Expressing Intuitive and Vivid Color in Abstract Pastel

Giving intuition and intention equal rein, Arlene Richman explores the landscapes and passages within.

This month we are celebrating the power of color, and what better inspiration to kick us off than this profile by Holly Davis of abstract pastel artist Arlene Richman. Her fearless pursuit of and deep connection with color is motivation for us all!

Chromatic Compositions

If one were to compare painting to taking a journey, Arlene Richman would be the rare traveler who embarks without a predetermined destination. The journey itself determines that “right spot.”

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Arlene Richman (20 x 20)

Describing her creative approach, Richman says, “Sometimes I have an endgame in mind, but not often. Since I’m an overly analytical and obsessive sort of person—and don’t like it—I try to be as open and receptive as possible when I paint. That is, I try to respond at each moment to the previous moment. I don’t meticulously plan a painting, but while my work isn’t planned in the conventional sense, it is rigorously controlled.”

Follow the Color

From early on, Arlene Richman was drawn to the American abstract expressionists. Of all the compositional and design elements these artists wielded, it was color that most consumed her interest. “Nothing hit me as squarely as de Kooning, Kline, Motherwell, Pollock and Rothko,” she says. “Joan Mitchell is now a favorite, too. They were all color hogs, except maybe for Kline, whose line is energy.”

Fragments: The Party’s Over by Arlene Richman (24 x 32)

Richman goes on to say that it’s often a particular color or two that provides the impetus, the first tilted domino that sets off the series of reactive decisions culminating in a finished abstract pastel painting. “I’m a colorist,” says Richman. “Color is, for me, shape, subject and intention.”

Path to Pastels

Vivid color is, in fact, the quality of pastels that Richman finds most attractive. She describes the medium with an epicure’s vocabulary: “delicious,” “luscious,” “addictive.”

Psycho Babble by Arlene Richman (31 x 42)

Her discovery of pastels, however, was years coming. She studied painting, history of art and fashion design as an undergraduate and earned a master’s degree in art history. But she took an “accidental” 20-year side trip from art to edit magazines dealing with finance and high technology. During this time she nurtured her artistic inclinations, working variously in oil, collage and pottery. However these pursuits remained in the background. A health issue led to her retirement from editing—and ultimately to her return to painting. “When I came back,” says Richman, “I started again in oil, then picked up a pastel one day—just to try it—and realized that pastel was my drug of choice. Then there was a jolt of workshops.”

Instant Gratification

Richman finds much to love about the medium besides lavish color. There’s the instant gratification of having hundreds of colors at her disposal without the need to create mixtures. She likes the immediacy—the direct contact of hand with medium, the feel of the dust between her fingers.

Startle Reflex by Arlene Richman (14 x 14)

She points out that pastels, although commonly used for the more traditional genres of still life, landscape and portrait, are superbly suited for abstract art. They are forgiving; amenable to changes, whether hidden or visible as pentimenti; capable of exposing or creating textures; partnering well in mixed-media work. “I would like the pastel world to recognize abstract art more than it has,” she says. “There are many extraordinary realist pastel artists, but I think there’s a lot less acceptance of abstract art in the pastel community. There’s room for everybody; it’s a big tent.”

An Interior Process

Although Richman’s goal had always been to create abstract compositions, her early pastels were still lifes and landscapes. At one point she became “obsessed” with chairs as a subject, creating a series of works that became more and more abstracted. Eventually, she crossed the line to the nonobjective pieces she now creates.

Dust and Chaos (20 x 20) by Arlene Richman explores color fields and mark making.

When asked why she didn’t simply start with abstract pastel, she replies, “I didn’t know how. Many people think that abstract art is the comfort zone of those who can’t draw, and that simply isn’t true. Simplification, reduction, emotional revelation and abandonment to the formal elements are not easy. Frankly, I think it’s a lot easier to paint a landscape or a portrait from a photograph. The subject is right in front of you.” She adds, “I’m not interested in content and meaning in the standard sense. For me, they’re vagaries.”

Beyond the Surface

She works on Rives BFK paper, a hardy printmaker’s material. It can take the rigors of rough mark making, brushed off passages or even, if she deems a piece lacking, a wash-down with running water so that only a light pastel stain is left—a de facto underpainting for a new work. To the BFK paper she applies, with a 2-inch brush, a thick layer of Golden Acrylic Ground for Pastels, mixed with water to help it flow. Preferring an uneven surface, she brushes on the ground in random strokes. She leaves ridges that create patterns and texture lines beneath subsequent layers of pastel.

