It’s been awhile since I really got into pastel work and rather than jump into a serious piece, I thought, Hmmmm, good idea to PLAY first. Since I’ve been itching to try out Canson Touch and since I now had a sheet of it – colour ‘Sand’ – I thought I’d play on that. I decided to go BIG and left it uncut.
This particular sheet was used by participants at my Opus demo (29th March) to test soft pastels. You’ll see their marks in the corner. I figured if the paper worked well that would be terrific as it’s available pretty much worldwide unlike much of the other sanded paper out there (e.g. like the Wallis Paper I primarily use).
Okay, I had the paper, now what?
I’d been listening to the radio about how musicians will take a piece of music by someone else and write ‘variations’ on it e.g. Brahms’ – Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Ahhhhhhh. An idea arose. I had been perusing a book of Richard Diebenkorn’s work and among the many pieces I admired, there was one abstract, Untitled ‘M’, that I was particularly drawn to. I decided to use it (instead of a blank canvas!) as the inspiration for my playing, a Variation on a Theme by Diebenkorn!
So let’s have a look at the original painting:
Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled ‘M’, 1951, oil on canvas, 43 1/8 x 52 3/4 in, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (screen shot from the museum’s website)
Using Diebenkorn’s painting as inspiration meant I wasn’t going to copy it exactly. To begin with, you’ll notice that the proportions of my paper are certainly not the same as the painting. Also, I’m working in pastel, he worked in paint.
I was mainly intrigued by the seemingly random black shapes, many of which are at the edge of the canvas. Also, Diebenkorn’s painting is pretty monochromatic except for some colour seen beneath the white/grey paint and the colour along the bottom edge. In the last year or so, I’ve strangely found myself pulled towards doing more work in subdued and greyed colours rather than the bright, saturated and pure chroma I’m known for.
1. Canson Touch almost naked! All that’s on the paper are the trial marks made by students at the Opus demo. I thought I could work them in nicely.
2. The beginning marks. Quickly putting in the black shapes, I’m using Holbein pastels here. Also, I’m working on the floor at this point.
3. More paper covered with the general colours and shapes I see in Diebenkorn’s painting. Remember, I’m working with different proportions to the original but I’m trying to locate the shapes in approximately the same formation. I am still working flat. The pastel dust is collecting on the surface and you can see this in the bottom right corner.
4. I decide at this point to brush water over the whole thing as I want to see how well water works on the Canson Touch paper. Well, it was pretty funny. The water just created balls covered by a layer of pastel. These water balls just rolled about on the surface and if I smashed one, it just dispersed into smaller balls. It was a bit like those balls of mercury I remember my dentist showing me when I was a child! Anyway, I could have pushed it but in the end, decided to skip the water and move right into softer pastels!
5. I decided to wipe areas with a tissue instead of using a wet medium. I’m not a blender but I thought I’d try it and see what happened. I liked parts but also felt that everything went greyer. I then began to add softer pastels. By now, I have the pastel upright on the easel after shaking the piece over paper to remove excess dust. (Normally I would take my work outside to de-dust but the paper is attached to a large, heavy, and awkward-to-carry-downstairs board hence the inside method which I do not advocate!)
6. Adding more soft pastel (Sennelier, Mount Vision and Great American – all dependant on the availability of the colours I needed) and beginning to refine the shapes. I’m covering up some of the original colour, trying to imitate the way Diebenkorn may have worked.
7. In this close-up, you can see how the soft pastel is beginning to slide over the Canson Touch paper. Already there’s not enough tooth in the sanded paper to hold many layers of pastels.
8. More layers of pastel added and more tweaking of shapes and lines and colours. I also add a few light scrawlings of vine charcoal. I think I’m pretty much finished.
The thing I realized once I was well into the piece was, where do I go from here? The master’s painting is done and I have essentially made my own variation of it but how in the world can I take it another step? Diebenkorn’s painting is finished and who am I to tinker with it?? I’d painted myself into a corner!
9. I was curious to see what the pastel would look like in black and white. How do the values all relate?
10. Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled ‘M’, 1951, oil on canvas, 43 1-8 x 52 3-4 in, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His painting as seen in black and white.
I was curious to compare my pastel with Diebenkorn’s oil painting as seen in black and white. Obviously the light areas on his work are way lighter than mine! And this lightness keeps you coming back to the centre of the picture. So I went back to mine, found a white pastel (Great American) softer than the one I had been using (Sennelier) and added more lights. And I think I can still add more. The trick will be to retain some of the marks and colouring below.
