Thursday, April 27, 2017

Here is a little article that I wrote for the Mid Atlantic Pastel Society's Newsletter.  I know that I have not blogged in a while. Sorry!  I have had many amazing and positive things happen in the last year.  I do also use my facebook account as a blog, so if you want daily entries just go to and friend request me.

An Inspiration for Making “A”rt With Pastels

I have been asked by MAPS to explain why I love working with pastel and what inspires me as an artist, but these are not one sentence answers. I am not sure what motivates most artists, but what has motivated me for most of my adult life after art school was simply drawing my booty off to support myself. I was a portrait machine. I made most of my income as a street artist, drawing 5 minute profiles in pastel, which explains my comfort with the medium.  I averaged 100 or more faces on a good day when I was younger. I also worked from photos drawing pets that I thought would please my clients. Regardless of my degree and earlier ambitions this was all that I did. I only worked for extrinsic rewards.
I didn’t draw often outside of work primarily because many of my 1980s art professors were highly convincing that the only art worthy of hanging in public was non-objective work. I liked realism. I was harshly ridiculed for wanting to draw like a realist in school by both professors and fellow students. It was so humiliating. Realism was dead they explained. As a result of these experiences I hid all of my future studio work in bulging portfolios tucked away in the back of the garage. I know that sounds horrible but before you go and judge me let me explain a few things first.  You need to bear with me for a few more paragraphs before you can understand why I am now motivated much differently.
First let me answer the easier question about why I love pastel. I adore the feel of the dust on my fingers and the way that the medium moves over the tooth of the paper. It never “dries” so you can come back to it any time you want.  I also think that working with pure pigment without the hassle of a brush getting in the way is great fun. A judge told me once that another good motivation to focus on pastel is that there are not nearly as many pastel artists showing in art festivals as there are artists working in oil, acrylic or watercolor. That was good to know. Even if my work was lousy I had a better chance of getting into shows someday. Cool!
My artistic motivation is a much more complicated issue.  A few years ago I started searching for some sort of inspiration to create work that had some deeper meaning for me other than just a making a copy of a person’s face.  I was nearing 50 and had never entered a single competition or did one fine art fair. I began spending hours reading and studying other artists in between my craft classes that I was teaching at that time. I drew every day. I even sent up prayers asking for signs to aim me in the right direction but all I could do is draw what I thought people wanted to buy since that is all that I had ever done. I was just a robot, or at least that’s how I felt. I was very confused and had hit rock bottom art-esteem.
One day as I was crying into my coffee over my frustration I remembered that when I was a kid I used put on headphones and doodle to music to ease my teen anxieties. I came from a musical family and studied classical music as a kid, so music always whisked me away to a better place.  When I combined music with drawing it was almost magical. I didn’t care about the end product back then, I just needed to stay calm and it worked.  I would fill pages with swirls, squiggles and patterns wrapped around cartoonish looking faces and floating eyeballs. (Today they call this “Zentangle”, which I find highly amusing.)  I think I forgot about this experience over the years, but it suddenly came back to me. So, desperate for any form of relief from my mid-life anxieties, I put on headphones and just let it go. The experience was highly meditative. I had absolutely no ambition to please anyone.  It felt so good.  My technical muscles were still flexing out of habit, but the music took over and I just drew how the music made me feel.  It was not a portrait of my kid, but more of an auto-biography. It was better than meditation and far cheaper than a shrink. Heck, it was even better than alcohol!
I created many drawings after that based on music, choosing of course the medium that I was most familiar with, which is pastel.  Perhaps a better description would be that the drawings chose me and began to flow and ooze out of my head. Eventually I became more concerned with research, pre-drawings and all that boring but necessary stuff that realists are required to do, but the most important change was that I stopped trying so hard to please the world.  For the first time as an adult I was drawing for myself and only for myself.  I didn’t really care how anything turned out because I was not working for clients.  My pastel work became an auto- biography of my own grief and about how music calms me.  I entered in competitions and shows to keep me on my toes, but I never expected to actually win anything.  Oddly enough galleries and judges started to notice me. I am still astonished when I get an award.
I soon realized that by combining tight photo realism with pattern brings the viewer into a deeper state of consciousness, just as listening to music brings me into a deeper meditative state. The pattern that twists about the figure represents the music. If folks don’t get it, eh, oh well.
My advice to other artists and my students, (I teach fine art now instead of crafting), is to just stop caring what the world thinks and draw what you love and work however you want. If you are required to make art for your living as I still am, set some studio time aside for yourself. Use the materials that make you happy and start having fun with what you are creating instead of thinking about the extrinsic rewards. Your work will glow with your own spiritual energy if you work for intrinsic reasons. That is the truest motivation of all.
P.S. After writing this I was about to send it off for the newsletter when I received notification that I have been juried into the very prestigious International Guild of Realism.  Ha!  Take that art school professors!  

Happy pastelling!

Emily Christoff - Flowers


  1. Fantastic Article and Congratulations on the International acceptance!!!

  2. Wonderful story! And you are so honest, I love it.