Pastel: Janet Monafo: Pastel Still Lifes and Figures

11 Sep 2008

Porcelain PileJanet Monafo once tossed objects onto her studio floor in an attempt to paint a more random arrangement with pastels. “I really wanted to accept whatever happened, but in the end I couldn’t resist my need to carefully organize the shapes and patterns,” she confesses. “I had to admit my inability to deny my natural tendencies and personal standards.”

by M. Stephen Doherty

Monafo Silver Cluster pastel
Silver Cluster
2007, pastel, 50 x 38. Private collection.

Massachusetts artist Janet Monafo says she is not very good at explaining her painting process, but the truth is she is forthright, clear, and profound when she talks about the creation of her still life and figure paintings. It’s just that intuition and experience play such important roles in her creative process that it is inconceivable for her to think she responds in a predictable, methodical way. That is, she is more apt to say her decisions are based on what feels right at the time rather than on calculations about relative value, color temperature, or compositional principles.

Determining exactly what is right for each situation can be a lengthy, complicated process for the artist. “Sometimes I start with some specific objects that lead to a series of paintings that focus on ideas or symbols represented by objects such as eggs, gold forms, skulls, or other objects; and other times I pursue an idea that interested me in the past,” she explains. “In either case, I go through a long and difficult process of putting shapes and colors together, adding more things, taking objects away, reformatting the composition, looking at the arrangement from different vantage points, making graphite studies, and starting the process over again before I’m ready to paint.

“Every painting is the result of a completely different set of motivations and perceptions, yet there are commonalities that reflect my personality,” Monafo says. “For example, the still lifes are almost always complex arrangements containing a major or primary still life and one or more secondary still lifes within the same painting. That is, some things are arranged on top of a table while others appear on the floor or a lower shelf; and my vantage point is frequently from above the setup. If you compare one of my paintings to a still life by Giorgio Morandi or Francisco Zurbaran, for example, you will quickly see how differently I approach still life. I love what other artists have done with simple, straight-on views of fruit and vessels, but my interest in still life painting is very different.”

Monafo Porcelain Pile pastel
Porcelain Pile
2003, pastel, 38 x 50. Private collection.

There is always one salient reason why Monafo begins organizing elements of a still life, one that is either a specific idea she can explain or a feeling that pulls her toward one assemblage of shapes, colors, and textures. “It seldom has to do with the function of the vase, utensil, or bowl,” she explains. “It’s more apt to be about the relationship of the colors and textures of the objects as well as of their scale and shape. I make a number of graphite sketches of what’s in front of me at about one-third the size of the intended painting as a way of evaluating whether or not the two-dimensional representation has the potential to capture the three-dimensional sense of the elements. Next, I make full-scale drawings so I can look critically at the shapes within the composition, the relative scale of the objects, and the implied movement of the forms.

“Once I’m satisfied with a plan for a painting, I use grid lines to redraw the outlines of the forms from the full-scale drawing to a piece of toned paper, and I begin working very directly with pastels,” Monafo describes, pointing out that for most pictures she uses sheets of heavy, white Stonehenge paper; whereas anything larger than 38" x 50" is created on sheets of heavy Lanaquarelle watercolor paper coated with Golden pastel ground. “I immediately indicate the local color rather than underpaint complements or block in a grisaille of values,” the artist says. “I need to see some evidence of the entire picture on the paper before I concentrate on any one element. I don’t use hard pastels to make those initial indications because I prefer to only work with soft pastels, being mindful of the color key. That is, the intensity and relative value of the colors.”

Monafo Brass Pile pastel
Brass Pile
2003, pastel, 38 x 50. Collection the artist.

Monafo challenged herself to break from this method of painting structured still lifes in pastel. She tossed collections of the porcelain vessels, silver teapots, and brass vases onto neutral grounds with the idea of painting the random patterns that resulted. The method would be similar to the way John Cage composed music out of accidental markings on pieces of paper lined with upper and lower staffs. But unlike Cage, Monafo simply couldn’t accept the randomness or lack of organization that resulted. “No matter how I tried, I wasn’t able to relate to what I saw as chaotic and without visual appeal,” she confesses. “I immediately started moving things around, looking at them from the left and the right, raising and lowering my vantage point, and turning the vessels in one direction or another. The finished paintings look considerably different from my more intentionally constructed still lifes, but they still represent my process and point of view. I should have known from the beginning that it was hopeless to think I could respond in any other way.”
Monafo does expand the range of her expressions when she paints self-portraits or incorporates figures in her paintings. “I’ve done self-portraits throughout my career for many of the same reasons artists have been creating them for centuries,” she comments. “I’m always available, I don’t expect to be paid, and the artist doesn’t have to flatter me in the way she paints my image. It’s also interesting to look back on the paintings and remember what was going on in my life and my art, and to immediately recall the feelings that motivated the pose, lighting, and dress.”

Monafo The Red Drop Leaf pastel
The Red Drop Leaf
2000, pastel, 74 x 51. Private collection.

A recent set of large paintings of Adam and Eve gave Monafo the opportunity to comment on timeless issues as well as contemporary values. “I was struck by and very interested in the beauty and grace of the human form as depicted in a painting of Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer [1471–1528],” the artist explains. “I thought about paying homage to the artist and revisiting the theme by adapting the figures in a diptych of Adam and Eve, contemporizing the story of mankind’s original sin by suggesting the prevalence of greed in the culture today. The gold fabric, golden apple, and brass vessels represent the material possessions that continue to tempt people, while the skulls remind us of the transience of life. The branch of leaves that extends from one painting to the other suggests the tree of knowledge of good and evil; and the corked bottles of wine, lilies, cattails, and serpents are some of the traditional iconography associated with biblical stories.”

Monafo’s pastel paintings have earned her wide recognition and respect from collectors, curators, and artists. She was elected to the Pastel Society of America’s Hall of Fame in 2002, and her paintings have been included in major gallery and museum exhibitions, including “Object Project,” organized by The Evansville Museum of Arts, History, and Science, in Indiana, that was featured in the October 2007 issue of American Artist.

Monafo Eve and the Golden Delicious pastel
Eve and the Golden Delicious
2002, pastel, 77 x 51. Collection the artist.

About the Artist
Janet Monafo
currently teaches drawing in the continuing education department of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, in Boston. She has received numerous awards and recognitions for her pastel paintings, including election to the Pastel Society of America’s Hall of Fame and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, and the New England Foundation for the Arts. Her paintings have been included in exhibitions organized by the National Academy of Design and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, both in New York City; the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, DC; and the Delaware Art Museum, in Wilmington.

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief and publisher of American Artist.

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