I’ve been following the work of Arlene Richman for sometime now. I remember when I first came across her work – it was a pastel of abstracted chair patterns.
Recently she’s been doing abstracts full of colour and varied lines. I sigh with joy at the appearance of each new piece. Like this one:
I was curious about how her subject matter evolved from chairs to become mostly non-objective. I was also interested to learn about her abstract painting process. And so I asked Arlene if she’d consider guest blogging to talk about these things and to my delight, she said yes!!
And so it is with GREAT pleasure that I introduce Arlene Richman.
Arlene Richman- Bio
Widely represented in exhibitions national and international, Arlene has won numerous awards including 1st Place in the Abstract category in The Pastel Journal’s Pastel 100 competition. She is a Signature Member of the Pastel Society of America (PSA), as well as a member of the executive committee of the Board of Governors of the PSA. Arlene also serves on the Signature Committee of the Pastel Painters Society of Cape Cod, and is a member of the Salmagundi Club of New York City, the Connecticut Pastel Society, and the Concord Art Association in Massachusetts. From June to November this year, she’ll be part of a group residency at Fruitlands Museum. You can see more of Arlene’s work on her website.
Arlene, it’s all yours!
First, thank you Gail for inviting me to share my work and process with your audience. I’m very flattered and honored. I hope that what I have to say is of interest to a wide variety of artists—not just “abstract” artists.
The rules (if you want to call them that; I don’t think of rules as boundaries) I follow are pretty much the same as those coveted by landscapists, still lifers, and pet portraitists. That is—I respond to color, shape, line, value, emotional impact, dimensionality, and a host of elements most artists either keep in mind or do intuitively. Content is not often my motivator, although many of my latest works are resolving into landscapes, but I seem to have no control over that! More about them later.
When I started painting seriously, about 14 years ago, I painted what most pastelists paint. I started with still life (cuz they don’t move—although the light does if you paint, as I often did, in natural light).
Then I went on to landscapes, which I was totally abysmal at, so I tried for a couple of years to improve my landscape skills. After all, pastelists must paint landscapes, right? So I got a lot better at landscapes, but the genre never gripped my imagination.
Then came the chairs. They came about when I was in France. I took a couple of photos of the chairs in a small French church. The light was just so as it came through the stained glass in late afternoon and cast colored patterns on the floor around the chairs. I couldn’t resist painting it. I then went on to paint several images of the church chairs before I cast off and painted other chair types that intrigued me, including chairs in restaurants, and garden chairs. The chairs are surrogates for people, maybe lonely, emotional, strangely and vividly colored, with their own personalities.
I still look for chairs to paint, but haven’t really found any that pack the visual/emotional wallop (for me) of the early ones.
Moving to Abstraction
But my ambition always was to paint abstract, non-objective paintings, the kind of museum art that has always resonated with me most. I’ve had revelatory experiences in a roomful of Mark Rothkos, got crazy excited by Robert Motherwell, swooned at de Kooning’s women. So there—Abstract Expressionism is of major importance in my pantheon of favored art movements. Richard Diebenkorn in his manifestations as abstract and figurative painter also ranks high. There are so many more, but let’s talk about me……
I came to abstract painting through the back door, one might say. At first, the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak, and I floundered around the issue of how to start an abstract. I know others have the same trouble—people have asked me how I go about my process.
I started by finding bits and pieces of photos I’d taken, extremely close up, to paint. When you get as close as I got, the image becomes unidentifiable and you’re free to play with it in terms of the bare elements of painting. After doing that for a bit, not very long, as it got old fast, I kind of got the hang of what I wanted to do. It happened in starts and stops. I think there’s a ramping-up period during which you just do what you have to do to learn something (if you really want to), without regard to judgment. You’re doing it for yourself; this is not for prime time.
I’m a big believer in the unconscious. I’ve found that my paintings often reveal my feelings or my wishes more than my words do. I was depressed last year and found myself using blacks and neutrals far more than usual. I painted three or four “black paintings” at that time, one of which won an award in the last Pastel 100.
