Albuquerque artist Barbara Coleman’s painting, “Pond Up North,” was awarded Best of Show at PAPNM’s 10th National Juried Show, held November 2–30, 2018, at the Sorrel Sky Gallery in Santa Fe. Barbara, a full-time artist and former drawing professor at the University of New Mexico, has enjoyed a life-long love affair with art. This interview occurred November 12 in her studio. Her website is barbaracoleman.com.
Question: How and when did you become interested in art?
Answer: I’ve been drawn to art since I was a child. My formative years were spent living in France, when my father was stationed there in the Air Force. We had a home in Barbizon, in the Fontainebleau Forest, where Corot painted. We spent the weekends visiting all the major art museums. It was pure magic. Artists are well respected in French culture. Experiencing art and seeing the respect artists hold made me want to be an artist. I later went to art school in Aix en Provence.
Q: Why is art so important to your life and to who you are?
A: It’s integral to my life. It’s what brings me the most alive, the most present. If I’m not painting, some aspects of life can feel like drudgery and too ordinary. When I’m painting regularly, the world feels saturated with color and interest and I feel curious, and grateful for my life. I can’t live without painting.
Q: Who or what are the major influences in your art?
A: I really love Joaquin Sorolla for his portrayal of form, light and color; and John Singer Sargent for his use of paint, abstraction, and brush technique. The Impressionists have influenced my art the most. I’ve also been lucky enough to study with several major contemporary artists, including Kevin MacPherson, Scott Christensen, Ray Roberts, Jill Carver and Kathryn Stats. They have all been very generous teachers.
Q: What is art and how do you define it?
A: True art awakens the extraordinary. It quickens us to Life, to Beauty. You feel it when you’re creating, when you’re completely present. In Zen, there’s the notion of “emptiness is fullness.” When I paint, the “emptiness” is born from leaving my ego, and who I think I am, at the door. The “fullness” stems from showing up at the easel willing to learn, to be open, and be there. It takes so much awareness and skill to make something live on the canvas. When the piece becomes “alive,” that’s when I see art.
Q: How important is travel to your art, especially to stimulating ideas and discovering new subject matter for your paintings?
A: I don’t necessarily travel for my art, I travel for my life. That being said, travel allows me to explore outside of my comfort zone. I sketch and do small paintings on my trips, which both give me valuable information for studio paintings and help me more intimately experience the place I’m visiting.
Q: How important has teaching been to your development as an artist?
A: I taught drawing and introductory design at the University of New Mexico for twelve years, which was incredibly important to my artistic development. My class, “Architecture 104,” was a prerequisite for admission to the Architecture school. Teaching is a valuable way to learn. Showing my students how to translate real visual information into design benefitted me, as well.
Q: Tell me about your painting, “Pond Up North,” which was awarded Best of Show in the PAPNM show at Sorrel Sky Gallery.
A: I discovered the location for the painting while visiting my daughter in McCall, Idaho. I did several plein air studies and finished it in the studio, where I connected the shadow shapes more completely than I’d been able out in the field.
Q: What do you strive for when you paint, and how does this pertain to what you’re hoping the viewer will see and enjoy?
A: My style is more broadly impressionistic. I’m deeply inspired by nature. My process begins with whatever stops me in my tracks to paint it. Once I’ve identified what has inspired me, I design the painting to best express the motif. I make decisions on how to divide the canvas, what compositional elements can come into play, how I’d like to guide a viewer’s eye. I intentionally use a limited number of values to strengthen the cohesiveness of the work. I lay in my painting using a warm gray, use my shadow shapes to create form, and then go into color. I’ve learned that one of the last things to develop in an artist is beautiful, expressive brushwork. Brushwork is tricky, though, because thinking about it too much robs it of its magic.
A good friend once told me: “The more you paint, the harder it gets. What you know as an artist will always be ahead of what you’ll be able to execute, so get used to it. But your failures will get better.” That’s what I aim for—having better and better failures. It’s the nature of art to never truly achieve all you hoped for in a painting. Art is not the practice of perfection. But you never tire of it, and you never get bored, because there’s always more to learn.
Q: Do you participate in a critique group, and if so, what do you gain from it?
A: Constructive criticism is essential for continued artistic growth. I am in the process of building and being part of a critique group composed of local artists. I am lucky in that my husband and daughters have astute “artistic eyes,” and can offer me feedback on my work regularly.
A: How important is plein air painting to your art and your continued development as an artist?
Q: Plein air is one of the most important things!
I have a broader definition of plein air painting than some artists. For me, plein air simply means “painting from life.” Direct observation is critical for accuracy. No photograph can provide the richness in color and value I need to paint what’s real. Cameras don’t see how we see. Painting plein air also trains your eye, because not everything in a scene is of equal importance. Parts of a painting need to be quiet, others need to hold more weight. You cannot learn what to subordinate and accentuate by looking at a photograph. For me, plein air painting is better than meditation. Nothing else allows me to settle so deeply into the present.
Q: When painting plein air, how do you choose what to paint?
A: Over the years, my approach to plein air painting has changed. Now, I walk for long periods of time and allow space for something to draw me in. I do not “hunt” for a painting, I let the painting choose me.
Q: Do you have favorite areas where you like to paint?
A: I’ve always enjoyed painting New Mexico, especially the northern part of the state. I really love to paint water, for its movement and reflectivity. But really, whatever I’m painting at the moment is my favorite thing to paint. I don’t pine for the ocean when I’m painting chamisa. There is no shortage of beauty in the world, so having “favorites” is not terribly important to me.
Q: Do you generally view your plein air paintings as studies or are you striving to get framable paintings that can sell?
A: For me, plein air is a highly useful tool. I use them as studies and concentrate on various elements for each painting. Sometimes my focus is predominately on shapes, or shadows. Sometimes design or color are my top priority. I then use what I’ve learned in the field for a studio piece.
Q: What were your worst and best day painting plein air, and why?
A: There are some funny stories I could tell, but it’s actually a bit more philosophical for me. My worst day painting is when I’m self-conscious and I can’t get out of my own head, or when that critical voice just comes and takes over. My best day painting plein air is when I’m not self-conscious. I’m completely there and just painting.
Q: What are your future goals as an artist?
A: To keep growing and getting better.
Q: Any other thoughts before we conclude this interview?
A: A poem by the Persian poet Hafiz comes to mind:
The difference between a good artist and a great one is:
The novice will often lay down his tool or brush,
then pick up an invisible club on the mind's table
and helplessly smash the easels and jade.
Whereas the vintage man no longer hurts himself or anyone
and keeps on sculpting Light.
To me this poem says, “Find the power to say no to any actions that might harm yourself or another”. Think about that a moment. For me, this poem means that my ability to develop artistically and experience joy is directly related to my willingness to surrender the knife of self-criticism. Art is a soulful practice, and as such I choose to not harm myself or others physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. And as for sculpting light, that’s where the wonder and gratitude for painting come into play.