Q: What does it feel like when you dop off a pastel painting at your Virginia framer’s shop? Are you sorry to see it go? (Question from Caroline Golden)
A: Actually, just the opposite since I have been looking at it on my easel for more than three months. Typically, I’m glad to say goodbye – temporarily – because I know when I pick it up in a month, I will have gained some distance and can begin to see and think about it more objectively. I can start reflecting on how this pastel painting relates to my overall body of work.
Comments are welcome!
Q: What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this? (Question from artamour)
A: While traveling in Bolivia in 2017, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz. The masks were presented against black walls, spot-lit, and looked eerily like 3D versions of my Black Paintings, the series I was working on at the time. I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift. To date I have completed seventeen pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series. One awaits finishing touches, another is in progress, and I am planning the next two, one large and one small pastel painting.
The following text is from my “Bolivianos” artist’s statement.
“My long-standing fascination with traditional masks took a leap forward in the spring of 2017 when I visited the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia. One particular exhibition on view, with more than fifty festival masks, was completely spell-binding.
The masks were old and had been crafted in Oruro, a former tin-mining center about 140 miles south of La Paz on the cold Altiplano (elevation 12,000’). Depicting important figures from Bolivian folklore traditions, the masks were created for use in Carnival celebrations that happen each year in late February or early March.
Carnival in Oruro revolves around three great dances. The dance of “The Incas” records the conquest and death of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor when the Spanish arrived in 1532. “The Morenada” dance was once assumed to represent black slaves who worked in the mines, but the truth is more complicated (and uncertain) since only mitayo Indians were permitted to do this work. The dance of “The Diablada” depicts Saint Michael fighting against Lucifer and the seven deadly sins. The latter were originally disguised in seven different masks derived from medieval Christian symbols and mostly devoid of pre-Columbian elements (except for totemic animals that became attached to Christianity after the Conquest). Typically, in these dances the cock represents Pride, the dog Envy, the pig Greed, the female devil Lust, etc.
The exhibition in La Paz was stunning and dramatic. Each mask was meticulously installed against a dark black wall and strategically spotlighted so that it became alive. The whole effect was uncanny. The masks looked like 3D versions of my “Black Paintings,” a pastel paintings series I have been creating for ten years. This experience was a gift… I could hardly believe my good fortune!
Knowing I was looking at the birth of a new series – I said as much to my companions as I remained behind while they explored other parts of the museum – I spent considerable time composing photographs. Consequently, I have enough reference material to create new pastel paintings in the studio for several years. The series, entitled “Bolivianos,” is arguably my strongest and most striking work to date.”
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A: Making pastel-on-sandpaper paintings is a slow and meticulous process. I work full-time in my studio so that in a good year I can produce five finished pieces. Typically two are in progress at a time so that I can switch off when problems develop.
A downside to looking at a painting for months is that there comes a point when I can’t see the flaws any more. Then it’s definitely time to take a break.
When I put a painting that has been resting back onto my easel, I see it with fresh eyes again. Areas that need work immediately stand out. Problem areas become easily resolvable because I have continued to think about them while the painting was out of my sight.
Comments are welcome!
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: 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!
Q: Your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings are very labor intensive. Do you typically have just one in progress at any given time?
A: For many years I always worked on one at a time because I have only one or two ideas – never more than that – about what I will make next. Also, I believe that “all art is the result of one’s having gone through an experience to the end.” (It’s on a note taped to the wall near my easel). So I would work on one painting at a time until all of the problems in it were resolved. Each piece that I undertake represents an investment of several months of my life and after nearly three decades as an artist, I know that once I start a piece I will not abandon it for any reason. When it is the best painting that I can make – when adding or subtracting anything would be a diminishment – I pronounce it “finished.” In the past I would start the next one only when the completed piece was out of my sight and at the frame shop.
But a few years ago I began working on two pastel paintings at a time. When I get stuck – or just need a break from looking at the same image day after day (I am in my studio 5 days a week) – I switch to the other one. This helps me work more efficiently. The two paintings interact with each other; they play off of each other and one suggests solutions that help me to resolve problem areas in the other. I’m not sure exactly how this happens – maybe putting a piece aside for awhile alerts my unconscious to begin working deeply on it – but having two in progress at the same time is my preferred way of working now.
A note about the painting on the left above, which was previously called, “Judas.” I happen to be reading “Cloud Atlas,” by David Mitchell and came across the word “judasing” used as a verb meaning, “doing some evil to a person who profoundly trusted you.” I’d never heard the word before, but it resonated with an event in my personal life. So the new title of my painting is “Judasing.” This is a good reminder that work and life are inextricably (and inexplicably) woven together and that titles can come from anywhere!
Comments are welcome!