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Q: You have spoken about your pastel technique, which involves layering pigments on top of each other, up to 25 to 30 layers. When you do this are you putting the same colors on top of each other?

 

An early version of "Oracle," 26" x 20"

An early version of “Oracle,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″

Finished

Finished

A:  I do layer Rembrandt black soft pastels on top of each other to achieve the dark backgrounds in my “Black Paintings” and “Bolivianos” series.  Black Rembrandts are the pastels I use most so I order them several dozen at a time.  The 400 or 500 grit sandpaper requires at least four layers of pastel just to achieve even coverage.  Over the next few months I add many more layers of black pastel to achieve the final rich look.

The figures and shapes in each pastel painting are a different  story.  Were you to x-ray them, you’d see many different colors underneath the final one.  Sometimes subsequent colors are closely related to earlier ones.  With each additional layer, I correct, refine, and strengthen my drawing so the objects depicted become more solid and/or three-dimensional.

In addition to the thousands of pastels I have to choose from, I mix and blend new colors directly on the sandpaper.  As I proceed, I am searching for the ‘best’ colors, those that make the overall painting more resonant, more alive, and more exciting to look at.  Of course, this is wholly subjective.

Comments are welcome!        

Q: Would you talk about your use of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art as a convenient way to study formal properties such as color, shape, pattern, composition, etc. in your pastel paintings?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  For me an interesting visual property of these objects is that they readily present themselves as a vehicle for exploring formal artistic properties, like color, pattern, shape, etc. especially compared to my earlier subject matter:  hyper-realistic portraits and still-lifes.  Intent as I was on creating verisimilitude in the earlier work, there was little room for experimentation.  

Many Mexican and Guatemalan folk art objects are wildly painted and being a lover of color, their brilliant colors and patterns are  what initially attracted me.  As a painter I am free to use their actual appearance as my starting point.  I photograph them out-of-focus and through colored gels in order to change their appearance and make them strange, enacting my own particular version of “rendering the familiar strange.”  Admittedly these objects are not so familiar to begin with. 

When I make a pastel painting I look at my reference photograph and I also look at the objects, positioning them within eye-shot of my easel.  There is no need whatsoever to be faithful to their actual appearance so my imagination takes over.  As I experiment with thousands of soft pastels, with shape, with pattern, with composition, and all the rest, I have one goal in mind – to create the best pastel-on-sandpaper painting I am capable of making. 

Comments are welcome!         

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?

Barbara in Bali (far right)

Barbara in Bali (far right)

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!    

Pearls from artists* # 114

Catalogue of Matisse's late work

Catalogue of Matisse’s late work

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

These paper cut-outs have their very pure existence, although they escape from your hands, from your scissors.  Their paper matter with the fine play of light on their flexibility, the physical aspect of this flexibility, all combine to make something miraculous which loses its essence when it is placed flat.  But it retains its essence when it is fastened to the wall with pins by Lydia.  The paper then keeps the life I am talking about and undergoes incessant changes.

Matisse:  A Second Life, 2005 Editions Hazan, James Mayor translator of the English version

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* # 59

Studio

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.

Friends sometimes ask, “Don’t you get lonely sitting by yourself all day?”  At first it seemed odd to hear myself say No.  Then I realized that I was not alone; I was in the book; I was with the characters.  I was with my Self.

Not only do I not feel alone with my characters; they are more vivid and interesting to me than the people in my real life.  If you think about it, the case can’t be otherwise.  In order for a book (or any project or enterprise) to hold our attention for the length of time it takes to unfold itself, it has to plug into some internal perplexity or passion that is of paramount importance to us.  The problem becomes the theme of our work, even if we can’t at the start understand or articulate it.  As the characters arise, each embodies infallibly an aspect of that dilemma, that perplexity.  These characters might not be interesting to anyone else but they’re absolutely fascinating to us.  They are us.  Meaner, smarter, sexier versions of ourselves.  It’s fun to be with them because they’re wrestling with the same issue that has its hooks into us.  They’re our soul mates, our lovers, our best friends.  Even the villains.  Especially the villains.  

Stephen Pressfield in The War of Art

Comments are welcome!   

Q: When and why did you start working on sandpaper?

Raw sandpaper

Raw 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!

Pearls from artists* # 21

Apartment building, New York City

Apartment building, New York City

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

It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away.

A painting covers its tracks.  Painters work from the ground up.  The latest version of a painting overlays earlier versions, and obliterates them.  Writers, on the other hand, work from left to right.  The discardable chapters are on the left.  The latest version of a literary work begins somewhere in the work’s middle, and hardens toward the end.  The earlier version remains lumpishly on the left; the work’s beginning greets the reader with the wrong hand.  In those early pages and chapters anyone may find bold leaps to nowhere, read the brave beginnings of dropped themes, hear a tone since abandoned, discover blind alleys, track red herrings, and laboriously learn a setting now false.

Several delusions weaken the writer’s resolve to throw away work.  If he has read his pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry known by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms.  He will retain them.  He may retain those pages if they possess some virtues, such as power in themselves, though they lack the cardinal virtue, which is pertinence to, and unity with, the book’s thrust.  Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again the blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared – relief that he was writing anything at all.  That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork.  But no.

Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment.  Every year the old man studied the prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good.  Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack.  At length he turned to the young man:  “You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it in the bad stack.  Why do you like it so much?”  The young photographer said, “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.”      

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life 

Comments are welcome!