Blog Archives

Q: What was the first painting you ever sold?

“Bryan’s Ph.D.”, 11″ x 13 1/2″, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.”  I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel.  I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist.  Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands. 

In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland.  In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research.  He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA.  I still own the chair and the house.  I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting.  I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2.  Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.

“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria.  I have not seen it since 1990.  (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).

Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband.  She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce.  Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now.  She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.

I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan.  He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty.  At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.  

My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation.  In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others.  This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally.  I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.  

Comments are welcome!     

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I am in the very early stages of a large pastel painting.  I have never painted any of these figures before and they originated in different parts of the world.  The bird (left) is from the Brooklyn Museum’s store, although it was hand carved in Guatemala.  The standing figure is carved wood with beautiful painted details.  It was a lucky find on a trip to Panajachel, Guatemala.  The armadillo (red and grey) was made by one of my favorite Mexican folk artists (now deceased) and I believe it’s one of the last pieces he completed.  It is a papier mâché figure that I found in a small shop in Mexico City.  The figure on the upper right is a wooden mask bought from a talkative and talented artist at a hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka.  It depicts nagas (cobras), although you can’t tell that yet in the painting.

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* # 109

A few of Barbara's pastels

A few of Barbara’s 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.

A BOX OF PASTELS

I once held on my knees a simple wooden box

in which a rainbow lay dusty and broken.

It was a set of pastels that had years before

belonged to the painter Mary Cassatt,

and all of the colors she’d used in her work

lay open before me.  Those hues she’d most used,

the peaches and pinks, were worn down to stubs,

while the cool colors – violet, ultramarine –

had been set, scarcely touched, to one side.

She’d had little patience with darkness, and her heart

held only a measure of shadow.  I touched

the warm dust of those colors, her tools,

and left there with light on the tips of my fingers.

Ted Kooser in Art and Artists:  Poems, edited by Emily Fragos

Comments are welcome!

 

Pearls from artists* # 89

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

On a drifty Manhattan stroll
The kind that unearths magical treasures
I made a right turn off of Houston
Onto Bowery
And as it became Third Avenue
I came upon this old art store
That creaked hello
Its warped wooden shelves
Held new paints
A little dusty from the old building
But whose colors were deeper
Than I’d ever seen before

And at the back of the store
Up a narrow stairway
Was a tiny room
And behind a long table stood three people
(Probably artists)
Who could get me any paper I desired
Paper with designs
To collage with
Hot press, cold press
100 gram, 600 gram paper
To draw and paint on
Any kind of paper I’d ever want
Templates from heaven

And over my right shoulder
Was a tall window
Overlooking the glorious city
That has held this little room
Tenderly in its arms
All these years

And as I hugged
My rolled up package of paper
And went back downstairs
The old stairs seemed to gently whisper
“Come back soon,
We’ll keep each other alive”

And stepping outside
Third Avenue seemed more spacious
And I took a deep breath
As the world
Kaleidoscoped
With possibilities
Lovingly wrapped up
By three kind artists
At the top of the world.

Art Supplies From Heaven, by Judith Ellen Sanders, published in “Metropolitan Diary,” NY Times, April 6, 2014

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you speak about what draws you to the Mexican and Guatemalan figures that you collect?

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo:  Donna Tang

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo: Donna Tang

A:  I search the markets and bazaars of Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere for folk art objects – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, children’s toys – to bring back to New York to paint and photograph. Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the patterns are on these objects the better – plus they must be unique and have lots of personality. I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for the tourist trade. The objects must have been used or otherwise look like they’ve had a life (i.e., been part of religious festivities) to draw my attention. How and where each one comes into my possession is an important part of my creative process.

Finding, buying, and getting them back to the U.S. is always circuitous, but that, too, is part of the process, an adventure, and often a good story. Here’s an example. In 2009 I was in a small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, called Panajachel. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we discovered a wonderful mask store. I spent some time looking around, made my selections, and was ready to buy five exquisitely-made standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no, I’ll have to leave them behind.” However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish is much more fluent than mine, the three of us brain-stormed until finally, Tomas had an idea. I could pay for the figures at the hotel up the block and in a few days when the hotel was paid by the credit card company, the hotel would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was made and the first hurdle was overcome. Working out the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour or two, but during that time Tomas and I became friends and exchanged telephone numbers (the store didn’t even have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door!). Most surprisingly, the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your new work explores relationships to figures through the medium of soft pastel. What prompted this departure from photography?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  Actually it was the other way around.  As I’ve mentioned, I was a maker of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings long before I became a photographer (1986 vs. 2002).  However, the photos in the “Gods and Monsters” series were meant to be photographs in their own right, i.e., they were not made to be reference material for paintings.  in an interesting turn of events, in 2007 I started a new series, “Black Paintings,” which uses the “Gods and Monsters” photographs as source material.  Collectors who have been following my work for years tell me the new series is the strongest yet.  For now I’m enjoying where this work is leading.  The last three paintings are the most minimal yet and I’ve begun thinking of them as the “Big Heads.”  There is usually a single figure (“Stalemate” has two) that is much larger than life size.  “Epiphany” (above, left) is an example.  All of them are quite dramatic when seen in person, especially with their black wooden frames and mats.     

Comments are welcome! 

Q: What did you buy in Bali to use in your work?

Objects from Bali and Taiwan

Objects from Bali and Taiwan

A: I bought a few small things: a mask, a carved wooden “wedding pair,” and a ceramic monkey (from a Taiwan airport shop) that will most likely be subject matter for future photographs and pastel paintings.