Red Edge by Arlene Richman (20 x 20)

Once the ground has dried, Richman makes that first telling decision that trips the series of decisions to follow. Each color or line or value suggests the next addition or subtraction. She may begin with a charcoal line or a patch of color. If she starts with the latter, she may smear the color over the paper with a rag or brush or her hand, perhaps adding alcohol to extend the pastel over the surface. She may leave some areas thick with color and others with the merest tinting or wash. The smeared color becomes an underpainting.

Abstract Pastel Composition

“When I see a large swathe of color,” she says, “I have to mix it up.” Then she might balance the color with another area of color—or draw in a graffiti-like “X” or number. An admirer of the late graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, she’s drawn to works with words, numbers and bits of printed material, which she refers to as “devices.” Other devices include symbols, icons, and compositional lines or divisions that recur in her work.

Look No Further by Arlene Richman (28 x 28)

About a quarter of the way through a painting, the struggles begin. Richman will then distance herself from the piece by means of both time and photography. By leaving the painting alone for a day or two and then studying it as a digital image on a monitor, she can analyze the composition, color, values, edges and so forth more objectively, and then return to the painting to make adjustments. The process of painting, analyzing and adjusting continues until the piece is finished.

Emerging Images

In one sense it might be said that it’s the viewer who completes Richman’s paintings, adding an immaterial layer of interpretation. In this way of thinking, the artist, too, becomes a viewer. “My paintings are, no doubt, road maps of my cumulative experiences,” says Richman, “but I find ‘meanings’ in the same way any other viewer finds them.”

Mercury by Arlene Richman (9 x 9)

Some of her abstract pastel paintings, Richman acknowledges, suggest landscapes, a compositional horizontal line taking on the identity of a horizon line (see Mercury, above). Shapes along the horizontal line may, in the viewer’s mind, acquire labels of mountains or structures or trees. She admits that she nudged some of these paintings to suggest landscapes because of an exhibition she participated in; others she feels were a reaction to a particularly snowy Massachusetts winter, during which she started drawing colorful shapes beneath the “horizon line,” shapes she has since interpreted as nascent life-forms waiting to poke through the earth.

Shifting Perspective

Another group of abstract pastel paintings suggests architectural corners albeit with shifting perspective and planes. Rectangles with one curved end might convey the impression of an arched passage or doorway or cathedral window (see But You Can Never Leave below). A zigzag line in the domed end of these rectangles could be seen as segments of stained glass or, as Richman has mused, the spiky crown worn by the Statue of Liberty. “That image emerged,” says Richman, “and I can relate to it; I can engage with it. Because I’ve lived in New York, that is an image that does have meaning for me, but when I put it down on paper, I’m putting it down as a compositional element, not because it’s the Statue of Liberty’s crown.”

But You Can Never Leave by Arlene Richman (20 x 20)

Exploring Color and Line

Those compositional elements or “devices” that, without the artist’s overt intent, suggest landscapes or corners or windows/doorways, have enabled Richman to work in series. She explores the permutations of these recurring elements with the manipulation of color, value, line and edges. Lately though, she’s been attempting to become even more open, to abandon even the uniting devices of a series (see Endurance, below).

Endurance by Arlene Richman (20 x 20)

She explains, “I think every composition—landscapes, still lifes, portraits, whatever—they’re all abstracts down deep. They all depend on abstract formal conceptions—that is, on composition, line, shape, value. The trick to creating non-objective paintings is to put something down on paper that you can’t name. Naming is the bugaboo. Once you name your compositional elements—tree, face, ginger pot—you’re committed to them as objects, and you strive to make them as realistic and believable as you can. It’s a slippery slope! If named objects reveal themselves to you at the end, that’s fine, but don’t intend them.”


About the Artist

Arlene Richman studied painting and earned a bachelor’s degree in the history of art at the City College of New York. She then studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and later earned a master’s degree in the history of art from Tufts University. She has also studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Decordova Museum, and has taken pastel workshops from Jimmy Wright, Frank Federico, Albert Handell and Casey Klahn, among others. She’s a signature member of the Pastel Painter’s Society of Cape Cod, the Connecticut Pastel Society and the Pastel Society of America, where she serves on the executive committee of the Board of Governors. She’s also a member of the Salmagundi Club of New York.

This article first appeared in Pastel Journal, October 2019 issue. Subscribe to see more inspiriting work by pastel artists.

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