Bay Area painters join local pastel artist for group show
The use of pastel paint was first popularized in the 19th century. It wasn’t viewed as lofty a medium as oil paint, but Edgar Degas used it increasingly in his career until it became the primary material used for his sketchy images of urban life in Paris. His friend Mary Cassatt took up painting in pastel as well, the lively, swift work it allowed one to do—quickly rendering a colorful, undefined scene—suited nicely her subjects of people at work and leisure in the domestic sphere. Their quixotic expressions and special modes of dress could be rendered in hazy and bright light and color. And Cassatt brought pastels back with her to America, where artists in this country soon embraced them.
Pastels are experiencing a recent surge of popularity among American artists, and in a new exhibition at Avenue 9 Gallery one can view the special vibrancy of pastel in a range of works at the Waif Mullins Invitational.
The exhibit, which opens Friday, April 19, will showcase the work of local painter Waif Mullins along with many painters who work mostly with the pastel medium. “I’ve invited seven pastel artists, mainly from the Bay Area, that I have come to admire over 20 years to show with me,” said curator Mullins. “All are very accomplished and have won best of shows at pastel society exhibitions. I thought how exciting it would be to bring them together at Avenue 9 Gallery rather than to have their art diluted as part of large group shows.
“Pastel painting is unique,” he continued, “in that it uses pure pigment with just a little binder. That results in deep, brilliant colors. If magnified, pastel particles look crystalline. I painted ‘Beach Vendors, Roatan, Honduras’ from a photograph I took of beach merchants who were selling dresses in a stunning range of blues, purples and yellows that glowed in the bright afternoon sun.”
Mullins, like the Impressionist painters, often paints scenes of leisure and human figures’ interactions in public settings such as parks or beaches. But the psychic nature of the figures and their encounters with one another, he says, are often less important to him in the construction of a picture than rendering the composition in realistic scale and creating atmosphere through the depiction of light. Mullins is quite skilled in the rendering of light—it ripples on water or shines on bodies, making them both material and luminous.
Pastel, Mullins also explained, has traditionally appealed to painters because of its very clear and bright visual qualities, but also because it is a very easy material to transport, making it a practical choice for painters who choose to work en plein air (“in the open air”), as many Impressionist painters did.
A number of artists in the show work in the plein-air style, and bring their talents for rendering landscapes and scenes drawn from observation to their work. They give us insight into how pastel creates drama through color, and with such apparent ease. San Jose-based painter Terri Ford’s “Red Hot Summer Sky” shows how landscape drawn from the natural world, translated with the intensity of pastel paint, can make it over into an exceptionally moody and romantic scene, as a boat on water casts about in a hot red sky seemingly aflame.
Marbo Barnard’s works, such as “Green Horse,” come from the tradition of still life painting, but the Japanese-born artist’s simple studies are granted an eerie touch by the dramatic nature of the pastel’s vivid, almost unreal, coloring.
The Waif Mullins Invitational offers Chico’s art audience a unique chance to see the medium of pastel at play on the canvas up close, and view works by a gifted collection of artists devoted to recognizing and using its special, vibrant properties.