Because I was from an artistic family that early on recognized my interest in painting, I was encouraged with art classes throughout my primary school career and private lessons with a local abstract artist while in high school. Being raised in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a community where the focus was on science and math, I was led to believe that you couldn't make a living as an artist, so I began working toward a math degree at the University of Tennessee while also taking drawing and painting classes. This was the 1960s when art was all about abstraction with very little importance given to the classic fundamentals of creating art. I can say that at this stage of my journey I was a painter and not yet an artist.
In the 1970s I took several printmaking classes at the University of North Alabama where my instructor, Al Hausmann, an amazing printmaker, finally taught me the fundamentals of art: the importance of composition, color, value, and perspective— everything I had missed in my earlier classes.
Fast forward through more years of being away from my easel, raising four children and helping run the family business,
Almost Square" (13x12 in.), pastel by Elaine Augustine
then enrolling in a watercolor class at the same college with the same instructor. This was the early 1990s. My last child was entering college eight hours away, and I was determined to rediscover the joy of working at my easel. The course required fifty paintings by the end of the semester, and there was one that just wasn't working. Remembering a small box of hand-me down pastel pieces that my mother had given me years before, I cleaned and used them to produce one of my all-time favorite paintings of a mare and her foal. I loved how painterly I could be, the immediacy of the medium, how forgiving it was, the brilliance of the color—and I love color. I was hooked!
I began the next step on my journey back to Pure Abstraction by painting people with pastels and oils. Unknowingly, I had been growing as an artist by painting in my mind's eye for those many years while at work and away from my easel. I recall being aware of the variation of color in my customers' hair, their skin tone, the shape of their mouth, the beauty, strength or gentleness in their hands.
I entered a Southeastern Pastel Society competition and signed up for a workshop with Carole Katchen. Because I was an out of town participant, I was offered the opportunity to stay with an artist from the Atlanta area, Cam Stoltz, who introduced me to all her artist friends, pastelists who were willing to share everything they knew about the medium. Seeing the variety of the work hanging in that show opened my eyes to the possibilities of pastel. My new subject matter became landscapes, cityscapes, and an occasional still life. I was continuing to grow as an artist.
Hooked on Abstraction
The final nudge toward abstraction came six years ago from my daughter, who worked in the fabric and rug industry and was aware of the trends in color, texture and design in home furnishings. After searching unsuccessfully for a large abstract oil painting to place over her contemporary couch, she finally said, "Mom, you can do that," and she gave me the size she needed (24 x 36 inches). Several weeks later, I began her painting late one night, when
Left to right, "Night Sales" (28x20 in.), "Floral Mosaic" (13.5x10.5 in.) and "Summer's End" (12x14 in.), pastels by Elaine Augustine.
STEPS TOWARD ABSTRACTION: Some representational works by the artist showing varying degrees of abstraction range from a realistic scene built with abstract shapes to a loose floral rendering to a mostly abstract work with the suggestion of a path and blades of grass. Several times I entered a painting in a competition as a landscape or figurative work only to have the jurors reclassify it as an abstract. And so, it was a natural progression for me to move on to Pure Abstraction.
In workshops I attended through the years, I had been reminded to squint, to reduce everything to its simplest abstract shapes, to block in the values, and then check the composition. In abstract painting, the need for the fundamentals is still there, including the importance of composition, shapes, values, transitions, edges, color (whether warm or cool), line, and texture. Add to that the personality of pastel and pastel painting surfaces, and the results can be unlimited for the abstract pastel painter. I was unable to call her to verify the colors. I had so much fun painting the first abstract I had done in 30 years, it seemed to paint itself! Unfortunately for my daughter, the colors weren't right. Fortunately for me, it remained my painting, which I entered in a show and which won best non-representational painting and a check for $2500. I was hooked again!
