Blast from the Past — archaeology in the studio

I’ve been sorting the contents of boxes that have been in storage for quite a while, in an attempt to get rid of the storage locker that somehow snuck into my life after a sudden downsizing of studio space from a spacious 228 square feet to a nicer but tiny 135 square feet. “It’s only for a month or two”, I told myself. Six years later, after two studio moves and one house move, the locker still sits there, full of unfinished projects, forgotten enthusiasms, and extra art supplies, even though I now have two small studio spaces (one at home, one away). Time for a major clear-out!

I tried to get Hercules in to help, with his shovel and stable-clearing expertise, but he wasn’t available, so I’ve been picking through the boxes, trying to be ruthless with the artifacts of my past. I feel like some kind of archaeologist, sifting through layers of unremarkable soil, trying to decide if this or that dusty bit is more junk, or a treasure. And then suddenly, I’ll unearth something gem-like, that makes me smile with recognition, and it feels like Christmas!

During my last session with the (much smaller now, thank you) mountain of boxes, I found some early attempts at oil pastels. I say early attempts, but really they were my only attempts at doing anything “serious” with them — I had absolutely no clue how to use them, even though I had pored over several books on the subject. But they made beautiful, rich marks, and I wanted to try them. A dear friend had bought me a box of beautiful Sennelier oil pastels, with a large range of colours including irridescent ones. I had some canvas paper, and got them out and started making paintings.  (Alas, these scans do not do justice to the irridescence, though the colours have come out well)

sm.oil pastel night scene

The colours were beautiful (the silver which I liberally mixed into the light areas unfortunately doesn’t show here), but my previous conditioning to having a lot of detail in a painting (I usually worked in pen-and-ink with watercolour) rendered me horror-struck at the results! I loved the feel of the stuff as it slid onto the surface, and being able to blend, but it was just so darn… uncontrollable! It was hard to get contrast! Everything was blurry! And why was that tree wearing a skirt? I wailed in frustration and went back for another try:

sm.oil pastel horses

Hmmm…. not too bad. I was starting to get the hang of the scraffito technique, scraping away the colour to get aura-like lines and highlights. This could go somewhere, I thought, though I was still having a bit of trouble with the contrast, not to mention defining the forms. (This one had silver, gold, and copper metalics in it)

sm.oil pastel angel

I was much more pleased with this angel, though the stylization that was creeping into these pictures disturbed me — I was used to trying to be a bit more realistic in my work.  But I had a lot of fun swirling the hair, and with her metallic copper skin and silver robes (which, sigh, again are not visible).

sm.oil pastel humpback

I decided to try a subject that I’d been doing a lot at the time, a whale. I was pretty pleased with this one actually; it reminded me somewhat of the linocuts that I had been doing, in the energy of the strokes. At this point I was feeling like I might be onto something!

sm.oil pastel kitty

At this point I was feeling a lot more confident with the medium, and decided to stop messing around and get Serious. I had been making stuff up out of my head, playing with the oil pastels and not worrying overly much about what I was actually drawing. I had a photo of my cat, Kitty (I know, most original cat name ever) that I’d been meaning to turn into a painting, so I got that out and started being more methodical. Success! I loved this painting then, and still do.

But… for some reason I stopped there. I probably got swept into a more urgent project, and never found my way back to the particular calm shallows of this attempt at a new medium. The river moved on, taking me with it; the pool dried up, leaving behind these layers to be found at a later time.

I did use the oil pastels one other time; some of my students in an ongoing weekly art class for seniors wanted to know what you did with them (some of them had acquired sets of them but were in the same boat that I had been). I warned them that I wasn’t any kind of expert at them myself, but told them that we could all have a “discover oil pastels” day together and I would lead them in experimentation. The result was a great deal of fun, and this depiction of Gasworks Park in Seattle, where I had once spent a very happy afternoon taking “arty” pictures to use for painting reference.

sm.oil pastel gasworks

I really quite like this one too, though at the time I was again frustrated by the lack of detail control. Perhaps it’s time I got over that. I think it may be time to try it again.

Unearthing past artwork like this always provides insights into my present work. I’ve learned to loosen up quite a lot since I did these (and perhaps they helped me do that). I’ve learned that lack of detail doesn’t mean lack of realism, and it certainly doesn’t mean bad art. I’ve learned that different media can tell very different stories. And I’ve learned that inspiration can be found among the debris of the past.

… And I’m wondering what I might find in those last few boxes!

6 responses to “Blast from the Past — archaeology in the studio

  1. I love your painting of Kitty. I am just having a go at oil pastels. I have used oil sticks and dry pastels before but oil pastels are different from both of those.


    • Thank you! Yes, they are a thing of their own. I haven’t used mine in a long time, should get them out and play!Love your work, BTW, both abstract and realistic!


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