Interview with Lucy Barber
Lucy Barber Red Cup And Swallows oil on linen, 14 x 16 inches
click here for a larger view
Lucy Barber is an incredible painter whose landscapes and still-lifes has long enchanted me and who I made one of my earliest blog posts about. I’ve returned to her work for a closer view and she graciously agreed to an interview via email. Lucy Barber has shown extensively in a variety of venues including Denise Bibro Gallery, First Street Gallery, and the Lori Bookstein Gallery in NYC and has shown with the still life group, Zeuxis including their shows; The Common Object and Outside the Box: Zeuxis Paints the Landscape. Delaware College of Art & Design, in 2008. She studied at Brooklyn College’s M.F.A program with Lennart Anderson 1989, among other awards she received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant in 2001 and 1994.
Larry Groff: What lead you to decide to be a painter?
Lucy Barber: Well, it wasn’t a direct route and the path to it was filled with huge influences. First, I went to Pratt Institute to study photography, because after a class in high school I was crazy about isolating the “world” through the frame of the viewfinder. I loved how photography was fast and fresh! It taught me a lot about finding the “big composition” first. I also discovered more about designo, and developed a better eye for it, through the image-editing process (the old fashioned way on the contact sheet!). Philip Perkis was a very influential teacher then. Sensitivity to light (has always) inspired me and most times pulled me towards a subject.
I remember while still a photographer I saw a show at the Modern called something like “Painting after Photography,” a very interesting show. It changed my understanding of an artist like Degas for example, who used photography, and how it influenced the design of his compositions. In addition, two influential photographers at that time were Eugene Atget and Andre Kertesz.
After 10 years or so of doing photography I felt like something was missing in the creative process, so I explored a little. I took a class in graphic design (before InDesign or Illustrator…yikes!), and that didn’t do it. I took several classes in textile design at FIT, for printed and woven fabric design. It was interesting but didn’t get me fired up. Shortly after the classes at FIT, where I used color (gouache) for the designs, I thought I’d try painting. I talked with a neighbor in Brooklyn at the time, asking her about starting to paint and she agreed to give me a few private lessons. After a few sessions she recommended I take classes with Lennart Anderson, who at the time was teaching at Brooklyn College. I took the still life class he taught to the undergraduates and then took the Saturday morning figure painting class for the graduate students.
Something clearly “woke up” during this time, and it was because of color and the stuff of oil paint. I was reeling from learning to see all over again! I decided this was for me, then applied and got into the graduate painting program at Brooklyn College.
LG: You studied with Lennart Anderson at Brooklyn College where many of his students went on to be insanely great painters and colorists. What can you remember about his teachings on color and painting that was most influential for you?
LB: The still life class was my first real painting class ever, with a teacher who was hugely interested in seeing well with humility and honesty. What I loved most about Lennart’s teaching was that he kept it simple, and it was immensely elegant…though I would have never put it that way before. The moments where I grasped how to see and how to paint with depth came from that simplicity. Simple does not mean easy. For example, Lennart would always talk about seeing the similarities and the differences. This is so basic but I struggled with it. I remember “dumbly” asking him several times about it and when I finally got it, it was so huge. The sum of taking this class was I learned how to “see” again and again for the first time.
Lennart brought in books regularly and read from them to the class, one in particular was about Ingres. He must have recommended Hawthorne On Painting, because I was reading it at the time, and I was always thinking abstractly about seeing those spots of color. Occasionally Lennart would work on student’s paintings. This is a pretty standard thing to do in the studio class and it’s immensely helpful, and Lennart once worked on a still life of mine. He took from a pale violet I had mixed up on the palette and put some of it into the shadow of a bunch of scallions. If you’re a student and recognize what is happening in the painting when a teacher does this, it’s pretty amazing. It took the painting up a notch or two and taught me a lot about how to bring light into a shadow. It’s a simple painting of a bunch of scallions, a lemon, a small white milk pitcher, all resting on a plain striped kitchen towel. It still hangs in my kitchen!
One day something out the window caught Lennart’s eye, which he brought to our attention, and as we looked out he described what he was looking at. He made this seem so important, it opened the eyes. I think the best teachers do that kind of thing, and I am fortunate enough to have studied under a teacher with the stature of someone like Lennart Anderson. The energy in the studio is on fire, you want to catch it and keep it, and you absorb though osmosis and teacher’s intent, to paint as though your life depended on it!
LG: How important is the process of painting from observation to your work?
LB: It’s very important, and for me having an anchor in realism is key. Though as we know, the painting process itself is abstract. “Painting from observation” is an odd phrase, I think. It doesn’t mean I paint solely from what is exactly before me (whether the 3-dimensional world and/or a photograph), because that is impossible. The experience of light, place and color (and memory and imagination and all the senses) in each instance, exerts a huge ambient force. My job is to be aware of these things and to let them help me when I paint. The outside world is filled with endless supply for the senses. In the beginning I worked all the time from observation, because at the time even though I didn’t know it, I was collecting experiences of seeing (and sensing everything) and storing them in my brain. Then after a while I started doing whatever I had to do to make the painting work: start from observation, use photographs, invent what I had to, move things around compositionally…etc.
I am mostly mesmerized by the creative process, “seeing” and the awareness of seeing.
LG: Can you tell us how you go about making a painting? Do you make studies first or work out a careful drawing before you paint or do you just jump right in and work it all out as you go?
LB: It’s pretty simple, I usually do a bit of light sketching, I move around a lot looking at objects and space in different ways, or I move things (objects). I take photographs for reference after I’ve started a painting, or at the start. I’ll move elements around in a composition. If the motif in front of me is very strong and I’m happy with it, I’ll leave the composition as it is, but there is always some form of translation occurring.
LG: What colors do you put out on your palette?
LB: My first palette consisted of, going around from the bottom left of the palette and moving along the outer edge to the top right or middle of the right edge: titanium white, zinc yellow, cadmium yellow light, naples yellow, yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, cadmium red light, venetian red, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, cerulean blue, virdian green, chromium oxide green, ivory black, burnt sienna, raw umber.
My palette today is a temperature palette with warm and cool colors for each hue, moving around from the bottom left of the palette to the top right with white at the left and start with yellows to reds to blues, neutral violet, to greens, then umber and black. I love using the warms and cools of each color.
Early on when I was fixed on paintings that were predominantly red I used a whole lot of reds and limited my palette. The same is true for the color yellow when I painted the still life paintings from the kitchen shelf series. It’s really exciting what opens up when one color predominates, and you have to find a way to find light and dark with the color without losing it’s light.
LG: What book has been significantly influential to your growth as a painter? What art book do you look at most often?
LB: When I started painting I spent a lot of time reading Hawthorne on Painting (the students notes), because it was so simple, true and clear. It really helped me when I took the still life class with Lennart Anderson. Earlier I spent a lot of time looking at Morandi, Chardin, Cezanne and others. I’ve looked at so many artists! Honestly right now there’s not just one book that I look at most often. One of my top three reads is Annie Dillard’s, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which I absolutely loved. The chapter called “seeing” is amazing and she completely got it for me.
LG: What sustains or inspires you during moments when things get tough in the studio or art world?
LB: Nature sustains and inspires me. During tough passages I take a break and do something different to take my mind off it: look at another painting, start something new, call a friend, read poetry, pray or meditate, go for a walk. Once my mind is clear and fresh I can approach it again.