Being a city girl at heart, having grown up in New York City, I found for a time that my paintings were in fact cityscapes—or they were to me anyway. I painted split screens, with what I saw as a wall between the viewer and the rest of the painting. More often than not I saw parts, elements, remembrances of the city on the far side of the wall, which showed its own patterns—graffiti? That was a journey of discovery….if you will.
This year, New England, where I now live, was pounded by snow. More than nine feet of snow fell and pretty much informed life hereabouts for two months. I’ve been painting regularly, and enjoying the hell out of it! And guess what…..most paintings were highly colored landscape-esque studies of things beneath the surface getting ready to poke through…..or at least that’s what I see!
The horizon dominates the structure, the sky above, the earth below with its hidden secrets and colorful compartments holding flowers, vegetables, roots of all sorts. By the end of the snow event, things were poking through, growing, erupting from below. I painted an inordinate number of them. They’re not big, and many are painted on top of older works that have been brushed and washed off.
Working in Series
I tend to work in series and on one painting at a time. I have to walk away from it after working for a while. Then I come back, make an assessment and continue. Because I don’t completely clean up after each painting (do you?), I use some of the pastels from previous paintings—so there’s often a color theme throughout a series. I work a series until I’m bored with it and realize I’m repeating color juxtapositions, placement of lines, etc. When I find myself overworking the painting to death I know I’m finished with that series. Then what? Aha, there’s the rub. After a series is finished….I usually go into a seriously deep funk, questioning everything, especially my imagination and my ability to paint anything ever in the future.
As for materials and process, I favor Rives BFK paper, which is a tough printmaking paper and therefore it can withstand washes of alcohol and water. I’ve tried LeCarte, UArt, Multimedia, Pastelmat, Richeson, whatever. I just don’t like a uniform surface. I prefer to start with paper and randomly brush on pastel ground. I use Golden’s acrylic ground for pastel, and brush it on with a 2” or 2 ½” cheap painter’s brush. I don’t tint the ground, although I sometimes do a color wash either under or over it.
I have an eclectic collection of pastels. My current favorites are Mt Vision and Great American, although I tend to also rely on Sennelier, Unison, Terry Ludwig, Diane Townsend,—oh, you name it……
This winter, I’ve cleaned out my flat file and discarded what I now deem failures. Discarding means washing them off and reusing the surfaces. So there’s a serendipitous underpainting there already. I often use the underpainting as a skeleton on which to hang a new painting—or not, as I’m moved. In some cases, especially when starting on a clean piece of paper, I like to use alcohol to wet pastel down and let it drip down the support to form evocative lines, sometimes turning the paper to get the lines going in different directions. I tape my paper to a board on all four sides, and work standing at an easel.
My process is intuitive. I do not plan my abstracts other than laying in a horizon line or a flat sky color (I’m specifically talking here about this year’s so-called landscapes—other series, other processes.). After that, the sky’s the limit—as it were. I choose colors rather than draw shapes. The colors might be harmonious or jarring, large or small in area, engulfed in line or not, dark or light. In the end, I look for balance—balanced color, balanced values, balanced volumes, line distribution—and variety of shape sizes, colors, apparent and disappearing lines, etc. No line or color is exempt from reconsideration.
I use a bristle brush to delete whatever I want to change. I sometimes use Spectrafix fixative make room for more pastel. I scumble, scratch out, crosshatch. I work all over the surface; I don’t concentrate on any one area more than the others. I lay color down and make sure there’s a color balance overall at each moment. Then I look at details and wonder what could change or be added/subtracted to make a unified and strong statement.
Right now, I feel that I’m winding down my landscape series. I might have a couple more in me. I notice the colors are changing. They’re going more neutral. Interesting, as spring is trying to insert itself into our world here in the Northeast. So you’d think I’d be using brighter colors……go figure. I’ll be thinking about that.
Wow, love hearing about your process Arlene. Thanks so much for sharing this information with us!
I love the colours and exuberance of mark-making in Arlene’s work. I hope you agree! If you’re itching to purchase any of these or other works by Arlene, click here to contact her. The prices for the paintings seen here range from $450 to $3,000.
As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Which of Arlene’s pastels is your favourite? Did you find reading about her process helpful? Please leave a comment on the blog.
Until next time,
PS. Click here to see Arlene’s pastel that I chose for October’s Pastel Gems