I met Ellen Eagle at the 2013 International Association of Pastel Societies (IAPS) Convention where I bought her marvellous book, Pastel Painting Atelier (see link at the bottom of this post to purchase). I asked her to sign it and then had the gumption to ask her to do a short video interview with me. Happily, she agreed! (You can watch it here.)
I also included one of Ellen’s pastels (a nude) in my December collection of pastels seen from around the world that month.
I knew that I wanted to ask Ellen if she would consider contributing a guest blog but on what?
As I was flipping through her book, it came to me that Ellen’s works are like contemplations both for the artist and for the viewer (and perhaps even for the model). Somehow, they achieve a timeless feeling. They appear as part of the long line of tradition in portraiture. Even so, they are distinctly contemporary. So I asked Ellen if she would consider writing about her portraits as contemplations. And as you can see, she agreed!!
Let me give you a taste of her work before we go on.
A bit about Ellen…
Ellen Eagle – A Short Bio
Ellen received a BFA with Distinction in Drawing from the then California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. She studied with Daniel Greene and with Harvey Dinnerstein at The Art Students League of New York. Her pastel portraits have been exhibited widely in venues such as the National Academy Museum, Butler Institute of American Art, Frye Art Museum, Long Beach Museum of Art, and the Baker Museum. In 2011-12, she exhibited 20 portraits in a traveling two-person show at the Dongguan Museum of Fine Art, China. Ellen teaches at The Art Students League and gives workshops throughout the United States and in Assisi, Italy. Her writings and paintings have been published in many magazines and books, and her own book, Pastel Painting Atelier, was published in 2013. Her work has received many awards and grants. She is represented by the Forum Gallery. You can find out more and see more of Ellen’s work at her website.
Ellen, it’s all yours!
Gail, thank you so much for the honor of appearing on your blog, which I so respect and enjoy.
I do feel that I work in a deeply contemplative manner when I paint someone. In my studio, I luxuriate in the natural light’s embrace of my subject’s form, and its revelation of color. It’s almost as though I enter a trance-like state: I am under the influence of the flesh, bone, heart, and light of my subject. That influence, that love, shepherds my investigation, my contemplation. It’s interesting that the trance-like state provides the requisite for my at-full-attention search into my subject’s characteristics. My strokes go on quickly, but I am never rushing. I look and look and look. I never tire of the looking: I want to see; I want to understand. I usually work for 10 to 15 sessions of about 3 to 4 hours each, sometimes more. My self-portraits take much longer.
You very kindly described my work as having a timeless quality. If that is so, and I hope it is, perhaps that quality correlates to the balance of trance and sustained investigation. Working in natural light means that there are constant changes to the colors, edges, and values that I am studying. I have to resolve all those changes, and the changes in the feelings projected by my model, into one impression. I never hesitate to make as many changes in my portrait as are necessary to come to as meaningful an understanding of my subject as I possibly can at this time. I paint portraits to understand, and there is no understanding without contemplation.
I love having my studio in the converted third floor attic of my home. The attic had been a dark, cavernous space with just one window, so a bank of northeast facing windows was installed at the time of the conversion. For the first fifteen or so years, the light in my studio had been diffuse, resulting in very subtle value shifts in my subject from light into dark. I happen to love high key paintings, but it’s great to experiment and try various light situations.
Recently I installed a system of up/down shades, so I will now be able to create a more concentrated light and more overt value shifts if my response to my subject so requires. The studio being on the top floor of the house, the ceiling angles conform to the steep roof angles, giving the studio a cozy and prayerful cathedral-like atmosphere.
I don’t have much storage space, so I mostly store my various brands of pastels on a model stand (I have a spare one) at the periphery of the room. The pastels in use in any given painting are laid out on old typewriter tables on wheels. Papers and boards (I prepare my own gesso-pumice supports) are stored in a very small corner closet. I have a large mirror on wheels, which I use for self-portraits. My bookshelves are in the hallway, just outside the studio, to protect them from pastel dust, but individual books are always rotating back and forth from hallway to studio. I try my best to keep the studio calm and organized. For the most part, I am fairly successful at doing so.
When I am going to be painting someone for the first time, I always begin the process with at least one day of sketching different gestural and compositional possibilities. Sometimes it takes several sessions to choose the painting design, because either I have not yet found “the” gesture, or I have found too many. I love this part of the portrait process. It is here that I begin to explore and internalize the model’s proportions and natural postural and facial expressions. The sketches are thumbnail, and the forms are very abstracted to convey the overall composition.
When I am ready to lay out the composition on my support, I do so lightly, in charcoal, and usually using just line. No need to spend time adding the tone in charcoal because I already worked them out in my thumbnail. Once I begin my color, the adventure takes on a new urgency, as I never have been able to foresee how a painting will develop. I place warms where I see warms, cools where I see cools. I do not strive for perfectly correct colors from the start, because of that shifting light quality. Rather, I assign each area a temperature. The temperature relationships will remain constant: the area over here that is warmER than that area over there that is coolER, will always be warmer. The nuances of those temperatures and colors will evolve during the development of the painting. The longer I study my subject, the more complex the considerations. We look into our subjects, ever more deeply.
There is always some element of intimidation when I begin a portrait, but the bliss wins out, and I never fail to want to return to my easel to engage in the revelatory contemplation again and again.
Thanks so much Ellen! You express your feelings about the whole process so eloquently.
If you are interested in contacting Ellen, you can write to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ellen has some workshops coming up:
– Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Philadelphia, Pa; 6-10 June 2016, email: email@example.com
– Aria Workshops, Istria, Croatia; 18 June – 2 July 2016 http://workshops.pastelnews.com/registration-form/
– Dates TBA – Chicago area; and Art Students League of New York.
Please leave a comment letting us know what resonated most with you. I’d LOVE to hear from you!
Until next time,
PS. Here are links to Ellen’s book which I highly recommend. (Canadian readers, please use the second link.) If you purchase through these links, I may earn a wee commission – yay!