Pastel: Albert Handell's Pastel Paintings

0710hand3_472x600Albert Handell, one of the most important artists working in pastel today, was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at The Butler Institute of American Art. Here, he describes some of the seminal paintings in the show and his continuing exploration of the medium.


by M. Stephen Doherty

Taos Red
1997, pastel, 14 x 15.
Collection Mr. and
Mrs. Robert Hess.
A Summer’s Moment
1972, pastel, 22 x 28.
Collection The Butler
Institute of American Art,
Youngstown, Ohio.

The Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio, is one of the few museums to regularly feature the work of contemporary pastel painters. Several times a year, the Butler mounts these exhibitions in the Flora B. Giffuni Gallery of American Pastel Art, a space named in honor of the woman who founded the Pastel Society of America and who generously provided support to the museum. The Butler also schedules workshops and lectures by the artists whose paintings are on exhibition.

A few years ago, the Butler  presented a retrospective exhibition of pastel paintings by Albert Handell, an artist who has championed the pastel medium in books, videos, DVDs, workshops, and exhibitions for more than 30 years. The museum and Ventana Fine Art gallery, in Santa Fe, are publishing a catalogue in connection with the exhibition. The 70-year-old artist studied painting at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, with Louis Priscilla, Robert Ward Johnson, and Frank Mason; and he traveled throughout Europe before establishing studios in Woodstock and Santa Fe.

Crossed Legs (Study) 1979, pastel, 19 x 23 by Albert Handell.
Crossed Legs (Study)
1979, pastel, 19 x 23.
Collection the artist

In the book he wrote with his wife, artist Anita Louise West, Handell explained his basic approach to creating plein air pastel landscapes. “I don’t like to travel more than 30 minutes from my studio to find a painting location,” he says. “If it’s farther than that, I prefer to stay for a few days at a nearby hotel. Once I arrive at the location, I scout around until I can isolate a scene that touches me.” The artist also points out that several locations have become particular favorites, and there are a number of paintings in the Butler exhibition that were created near these streams, fields, and waterfalls.

Once he finds a landscape that attracts his attention, Handell uses a simple viewfinder (he recommends one by Picture Perfect) to isolate shapes that can be effectively composed into a painting. “I urge students to be mindful of the fact that they are interpreting a three-dimensional landscape on a flat surface,” he explains. “One way to approach composition is to break down a painting into its two-dimensional elements, which ultimately combine to create the sense of three-dimensional space. These elements are the shapes, patterns, and planes. Squinting your eyes helps you see your subject in two dimensions. It eliminates the surface details and groups together all the large shapes. Try to see the landscape in patterns of light and shadow.

Portrait of Jerry Schiffer
1971, pastel, 22 x 15½.
Collection the artist.
The Coyote Fence
1992, pastel, 9 x 11.
Courtesy Vantana Fine Art,
Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“I sometimes apply a wash of watercolor before layering the pastel, but eventually I use a stick of raw umber pastel to establish the drawing and shadow masses,” Handell continues. “Afterward, different colors can be painted into this single tone. Varying detail leaves something to the viewer’s imagination and leads the eye from specific areas to suggested areas. To keep the shapes unified, use colors that are similar in value. I work from the largest shapes to the smaller ones, and from the center of interest out to the rest of the composition. Be careful not to overstate the unimportant elements, as this can weaken the impact you desire.”

After providing a brief review of his painting techniques, Handell offered specific comments about some of the landscapes and portraits included in the retrospective exhibition.


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