"Going for 100"
A Pastel Series
This article was first published by Pastel Journal in 2008. After the article appeared, I continued to paint the variations for myself and for workshops. I still love doing them and feel they are a creative safe haven. I think everyone should have one!
Back when I was in art school, I had many amazing instructors but, one was especially memorable. His name was Paul Souza and he taught a head drawing course. I was just 18 when I had his class and at the time he seemed like a pretty cranky old guy. Mr. Souza was a very tough instructor, a real task-master, but I came to realize he was very wise and he said many things that changed my life as an artist. I remember when he barked, “Always remember the three “P’s”, Perfection leads to Procrastination, leads to Paralysis.” That was almost 30 years ago, and what seemed then to be a trite little phrase, has stuck with me through all my years behind the easel to inform my work in untold ways. I’ve always found that the hardest part of painting is getting started. It’s so easy to procrastinate; do the laundry, answer your email, have another cup of coffee. So how do you get started day after day with the intention of creating something of merit? What makes you step up to that blank sheet of paper day after day? Let’s face it, some days it’s daunting, hard and downright scary!
What if every day I did the same thing over and over? Would it make it a little less painful to get started? Would doing something familiar be liberating and comforting or boring and just plain tricky? I’d had the idea after chatting with an artist friend of mine, telling her how great I thought it would be to do the same piece over and over again. She kind of laughed, but I was serious. I’d seen some artist’s blogs that showcase a painting a day and thought they were interesting. So, I decided to produce a large series of pieces along these lines. I imagined that taking the opportunity to interpret a composition repetitively would lead to some interesting things, but I really had no idea just how much it would ultimately influence my work. I very much liked the idea of a warm-up exercise every day and thought at the very least the project would serve as that. At best, it would get me into a more open frame of mind to tackle the more ominous tasks of the day.
I settled on what I thought would be a reasonable, but challenging goal. One hundred variations seemed like it would be difficult, but not out of this world. I choose the simple composition of a landscape with a high horizon and a stream meandering down the center. I only allowed myself to slightly alter the arrangement of the compositional elements. I also decided on a consistent size that was rather small, (10 x 10), so each piece could be completed in under 30 minutes or so. I didn’t have the intention of painting different seasons or even different times of day. I focused primarily on color and value combinations with the idea that I would see how many combinations I could make “work”.
It has turned out to be one of the most revealing and compelling projects I’ve ever undertaken; more of a quest than a series, and at times, an obsession.
As my wall began to fill with these variations and meditations, I wondered if I could stop!
This is some of what I discovered over the course of the roughly four months of going for 100:
Making mud is a good thing. Pastelists are usually trying to stay fresh and pure with their color. It’s true that some of the loveliest pastels are painted with a very light touch, but I believe there is something very substantive in letting yourself literally dig very deep into a piece, even working it to the point of the paper giving out on you. Some of the pieces I did dig into; I scraped and scratched the paper surface with pastels, bristle brushes and palette knives. At times, I layered the pastel very heavily until absolutely no more material would go onto the tooth of the paper. Making mud is like making mud pies; it’s playing. Remember your easel is not a torture chamber. This is supposed to be fun or at least joyous. If one variation didn’t turn out, no big deal; there were plenty more where that came from.
Keep mixing it up. Using mixed media kept this project interesting and encouraged a really playful approach. I experimented more on these pieces than I tend to in my other work. Making this body of work very different from my usual pieces kept me from viewing them as precious, giving me a great deal more freedom. I really threw the kitchen sink at these. I loved playing with watercolor and oil under-painting. I even applied the oil wash rather thickly and then applied the pastel when the paint was still slightly wet. I also sprayed the surface of the pastels with alcohol or Gamsol in a spray bottle to create drips and build texture. I used under-painting extensively in the variations and have since incorporated their use in almost all my new work. Wallis Museum Paper was my paper of choice for both watercolor and oil wash under-painting. This is tough paper that can stand up beautifully to this mixed media “abuse” and still allows for nuance. For some variations, I toned the Wallis paper with a thin, soupy layer of yellow ochre gesso that I purchased from Daniel Smith. I did some mono-prints with an oil wash and then used pastel over the mono-prints.
