Q: How do you achieve such richness of color in your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings?
A: This results from the several months of studio time and many layers of soft pastel that go into creating each painting. In a sense my technique is analogous to glazing done by the Old Masters. They slowly built up layers of thin paint to achieve a high degree of finish. Colors were not mixed physically, but optically. I gradually build up layers of soft pastel, as many as 30, to create a pastel painting. After a color is applied, I blend it with my fingers and push it into the sandpaper’s tooth. It mixes with the color beneath to create a new color, continually adding richness, saturation, and intensity to the overall painting.
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Q: When and why did you start working on sandpaper?
A: In the late 1980s when I was studying at the Art League in Alexandria, VA, I took a three-day pastel workshop with Albert Handel, an artist known for his southwest landscapes in pastel and oil paint. I had just begun working with soft pastel (I’d completed my first class with Diane Tesler) and was still experimenting with paper. Handel suggested I try Ersta fine sandpaper. I did and nearly three decades later, I’ve never used anything else.
The paper (UArt makes it now) is acid-free and accepts dry media, especially pastel and charcoal. It allows me to build up layer upon layer of pigment, blend, etc. without having to use a fixative. The tooth of the paper almost never gets filled up so it continues to hold pastel. If the tooth does fill up, which sometimes happens with problem areas that are difficult to resolve, I take a bristle paintbrush, dust off the unwanted pigment, and start again. My entire technique – slowly applying soft pastel, blending and creating new colors directly on the paper (occupational hazard: rubbed-raw fingers, especially at the beginning of a painting as I mentioned in last Saturday’s blog post), making countless corrections and adjustments, looking for the best and/or most vivid colors, etc. – evolved in conjunction with this paper.
I used to say that if Ersta ever went out of business and stopped making sandpaper, my artist days would be over. Thankfully, when that DID happen, UArt began making a very similar paper. I buy it from ASW (Art Supply Warehouse) in two sizes – 22″ x 28″ sheets and 56″ wide by 10 yard long rolls. The newer version of the rolled paper is actually better than the old, because when I unroll it it lays flat immediately. With Ersta I laid the paper out on the floor for weeks before the curl would give way and it was flat enough to work on.
Comments are welcome!
Q: What’s on the easel today?
A: Today is a day off to let my fingers heal. When I start a new painting, I need to rub my fingers against raw sandpaper in order to blend the pastel. With each layer the tooth of the paper gets filled up and becomes smooth, but until then my fingers suffer. Here is what I’ve been working on.
This pastel-on-sandpaper painting is an experiment, an attempt to push myself to work with bigger and bolder imagery. The photograph clipped to the easel is one of my favorites. It depicts a Judas that Bryan and I found in a dusty shop in Oaxaca. Among the Mexican and Guatemalan folk art pieces that I’ve collected are five papier mâché Judases. This particular one is unusual because it has a cat’s head attached at the forehead (the purple shape in the painting). They are not made to last. In some Mexican towns large Judases are hung from church steeples, loaded with fireworks, and burned in effigy. This takes place at 10:00 a.m. on the Saturday morning before Easter. Mexico is primarily a Catholic nation, of course, so effigy burning is done as symbolic revenge against Judas for his betrayal of Christ. The Judas in the photo is small and meant for private burning by a family (rather than in public at a church) so by bringing it back to New York I rescued it from a fire-y death! In sympathy with Mexican tradition, I began this painting last Saturday (the day before Easter) at 10 a.m.
Comments are welcome!
Q: How do you know when a pastel painting is finished?
A: During the several months that I work on a pastel painting, I search for the best, most eye-popping colors, as I build up and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pigment. I am able to complete some areas, like the background, fairly easily – maybe with six or seven layers – but the more realistic parts take more applications because I am adding details. Details always take time to perfect. No matter how many pastel layers I apply, however, I never use fixatives. It is difficult to see this in reproductions of my work, but the finished surfaces achieve a texture akin to velvet. My technique involves blending each layer with my fingers, pushing pastel deep into the tooth of the sandpaper. The paper holds plenty of pigment and because the pastel doesn’t flake off, there is no need for fixatives.
I consider a given painting complete when it is as good as I can make it, when adding or subtracting anything would diminish what is there. I know my abilities and I know what each individual stick of pastel can do. I continually try to push myself and my materials to their limits.
Comments are welcome.