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Jun 07, 2022
Sabrina Stiles Artist Interview: Process, Pleasures, and Preparation of Pastel

Sabrina Stiles is a Colorado-based pastel artist with an expressive style that lends itself to her chosen medium. Each work begins with an idea and a story: a striking color combination, an amusing group of cows or a beautiful scene. Her keen observation and reverence for the beauty that surrounds her is evident in her work.

What led you to become a pastel artist? Tell us about the journey

In 2008 after leaving my job as an esthetician, feeling an artistic pull, I decided to attend an ongoing pastel class with local artist Sally Fulton. I had previously dabbled in oil and acrylic.  There was a steep learning curve before I was comfortable using pastels but the versatility and immediacy of the medium had me hooked.  I’ve studied with some of the best pastel artists in the country which has helped me gain confidence and really get to know this fabulous medium.  At this point, my imagination and experience guide my work. I have a pretty good idea of what is possible and how to achieve my desired outcome.

How have the hardships in your life influenced your work?

I am a cancer survivor which is what prompted me to quit my job as an esthetician and become an artist.  Life is full of all kinds of challenges, but I feel very fortunate to be able to walk into my studio and do something I love.  When I’m painting everything else goes away.

Tell us about your process. How do you start? Do you work en plein air? Use references? 

My paintings always begin with an idea. Every painting tells a story, so that’s where I begin. I might be inspired by other work, a striking color combination, an amusing group of cows or a beautiful scene. Then I begin the process of determining how to best achieve the desired outcome on a 2-dimensional surface.

I don’t do as much plein air painting as I once did, but I do get out on occasion usually with friends. It’s fun and very challenging. You don’t have the control that you would in the studio. Most of my paintings are based on photographic references or plein air studies or a combination.

Sabrina Stiles - Everybody Loved Ted's All You Can Eat Buffet
Sabrina Stiles, “Everybody Loved Ted’s All You Can Eat Buffet,” Pastel on Paper, 24 x 18 in

How do you prepare the surface – I know you like to play around with texture.

I’ve become somewhat adept at knowing which surface will work best for a piece. I have 4 or 5 surfaces that I enjoy for different subjects. I use several different varieties of watercolor paper. Some are handmade and have a very organic surface and lovely deckled edges. They are beautiful and work well for more abstracted works. Other papers have a lightly patterned surface. I often choose to paint on unsanded multimedia board which has no texture. It isn’t commonly used by pastelists, but it’s a very sturdy surface which readily handles underpainting and never warps. I sometimes apply a ground of gesso with pumice, marble dust, and titanium dioxide. I vary the mixture depending on the surface quality I’m trying to achieve. The only manufactured sanded paper I have but rarely use is Luxarchival which is a wonderful surface.

As a pastelist, what would you like to share about the medium?

Although pastel works are gaining in popularity, I think there remains some confusion about this versatile medium. When we speak about pastel paintings, it is in reference to a painting medium rather than a color palette. I think that some people who are unfamiliar with the medium think it has something to do with soft colors like pink or light blue. Pastel sticks are made using the same pigments used in other mediums, and because they are the most pure medium, the colors can be incredibly vivid. They are most akin to oil painting in terms of application.  Of course, you can also draw with them. I hope that collectors will come to appreciate all that this medium has to offer.

What are the pleasures of working with pastel?

The pleasures of working with pastel are numerous. They can be used with any other medium since they are pure pigment with just enough binder to hold them in stick form, making the possibilities for creativity endless. Another huge advantage is the immediacy. You don’t need to mix a color. You simply pick up a stick and apply. There are no brushes to clean. There are no solvents to deal with.  

What are the challenges of working with pastel?

Framing is a challenge since the work needs to be framed under glass to protect the painting, and glass is costly and adds weight. However, we are fortunate to have high quality glass which helps eliminate reflections. During the painting process, the pastel dust can get a little messy but there are air purifiers that connect to an easel and alleviate much of this issue. Dirty hands and fingernails might bother some people. Of course, one can always wear surgical gloves or apply a barrier cream.

Story time! The titles of your works, particularly your cow series, are infused with humor from title to detail. Tell us more.

It’s hard to put a finger on why I’m so attracted to these curious and mostly docile creatures. I really can’t help myself relating certain bovine behavior to those of humans. Cows are herd animals usually found in groups like us humans. My quirky mind takes over and the storylines just pop up. If those thoughts make me smile, I hope others will appreciate my interpretation.  I don’t believe that great art needs to be serious. If art evokes a feeling, and that feeling is glee, then what could be better?

Sabrina Stiles - Sylvia Alerted Leslie. Something was Amiss!
Sabrina Stiles, “Sylvia Alerted Leslie. Something was Amiss!,” Pastel on Paper, 24 x 18 in

Your landscapes aren’t as cheeky as the cow series, but full of light and space. What inspires this outlook?

I’ve always been struck by the incredible beauty in the landscape. I remember hiking with my first husband many years ago and realizing for him it was all about getting there and for me it was all about taking it all in. I began venturing out solo so I could take time to savor the journey from tiny wildflowers to majestic vistas. There is so much that excites me visually.  When I’m at my easel I’m attempting to depict that feeling.

Sabrina Stiles - Roadblock
Sabrina Stiles, “Roadblock,” Pastel on Paper, 24 x 24 in

What do you hope a collector notices about your work, or your work evokes in the viewer?

No matter the subject, I hope the work brings them joy. It makes me happy when a landscape piece resonates with a collector, when they recognize something in the piece that touches them. Of course, with the fun cow paintings, I hope it makes them smile.

Sabrina Stiles is a featured artist in Lightness of Spirit on view through June 28 at Ann Korologos Gallery. 

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