How One Artist Is Making Pastel Paintings Feel So Very Fresh
Theresa Drapkin’s bright and bold still lifes feel super modern, which is especially interesting considering she uses pastels, one of the art world’s oldest mediums. Now’s your shot to get inside her late-night creative process, which includes pulling inspiration from Bahamian artists and tearing every single piece of paper by hand to fit perfectly in a frame (but at least she’s no longer doing it in a studio apartment).
GETTING THE PASTEL DL
“The difference between pastel drawings and pastel paintings is that ‘paintings’ refers to completed works in which the entire surface area is covered in pastel. I began painting in 2010. My creative practice has always included collected ephemera, collage, photography, and an interest in both the written and visual elements of literature, but I never painted before that.”
MASHING UP THAT INSPIRATION
“My paintings feature botanical shapes in an architectural light and domestic interiors. I reference everyday settings as well as other artists: Matisse, Milton Avery, African American folk artists like William H. Johnson, self-taught painter Horace Pippin, and the Bahamian furniture upholsterer, Amos Ferguson. The theme is always casually representational, with a focus on graphic color. I also think my work continues to the lean toward Fauvism and abstract expressionism. I merge the foreground and background, which reverses the normal way we see things.”
SETTING UP THE STUDIO SITUATION
“Since I moved from Manhattan to upstate New York, I feel lucky to have my studio in my home. I have a full-time job at a nonprofit in NYC, so 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. is the normal time I spend in my studio. On weekends, I help out at my husband's wine shop, Kingston Wine Co., or spend time outdoors hiking with my 1 ½-year-old labrador, so the evenings are quiet times where I can fully focus on art. [Ed. note: listen to our convo with Theresa’s husband Michael here!]. My process is pretty ritualistic. At around 9 p.m., I go in my studio and start organizing, straightening, tearing paper to size, looking through my collection of visual journals. That’s where I collect magazine images and scraps of writing and poetry for inspiration. Then from 10 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., I make art. I usually end up listening to the same albums over and over again and get in a bit of a zone. Some recent favorites have been Pray for Rain by Marty O’Reilly & the Old Soul Orchestra, Mala by Devendra Banhart, and Wilderness by The Last Names.
PICKING A SPECIFIC SOURCE
“For every individual painting, I’ll have a visual starting point, whether it is a floral arrangement I’ve created, a photograph I’ve seen, a wallpaper swatch, or even a piece of fruit. Instagram is just amazing in that I can follow the work of florists and interior designers all over the world. Two of my favorites are Kelly Galloway from Hops Petunia Floral and Colleen Bashaw, who is the interior designer for Cape Resorts. I work in bursts and then sit and stare at the work until I’ve made my mind up about a color. I like to move through a piece until it is complete and then begin on another one.”
NAILING DOWN A PALETTE
“I use hard pastels, which are easily broken. When they first snap, there is a hard, straight edge that allows me to make really clean lines to separate the colors. I also found the most beautiful paper from France, and with those two items, I create all of my work. I start by choosing a small color palette. Instead of the historic process of blending pastels, I keep my paintings, for the most part, color-blocked and heavily saturated. It’s pretty uncommon.”
SKETCHING (VERY CAREFULLY!)
“Because pastels are not permanently fixed to the surface of the paper, they must be handled extremely carefully. They can be super messy on fingers, hands, clothes, and definitely in the studio work area. Pastel art can be accidentally smudged really easily. The art cannot be properly set with a fixative spray without dulling and darkening the color, so I have chosen not to use any at all (most of them are toxic, too). So, in order to ensure their longevity, I frame the paintings before selling them.”
FILLING OUT THOSE FRAMES
“Since I frame all of my original pieces, I am always on the hunt for antique and vintage frames. I have a collection in my studio, and I normally tear the cotton paper—which comes with natural deckled edges—to fit a specific frame. That way, when I create the painting, I can have the piece framed without any size issues or disruption of the pastel.”