Mary Brigid Mackey is a self taught artist who currently spends her time at work exploring the versatility of soft pastel. She is inspired by the picturesque landscapes that surround her at home in Clonmel, Southern Ireland, which has in turn inspired her colour choices in the new Mary Brigid Mackey Unison soft pastel set. In this interview with the Jackson’s Art Blog she gives us her rules for painting with pastels and defines what makes a strong work of art.
Lisa: What made you decide to be an artist?
Mary Brigid: It was never a conscious decision, Painting was an automatic response I had to my observations of environments and people. It was both natural and necessary. I constantly contemplated ways of capturing the images, the life, the spirit or essence of scenes. Always wondering how I could portray them in a way that would allow me to share these moments I witnessed with other people. Regardless of where I was in my life or what direction it was taking, I never stopped painting in my head. Imagining my own interpretation in the form of a painting. After many years of continuous learning and discovering my own artistic style, I feel that I can call myself an artist.
Lisa: How did you learn to paint in Pastels?
Mary Brigid: I was given a present of pastels many years ago and fell in love with them instantly. They became my medium of choice. I am primarily self taught and learned through trial and error, as well as extensive research into pastel paintings, techniques and styles. However, there were two workshops that I took which had a significant influence in my development. The first was a workshop in landscapes with the Cork based artist, Eddie Yang Sang. Eddie taught me not to be afraid of using dark colours, but instead to embrace them in my work as well as the light colours. The second was a workshop in portraiture with the wonderful American artist and teacher Alicia Sotherland. Alica thought me how to visualize and construct the face in shapes made from lights and shadows. Her gift to me was confidence in myself and I am now enjoying the journey of developing my own style in portraiture. In recent years I have been doing a lot of Plein Air painting with pastels. From constant painting the landscape on location I have developed a palette suitable for all seasons. Now with my Unison Landscape Set of 36 I can travel much lighter.
Lisa: Are there any vital rules to painting with pastels?
Mary Brigid: The main rules with pastels, like oils, is to always paint light over dark. For me the most important rule which I am very pedantic about is to keep your pastels clean. If you paint with dirty pastels it will result in a muddy painting. I clean mine by shaking them in bags of rice. While working on a painting I will give each one a clean immediately after using it with paper kitchen towel. This avoids contamination from other colours on the surface. Always break your pastels and use them like brushes. The side of the pastel will allow large strokes and with the edge you can obtain detail like a fine brush. Also I never use my fingers to blend. You can blend with the pastels themselves. To block in a large area you can spread the pastel over the surface with paper kitchen towel or a paint brush. You can also use colour shapers or tortillions to blend colours, I always tell my students to “whisper” with their pastels, meaning to apply them lightly, feather-like. This way you can apply many layers, and also when applied this way it is easier to make corrections.
Lisa: Which artists do you identify as being a big influences to your work?
Mary Brigid: This is such a tough question to answer as there are so many artists that I admire, it is difficult to choose. If I was to pick a group it would be the Impressionists. Out of all the artists in the group I would say that Renoir has been a huge influence on my work. His pastels are not as famous as Degas but they are very beautiful. I had the pleasure of seeing the Renoir Landscape Exhibition in the National Gallery in London and they had such a big impact on me. I love how he captures the atmosphere of his places and make them so inviting to the viewer. I also admire his portraits. He paints his subjects with such sensitivity. Without a doubt my favourite Irish artist is Roderic O’ Conor. His landscapes, genre paintings, and portraits do what I aspire to achieve as an artist. When I view his landscapes I am transported into the scene. When studying his portraits I almost feel like I am intruding on the subject. I have just embarked on a new journey of composing genre paintings one of which is “The Vacant Chair”. I will be very pleased if I can stir the emotions of my viewers even just a fraction of what Roderic O ‘Conor has achieved in his paintings.
Lisa: What is your favourite kind of surface to work on and for what reason?
Mary Brigid: I do like sanded surfaces for landscapes as I like to do lots of layering. Fisher 400 and Uart are excellent as they can take water which is useful as I often like to do a water colour under-painting. Also it is very important to use a support that will take a splash of rain when out painting in Ireland, due to our wet weather. I like to experiment with making my own surface too. Museum quality matt board painted with Liquitex is very nice. You can leave the brush marks for a painterly effect or sand it back when it is dry for a smoother support. For portraits I like to use Suede Matt board. It holds soft pastels very well and allow many layers. The surface is very suitable for skin texture as it is so smooth.
Lisa: Do you have a favourite subject and if so what is it and why?
Mary Brigid: I have two favourite subjects. The first being the landscape. I love painting on location. It is an adrenalin rush for me. I have learned to work quickly and capture the essence of the place, even while the light and weather refuses to stand still for any artist. In the studio I paint from my own sketches and photographs. Always striving to portray the atmosphere and spirit of the place to the viewer. My second favourite subject is portraiture. Getting the correct placement of the subjects features is vital. Capturing the personality of the subject is most important. I feel it is a successful portrait when viewers comment on the subjects character without knowing them personally.
Lisa: Do you ever face stumbling blocks while you are making a picture, and if so how do you overcome them?
Mary Brigid: Of course I do. But with pastels it is easy to make corrections, if it is just a mistake in either the drawing or the colour I use a very stiff hog hair brush to remove the pastel from the offending area, and work back into the painting again. Sometimes, I find that I lose the enthusiasm for a piece. Then it becomes a chore so I will abandon it and start another work. I often return to these rejects and the passion for the subject returns and I will complete a good painting. Other times I will discover on a second visit, that the composition or the colours used are not pleasing to the eye. These I will bin. This does not upset me as I learn from my mistakes.
Lisa: Can you describe a typical day in the studio?
Mary Brigid: I start the day by going out for a walk with our family dog Willow. This has a dual purpose. Exercise for us both, and time to observe the landscape. It is during our walks that I often find a scene that I am compelled to paint. I may even rush back out and do it as I always have my plein air set up ready to go…or I take reference photos for use later. I like to paint in the mornings as that is when I am at my best. If the work is going well I will continue painting until the afternoon. Some days I will have to make time for other work associated with being an artist. Such as photographing new work for my website, trips to the framer and preparing for classes and workshops.
Lisa: What makes a strong work of art?
Mary Brigid: “A good painting is a painting that will make the viewer stop, be drawn into the painting and want to stay a while” I don’t remember where I read this , but it is an excellent statement. The composition of a painting is important. But the rules of composition can be broken and a good work of art can still be achieved. Good colour harmony is a critical ingredient. But it is the ability of the artist to evoke thoughts, memories or ideas in the viewer that makes a good work of art.
Lisa: Where on line or in the flesh can we see more of your work?
Mary Brigid: My work can be seen on my website http://www.marybrigidmackey.webeden.co.uk/ I am a member of one of Irelands oldest art groups STAG (South Tipperary Art Group) which was founded forty seven years ago. We hold an annual exhibition and also display our work in public buildings and in the South Tipperary Art Center. My work is also featured on the Unison Pastel website and the Pan Pastel website. I am one of the founding members of The Pastel Guild of Europe and my work is displayed on the Guilds website.