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Pastel painting for me is a very personal, tactile experience. Unlike mediums that are applied with a brush, I hold pastel sticks with my thumb and one or two fingers so it almost feels like the color emanates directly from my hand—there is no distance between me and the painting.
Pastels are pure ground pigments held together with just a tiny bit of binder so in my eye they are color in its purest sense, undiluted by oils or water. The tiny ground-up particles reflect light and when applied to a sanded paper can create a subtle sparkle—a liveliness—that other mediums don’t share. Pastel manufacturers today have created hundreds of colors (thousands, more like) in various hardnesses suitable for techniques ranging from pure line drawings to rich painterly effects. Thus they are versatile. And since they require no drying time they are very practical, for I can start and stop on a painting as I choose.
The softest pastels have a creaminess that is simply delicious (metaphorically) to paint with. I can lay in the shape of a mountain with its deeper shadow colors then grab a lighter soft pastel representing the color from a lowering sun as its light hits some peaks and with a few strokes I’ve shaped and highlighted those peaks. The range of colors available, the differing hardnesses of various pastel brands, and the variety of marks I can make using pastels as if they were pencils or brushes make it a pleasure for me to express light, shadows and contours of the landscape with this medium.
Tell us about your experiences of plein air painting. Is it as pleasurable as working in the studio? more pleasurable? How do you deal with the challenges of plein air painting?
Plein air painting is simply a blast. To be outdoors trying to capture a beautiful view in a short amount of time is a daunting challenge—I have two hours or less to paint because the movement of the sun drastically changes the shadow shapes, colors and mood of any scene. When it works and I’ve accomplished what I hoped to, there is nothing quite like the exhilaration I feel. When it doesn’t work I’ve still had a great time being out in nature doing something I love.
Dealing with the challenges of plein air painting requires just a bit of advance planning. I have a hat, sunscreen, bug spray, plenty of water, a snack, a neckerchief to keep gnats out of my ears when necessary or to wet and wrap around my neck in hot weather, extra pastel paper, paper towels, a camera, my box of pastels, my easel attachment and tripod. I worked outside alone for 15 years without a cell phone or buddy. I now have a phone which doubles as a camera but I much prefer to paint alone and have never had a problem being on my own.
The one thing I do fret about is wind, having dealt with two experiences when my easel was knocked over by wind gusts. Imagine trying to find 150+ pieces of pastel, many of them shattered by the fall, in a patch of thick grass or rolling down a hill. Not fun!
Working in my studio is a more measured yet equally joyful and satisfying experience. Studio work for me is accompanied by a lot of time stepping back and letting my eyes and heart drift around the painting, feeling it out. I rarely work directly from smaller sketches or photographs to create larger versions of the same subject. Instead I try to discover more in a painting than I first imagined it to be, often adding elements from memory or by consulting my library of reference photos.
The deserts of Arizona and New Mexico have been my home for many decades. I feel like I understand these deserts at some personal, elemental level, and I paint them in order to remember them. If I could paint only one subject it would have to be desert waters, for water in the desert is such a precious gift. But then I would be grief-stricken if I couldn’t also paint rocks! Happily I can devote equal time to both and some of the paintings I enjoy most are a combination of landscapes and water.
As for favorite locations to paint, for eleven years in New Mexico I painted two different creeks during all seasons and in all conditions, including dry. I will continue to do so with regular trips back to that area. In Arizona my favorite spot is Catalina State Park, where the mountains continually inspire me and I can often find water to paint. I’ve recently moved back to Tucson from New Mexico and am reacquainting myself with favorite painting locales from years ago.
What do you think are the major challenges you and other artists in southern Arizona face today?
Major challenges for me, as for most artists, include finding collectors to buy my paintings. There are fewer and fewer traditional brick and mortar art galleries in operation, so artists are forced to spend a lot of their productive time finding other ways to promote and sell their artwork. I submit my work to several online showcases and apply to many local and national juried exhibitions, showing with several each year.
The internet can be a curse and a blessing both. Artists like myself now use websites and newsletters to connect with a wider audience, and some promote themselves via Facebook, Instagram, and other internet venues. Nevertheless, it seems that younger generations, hopefully our future art collectors, are less interested in original fine art than in acquiring posters and prints from online sources. I know this is reasonable given many are just starting out in life. But I fear that a lack of art education, in both the history of art and the doing of art, will result in a population that has no understanding or appreciation of the intrinsic value of original art, which saddens me.