11. Great American white soft pastel scumbled over the surface in different areas. The Sennelier white didn’t give off as much pigment as the Great American one. I think there is still more I could do but I’ll leave it for now. Gail Sibley, “Variation on Diebenkorn’s ‘M’,” pastel on Canson Touch, 22 x 30 in
Here are a couple of close-ups so you can see the colour layering:
12. Gail Sibley, Variation on Diebenkorn’s ‘M'”, pastel on Canson Touch, 22 x 30 in, close-up 1
13. Gail Sibley, Variation on Diebenkorn’s ‘M'”, pastel on Canson Touch, 22 x 30 in, close-up 2
And here are the pastels used:
Holbein pastels used in the first layering
Mixture of Great American, Sennelier and Mount Vision pastels used. Also one Holbein that I used to tone down the red.
So, what did I learn? First, about the Canson Touch paper:
I wouldn’t call Canson Touch the ‘ultimate’ sanded paper as they say on their website but it’s certainly fine. It’s a smooth sanded surface that won’t eat up your fingers or paper towel. I would say I put on about 3-4 layers in some areas (the first layer being a harder pastel) and it held up pretty well. I think if I was going to add more layers I would need to consider spraying it lightly with fixative (something I rarely do). In another blog post I’ll do a more comprehensive review. (Please let me know if this is something that would be helpful for you.)
And what did I learn about using Diebenkorn’s painting as inspiration?
I’ve always loved seeing the hand of the artist, much of which can be seen by visible pentimenti. Diebenkorn was adamant about leaving changes visible, he never covered up everything so as you go closer to the painting, you can see the changes he made. I don’t know what the original layers looked like but I can get a sense of them from what’s visible beneath the final paint surface (in person, I’m sure much more would be visible) and so I tried to include them in my version. Still, so much is unknown and I was just guessing.
I went from thinking solely about a main figure/subject with its background (even in a non-objective painting like this) to really thinking about the expanse of the whole canvas, thinking about all parts of it, back and forth, negative/positive negative/positive. In Diebenkorn’s ‘M’, there’s much focus on the forms near and on the edge. And so I learnt how useful and relevant these shapes can be. I was surprised by their importance. I became more conscious of what was going on over the whole piece.
Also I learnt to love working with subtle monochromatics – using colour underneath to enliven it. I could do more work like this. I love the way the slash of red makes a statement yet doesn’t dominate. The whole is balanced. How does that work? Much to study!
The thing about copying is that you’re following someone else’s process and art experience rather than having your own. It’s a bit like the way I remember colouring books – it was fun while it lasted but the end feeling was one more of emptiness than the exhilaration that comes from creating your own response to inner or outer impressions. While creating this pastel, I could respond to the formal elements of Diebenkorn’s painting but because I was following a prescription, a template, rather than letting the work itself lead the way as it evolved, it began to feel lifeless with no emotional history of ups and downs that go with art making. That was an unexpected outcome.
Mind you, this piece was done with much less fear than doing my own work – fear of what to do next i.e. what colour to choose, what mark to make, where to make the mark etc – yet there was still some fear around ‘getting it right’.
As I mentioned above, another thing I didn’t realize would happen was the dilemma of how to move on from the original. What else could I add? subtract? What other marks could I make? Sure mine is different from Diebenkorn’s ‘M’ – different medium, different format – but still, it’s an impression of the original and I have a hard time trusting myself to take it elsewhere.
In the end, I found through doing this work that I now want to explore shape and mark making even more. It was a learning experience and I appreciate and like the outcome.
Try copying a piece you like by a master – it’ll open your eyes to new possibilities! Let me know how it goes.
Whew, this was a long one. Are you still here? Well THANK YOU for being such a committed reader and participant. Let me know your thoughts by commenting on the blog or simply reply to this email and I’ll post your comment for you.
~ Until next time,
PS. Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) was born in Portland, Oregon, went to Stanford (the family had relocated to San Francisco) and then completed military service 1943-1945. After the war, he studied at the California School of Fine Arts and soon became a faculty member. In 1950 Diebenkorn enrolled at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. This new environment affected him and resulted in paintings from the Albuquerque Period, his first mature statement.
During the Albuquerque years, Diebenkorn saw the retrospective exhibition of Arshile Gorky at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The impact of this show on him along with his experience viewing the landscape from the perspective of a low-flying plane seems evident in his painting, Untitled ‘M’, which makes me think of an aerial view of a strange landscape.
PPS. Here’s the book I looked through on Richard Diebenkorn (borrowed from the library but just purchased):
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