A prolific painter and teacher, Marla’s artwork and workshops are nationally sought after. Her work has been represented throughout the country for over 30 years. Contributing to many art publications such as Pastel Journal, she is a signature PSA member and an IAPS Master Circle Recipient. Marla graduated from Art Center College of design in Pasadena, Ca and worked as a commercial illustrator for 25 years.
What is it that you love about the pastel medium? What does pastel give you as an artist?
Pastels have been a part of my life since I was a young girl drawing animals with pastel pencils. As an illustrator, I turned to them and developed a whimsical style that used very chromatic pastel and pastel pencils. Then, when I began painting the landscape, I naturally gravitated to pastels. At that time in my life, I had young children so it was a very convenient media as you can pick it up and put it down with little or no cleanup. But beyond all the sort of logistics, is the attraction...they are beautiful to look at and they are direct and tactile to paint with. You get to draw and paint in the same mark! They never cease to take my breath away.
What have you decided before you put the first stroke down in a painting? How do you do that thinking? (For example, is it in your head or does it take a physical form like thumbnails?) Why is that thinking beforehand important?
I usually have some direction that I want to head in. Sometimes that direction is super well defined by a thumbnail sketch, chosen reference material and possibly even a color study. Other times, especially when I’m doing small works, I just put something down, then something next to it and start responding to the relationships that are appearing. It’s a more dynamic way of working and is letting the work unfold rather than trying to wrestle it into being.
Could you walk us through your process once you start a painting? How does an idea transition from out-in-the-world to actually being a completed painting?
This is a really excellent question. It’s a mystery, isn’t it? How is it that we are appearing here with hands and eyes, paint and brushes to stand and make something?
To be honest, I don’t know exactly how it works that a piece of art comes to fruition. I do know that it is through a process of small steps and always transcending yourself at each of these steps. From the point of going to the art supply store and buying a big old canvas and allowing that I can make something of it. Trusting that I can. Then the incident of facing the blankness of it and of starting. All of the struggles of painting, pale next to fear of the empty space that we are asking ourselves to fill. Being prepared both mentally and physically to paint is important. It takes stamina and a lot of energy to paint, both physical and mental. So, I try to be ready.
I rest and I make sure I have everything I need to complete the piece at least as I think I’m going to approach it. I always allow that the direction might change mid-stream so I’m also flexible. I surround myself in the studio with work that I feel has something in common, in some way, with what I think I’m going to do with the piece on the easel, so I have some visual information from which to draw from. It might be something as simple as a color combination or a rough sketch, but it’s enough to get me going. I decide on what media is appropriate for the idea I have and then will usually decide if I’m going to tone the canvas or do some type of underpainting or drawing. Then I start and let it unfold, again trusting the process, trusting that I will find my way even if that way doesn’t end up in a piece that has whatever merit I think it should have!
You work both on location and in your studio. What does working on location give you that the studio can’t and vice versa? Why work in both spaces? What are you trying to get in each?
I love to paint. There is nothing that has served me more in my life from the perspective as an artist, a business person, a human, than to humbly try to express in visual terms our manifest existence, so whether that is in the studio or outdoors, it makes no difference to me! I love painting in my studio in all the seasons...in summer I open up all the doors and windows and let the sun and breeze flow through the space.
In winter, I love having a cozy spot all my own (very blessed) in which to contemplate, paint and just hibernate a bit.
Plein air painting is just another avenue in the journey. I love interacting with nature and a 360-degree visual field. Experiencing a place with all the senses, interacting with passersby dealing with changing light is endlessly challenging and fun. I’ve definitely become a stronger painter as a result of plein air painting.
Color: What do you decide about color before you begin a painting? Do you have a general palette or a color relationship (for example, analogous or complementary) chosen beforehand? How firmly set is that choice?
I usually have more of a value pattern in mind than a particular color palette. I almost never use a set color scheme such as analogous. I let the painting naturally fall into its chosen state. However, having a good understanding of all the possibilities is crucial to having color work in your paintings. Things like color harmony, simultaneous contrast, using a colored ground and/or an underpainting all come into play.
Where and how does color mixing happen in pastel painting? If an artist comes from a watercolor background, how does their thinking about color need to adjust? What can you do with color in pastel that you can’t in other media?
Pastel is more opaque than watercolor so although you can do lots of layering as in watercolor, we don’t “save the whites”, they are additive. So it can be a bit of a shift in thinking for watercolorists! But the good news is that watercolorist use lots of negative shapes and so do pastelist. Also failed watercolor paintings make fantastic underpaintings for pastels!
Color can be an overwhelming topic for artists. Where do you suggest students begin in their color studies?
No matter what media you are using, learn to mix color. It’s the only way to really understand the three aspects of color thoroughly; hue, value, and saturation!
You work across several different media and subject matter. So much advice says to find one and stick to it? What have you gained by not limiting yourself to just one way of working or one medium?
Well, maybe this has been to my detriment financially at points in my career. However, overall it does so many things for me! I’m totally fascinated by the visual field and translating that into some kind of expression of it and how do we do that. I think that everything we do swims together as a whole, so working in multiple mediums and various subjects just serves to strengthen my work as a whole.
Where in your process do you think about design? What design choices do you make before you begin a painting?
Design is the overarching foundation of any painting, so it comes in first. It might just be a gesture or the arrangement of value but it comes before anything else.
What is the biggest challenge you see in your students and what advice do you give them?
I think that creating art is, for the most part, a solitary endeavor, so you can feel like you’re doing it in a vacuum. Getting positive and actionable feedback is hard so I think seeking that out is critical to staying in the game. Being an artist takes a lot of energy, discipline and great perseverance. You have to have a soft heart and tough skin.
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