When I returned to art in the early 1990s, my technique was realistic and detailed. Five years later, after becoming more familiar with the pastel medium and gaining more confidence as an artist, my work progressed to a style that was loose and impressionistic with an abstract quality. I have done many pieces alla prima, both for the sake of spontaneity and to take advantage of that rare Sunday afternoon when there are no distractions. "Night Sales" and "Floral Mosaic" (above) were two pastels completed in a single session with the first
Improvisation Takes Over
The majority of my time as an artist is spent in front of my easel rather than in the planning stages. I do prepare in advance 8 to 10 different sizes of Wallis paper and Ampersand boards, which I tint with a single color of liquid acrylic paint applied with a sponge brush. I typically begin an abstract painting in one of four ways: 1) using a photograph as a jump start only for its composition, shapes and values, usually turning the photograph upside down or sideways; 2) using failed paintings done on Wallis paper, which I have washed in the kitchen sink and which reveal intriguing shapes and colors; 3) doing an underpainting of various shapes using several colors of either liquid acrylic paint applied with a sponge brush or NuPastels that I have thinned with alcohol or water; and 4) randomly preselecting a palette that I think will make a nice painting (usually 15-20 hard to soft pastels of light to dark values) and that may include some unfamiliar colors or brands of pastel that I want to learn more about. I add to the palette as I work.
usually start by doing a line drawing of the abstract shapes with vine charcoal, including negative shapes, which I love. I begin blocking in with NuPastels, then layering with Rembrandts, and finally finishing with my very soft pastels, including Unisons, Senneliers, Diane Townsends and Terry Ludwigs, the latter especially useful for their square edge. The final step can be just defining the smallest shapes or adding details. I may even drag a hard NuPastel across an area so that the layers underneath become visible. When selecting colors, I choose first for value and then check for temperature, edge and softness. I tend to work from dark to light. Finally, when using the preselected palette, I may begin with a minimal charcoal drawing or I may arbitrarily put colors and shapes on the paper until I establish a compositional foundation from which to work. I focus on shapes and values first, then colors and transitions. I particularly enjoy working out the transitions. I may begin with an idea, but more often than not, the painting process leads me.
While some pastels are finished in a single session, other work may be labored over, layer after layer. They may sit in my studio for months and be painted on in five-toten-minute increments, which involves layering, scraping, neutralizing, changing color, spraying with workable fixative, or washing off and starting again.
Four years ago when I was teaching a pastel class in Mississippi, students kept asking how to create an abstract painting, so I decided that my demonstration would be of two paintings. Beginning with the photograph of a landscape and toned Wallis paper, squinting, I sketched two identical line drawings of the simplified shapes from the photograph and blocked in the values using vine charcoal. Then with my pastels, I developed one drawing as a representational version of the photograph ("Summers End," p. 18) and the other as an abstract ("Saucy," p. 17). I had to turn the abstract piece upside down and sideways while I worked so that it didn't suddenly become another version of the representational landscape. I didn't want anything in that painting to be recognizable. My objective was to show the class how closely related representational and non-representational art really is. I wanted them to learn that they could build from the abstract shapes to the representational, but I also wanted them to develop a drawing of abstract shapes into an abstract painting.
With each abstract painting, I find myself going down a road and not quite sure where it is taking me, just that I want the fundamentals and my passion for the act of creating to get me there. Usually, it is an amazing journey of problem solving: taking risks, then recovering from mistakes. I will admit that a lot of my decisions are intuitive, a result of having been a prolific painter in the late 1990s and early 2000s, finishing more than 100 paintings each year. Since my husband passed away in early 2005, I am back at work full time in the family business, reducing my time at the easel.
While I continue to do representational pastels, my pastel abstracts (in the smaller sizes, up to 12x16 inches) are my main focus, along with larger abstracts in oil. I may bend a compositional rule or two. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Luckily for me, most of those pastel "doesn'ts" can be washed and recycled.
And so I have come full circle, back to painting pure abstracts as in the 1960s. Yet, I believe you never truly arrive as an artist. It is still about the journey. My fervent hope is that viewers will enjoy their journey through my non-objective paintings as much as I have enjoyed the artistic journey of creating them.
Elaine Augustine, PSA, a resident of Alabama, is a Master Pastelist. She is also a signature member of the Pastel Society of the West Coast, the Degas Pastel Society, and the Southeastern Pastel Society. She is represented by Emily Amy Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, and Artifacts Gallery in Florence, Alabama. In 2009 three of her pastel abstracts were chosen as images for hand tufted 5x8-foot and 8x10-foot wool area rugs that have started arriving from India, available through Delos Rugs.