2001. Pastel on sandpaper, 8 x 7-3/8 in.
Axis is a small work that has remained important to me. It dates from many years ago, when I was still exploring what pastels could do. The surface was much affected by the use of spray fixative – a substance that I eventually came to mostly avoid, but whose modifying properties I have also at times found to be intriguing. The ultimate surface is difficult to accurately reproduce digitally, as is the color, which ranges from green to orange.
I’m not able to work in the studio for a few days or be focused on painting, but this piece has always been a touchstone for me. I’m always able to reach it, even when I can’t reach much else.
2018. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 11 x 14 in.
I love working with charcoal, perhaps because I love working with line and a stick of charcoal makes line that is fast, direct, and highly expressive. The less wonderful part is that it is messy and easily smeared, attributes I had more than enough of while working with pastels for decades. The common remedy is spray fixative, which I used here and works well enough but I really don’t like it.
This painting is from early in my efforts with acrylic paint, and I learning a lot in working on it – lessons that have carried on into my work ever since. It was liberating to find I could use subtraction with acrylic paint in a way I really couldn’t with pastels – meaning I could take away or beat back something I didn’t like or that was too strong, or create openings over something that had already been figured with pigment. This allows me to work both forward and back, pushing and pulling, adding and subtracting, instead of every stroke being a largely irreversible commitment that I must work around.
In this case I used titanium white to paint over passages that I wanted to remove or sublimate/soften. If this work had been in pastel I could only have pushed a passage back by covering it with thick impasto and always been in danger of being “locked out”, i.e., the tooth of the paper being filled with pigment and unable to hold more layers.
Anyway, the overall experience was liberating and the lesson one of the more profound I have discovered in my transition from pastel to acrylic paint. Another lesson is…I still love working with charcoal. A brush filled with paint will never be quite the same.
Crystal Form No. 3
2000. Pastel on sandpaper, 7 x 6-3/4 in.
My interest in the mutable relationship of line and shape goes way back – how a line, if it wanders long enough, often creates a shape. And then can wander away again. It’s a very basic phenomenon, but it’s slippery nature keeps me intrigued. It’s one of the reasons I worked with pastels for years, I believe – after all, the pastel is both an instrument of drawing, and of painting – of line, and of shape. The piece above is typical of the way I worked with pastel for years, as is this one:
Crystal Form No. 4
2000. Pastel on sandpaper, 7 x 6-5/8 in.
At the time I would apply the pastel to the sandpaper by scumbling and then smoothing the powdered pigment to varying degrees with a brush. The line itself, in these examples, was painstakingly recreated with pastel pencil or charcoal from an original pencil sketch. The nuances of the surface I was able to create, as well as line-becoming-shape-becoming line, kept me beguiled. Still does. The works I do now look different, but the evidence of the fascination is still in there.
2020 Suite No. 1
2020. Acrylic and ink on canvas, 11 x 14 in.
I’ve been working at a relatively rapid clip these last few months, with several pieces usually in process at once. I’ve been frankly voracious in my need to make things happen in the studio, almost like needing a drug high – not surprising, I suppose, considering the sense of futility that drains so much of our lives at this time.
Having multiple pieces in progress contrasts with how I worked for many years in pastel. In that medium I most often worked with the piece flat on the table, applylng the pastel with a brush, and due to the fragility of the surface I needed to keep a lot of clear space around. So there wasn’t much room to have more than one thing going on at once. These pieces also tended to take more time in the planning and preparation than the execution. Here is an example from 2016, from the Additional Dimensions series which derived from gesture drawings of deteriorating homesteads in my neighborhood:
2016. Pastel on sandpaper, 12 x 22 in.
Clearly my work now often skips that planning and preparation stage, as I increasingly prize spontaneity directly on the substrate. With pastels the spontaneity usually went into the informal gestural sketch from which the painting was developed. I did draw directly with the pastels at times however – as in this homestead from 2007:
2007. Pastel on paper, 18 x 24 in.
…or this one from the same year:
2007. Pastel and charcoal on paper, 22-1/4 x 13-1/2 in.
Those seem like idyllic times, now, but of course they weren’t. But they were easier. They were easier.