The summer 2014 issue of Drawing is on sale (get your copy here, or subscribe to get every copy!), and it features an interview with Jimmy Wright (www.jimmywrightartist.com), whose dynamic paintings of sunflowers have made him one of the foremost pastel artists working today. Below are a few parts of our conversation that we couldn’t fit into print, in which Wright discusses whether he considers pastel to be drawing or painting, his major influences, and using black.
Drawing: Pastel is sometimes described as drawing, other times as painting. Do you consider it to be one or the other? Or does this distinction not even matter?
Jimmy Wright: This debate comes out of dealing with galleries and collectors who want to pay more for an oil painting than they’ll pay for pastel. So some artists see this an important struggle, to make pastel equal to oil painting, but I find it to be a misplaced argument.
Art history shows us that the only time that pastel painting was equal to oil painting in financial and social status was in 18th-century France, when pastel portraits became the rage of French aristocracy and upper classes. A lot of that had to do, as always, with money and showing off. Not only were portraits incredibly beautiful, but they were glazed with very expensive flat glass and put in elaborate frames that were aesthetically gorgeous.
For me, I have a very simple attitude. My pastels are works on paper. I’m very careful with the type of frame that I select. I know that the more they look like a painting the more attractive they are to some collectors, but the reality is they’re works on paper.
Classification of art has also changed with time. It used to be that art was compartmentalized by media, but that’s no longer the case. A museum like MoMA or The Met may still have collections categorized by media, but contemporary collections are not categorized that way. So when The Met acquired one of my pastels, it was acquired not by the collection of drawings and prints but by the contemporary collection.
DR: Were any teachers particularly influential or inspiring for you?
JW: One major influence was my very first drawing teacher, a sculptor named Tom Walsh. He’s retired from university teaching and now lives in California. Tom taught me drawing for two years and later was a mentor when I was in graduate school.
The artist who had the most impact on me as a young artist was Ray Yoshida, who taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is well known for being of great influence with the Chicago Imagists. Although I never adopted his formal solutions for making images, what he gave me was the confidence that a narrative can have a place in contemporary art.
DR: Many of your paintings have strong dashes of black, which contrast boldly with their surrounding colors. Can you discuss your use of black?
JW: I see black as just another color. Right now my pastel palette is arranged by hue and value. If I were to pull out all the blacks—every variety by each individual brand—and line them all up in one container, you would find a huge range of what the color black is.
This is something I learned from Josef Albers. He never mixed color—that’s an affinity I have with him. In pastel you never mix color or value; they’re made in advance and you select them. With Albers, he might have had 12 different tubes of one color made by different manufacturers. Those different tubes became in a sense how paint was premixed for him. If he selected a color to interact with another, he wasn’t mixing, he was finding a manufactured color that worked within the framework of the painting. Pastel is very similar, and that’s the way I use black. I just see it as another color, I think.