in their countries of origin, I made an exception this time.  My reasoning?  I have been to Bali (in 2012) and at four feet tall and carved from solid wood, this dragon is quite heavy and would have been difficult to bring home.         

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Q: Would you say there is a unifying quality to all of the work you have produced in the last thirty years?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  Yes, I can think of several.  Whether making pastel paintings or printing photographs in the darkroom, I have always been concerned with quality and craftsmanship and never pronounce a work finished until it is the best thing I can make. 

Although I started out as a maker of photorealist portraits in pastel, for twenty-odd years I have worked with Mexican folk art as my primary subject matter, treating these objects very differently in three separate series:  “Black Paintings,” “Domestic Threats,” and “Gods and Monsters.”  The first two are pastel-on-sandpaper paintings while the last is comprised of chromogenic photographs (c-prints).  A few years ago I also started making “Teleidoscopes” using an iPad app to photograph my Mexican and Guatemalan folk art collection.  This last one is just for fun; I do not offer them for sale.

Soft pastel is my first love and the two series of pastel paintings are my best-known work.  My technique for using pastel continues to evolve in intriguing ways.  I doubt I can ever learn all there is to know not only about color, but also about this medium.  Pastel is endlessly fascinating, which is why I have never wanted to switch to anything else. 

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Pearls from artists* # 160

"A Promise, Meant to be Broken," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“A Promise, Meant to be Broken,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

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

When I get asked what one piece of advice I have for young photographers, this is what I tell them:  if you are working on a project, and you’re thinking maybe it’s time to put it out into the world, make sure you have already started your next body of work.  Not just started, either; you should be well along on it.  You will know that the first project is finished when you find yourself joylessly going through the motions to eke out a few more pictures while, like a forbidden lover, the new ones call seductively to you.  This new lover should be irresistible, and when it calls, you will be in its urgent thrall, making the work of your heart.

Sally Mann in Hold Still:  A Memoir with Photographs  

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Pearls from artists* # 151

“The Storyteller,” 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.

I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.  I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other.  It takes me to another place – irrespective of my subject – where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time.  In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper.  Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago. 

On the Move:  A Life by Oliver Sacks

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Q: What’s on the easel today?

Pastel painting in progress

Pastel painting in progress

A:  I’m working on a pastel painting started a few weeks ago.  It has a long way to go.

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!