Don’t be stingy with yourself. I didn’t tell myself “shouldn’t” or “couldn’t”. I let myself be more unconventional and unfettered since this was a body of work separate from my other work. Knowing that I had100 variations to accomplish, I found myself trying color and value combinations that I’d normally avoid, even really crazy stuff. I tried the combinations that I’d thought to myself just wouldn’t work or I’d had a bias against for some reason. We all have these, don’t we? I tried to let go of preconceived notions of what a “good” piece is and I wasn’t constrained by what I think of as my “style”. I stayed more open. Some of the best pieces were those that I wasn’t expecting to turn out. I explored working in a variety of keys or sections on the value scale, purposely working lighter, then darker. This ultimately gave the pieces different moods. I played with complementary colors and even worked monochromatically for a few of the variations. I let myself explore all the things I usually couldn’t make time for. I stayed in an abundance mentality.
Give yourself a beginning and an end. The variations gave me a definitive project every day and as my “wall” grew, I could clearly see the fruits of my labor. This was extremely gratifying and fun! I had a sense of accomplishment each and every day. If this was all I could get done on a given day, it was enough. Pinning the day’s piece on the wall was grand. I miss it!
Find your “happy place”. I really, really adore my studio, but sometimes it can be a lonely, anxious place if I don’t have a focus. It was more of a sanctuary when I started my day with the variations. I didn’t feel quite the same sense of urgency that I can often feel to produce. I came to realize that with having 100 chances, I would certainly have some successes in there somewhere. Doing them really became a practice like yoga or meditation. I just kept at it.
Set some boundaries. Being time constrained is a good thing and keeps you from painting in circles. Since I didn’t want to spend too much time each day, I set a limit, (although a loose one), on the amount of time I would spend on each variation. Thirty minutes was my maximum. You have to be pretty definitive in thirty minutes. That doesn’t mean you can’t be experimental or play, it just means you’re more likely to do so with authority. You don’t have enough time to focus on the details, so you tend to focus on the key elements to improve the overall piece.
So now that I made it to 100, what’s next? I’ve become very attached to my “wall” of these pieces. They are very comforting to look at, diverse and jewel-like. It’s instructive to reflect on the media I used and to compare them with one another. It’s also fun to show them off, when people visit the studio. An artist friend of mine told me that I’d made a quilt. She was right. The variations are stronger as a group and they tell a story. In the end though, I know that to move on, I will have to take them down and step away from what has become a very personal project. Evolving as an artist is very important to me, so I know I can’t stay in the same place.
Ultimately the project was about what painting means for me. It’s not about the perfect piece, it’s about mileage and having the tenacity to keep at it every day. It’s about experimenting and pushing oneself forward, finding your edge, your boundaries as a painter. Most importantly, it’s about finding out how to be yourself as an artist and to keep finding that anew each and every day even it takes 100 tries.
Since finishing the 103 variations, I’ve decided to have an opening to celebrate them at my studio in October, 2009. During and after the opening they will be auctioned on ebay. Twenty five percent of the proceeds will got to MAPS, (Music and Arts Partners), a West Linn Organization that promotes the arts in the public schools.
Marla Baggetta has been a professional working artist for 25 years. She is a Signature Member of the Pastel Society of America and the Pastel Society of Oregon. Her award winning work has been exhibited in galleries and juried shows nationally. Marla’s work has been included in several books and art magazines, most recently, Pure Color the Best of Pastel edited by Maureen Bloomfield and James A. Markle and published by North Light. Marla is represented in Oregon by Riversea Gallery and Art Elements Gallery, in Southern California by Galerie Gabrie, in Northern California by Studio 7 Fine Arts, in Wisconsin by Katie Gingrass Gallery. Marla teaches both studio and plein air workshops. For more information about Marla, visit her website: www.marlabaggetta.com.