1942 Color and Method in Painting- by Ernest W. Watson

Gladys Rockmore Davis - Her Adventure in Pastel

There have been few women artists in America who have attained the success that Gladys Rockmore Davis enjoys today, just ten years after she began to paint. Ten years is a short time in the development of a career, especially when the responsibilities of a home and two young children claim their share of time, thought and energy. Yet during that decade Mrs. Davis has been as prolific in her painting as many artists whose art wholly commands their attention.

But it is not quantity that concerns us, no matter how greatly we may marvel at the sheer accomplishment of producing so many canvases. The early pictures she exhibited bore the imprint of originality and gave promise of what was to come; it was evident she was a person to watch. By the time of her first one-man show in New York in 1940 she had won her place in the front ranks of American art.

Perhaps it is misleading to designate the year 1932 as the beginning of Mrs. Davis’ career—that is when she began to paint—because for eleven years previously she had been a very successful advertising and fashion artist. Thus there was behind her a considerable experience which, while not usually considered a promising kind of background for a painting career, appears to have equipped this artist with sound skills which she successfully applied to the problems of easel painting.

The transition from fashion artist is interesting and involves a bit of history. In 1925, five years after her graduation from the Art Institute of Chicago, she married Floyd M. Davis, who, even then, was a well-known illustrator and advertising artist. They moved to New York where their two children were born in 1930 and 1931. Mrs. Davis continued her fashion work until 1932 when, with bag, baggage, babies and nurse, the Davises sailed for Europe. After touring about for a few months they settled in Cannes, quite near the house in Le Cannet where Renoir spent the last twenty-five years of his life. The visits to the Renoir home and studio made a lasting impression; the great Frenchman has been a noticeable influence upon Mrs. Davis’ work. At Cannes she took up her brushes and painted steadily until the family returned to America a year later. “I discovered, to my surprise,” she recalls, “that I had completely lost my flair for commercial work. After floundering for a couple of months I decided to attend the Art Students League of New York. There I spent several more months studying, painting and thoroughly enjoying myself. Following that I studied for a time with George Grosz. Then I threw away all leading strings and plunged myself into the strange world of painting.”

Mrs. Davis had not been painting long before the critics noted that a new star had appeared in the firmament of the art world. In 1937 the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired her August Afternoon, an important landmark in her rapidly developing career. Since then her work has been reproduced continually. She was the subject of a feature article in the January 1940 number of Magazine of Art.


Gladys Rockmore Davis scores with her outstanding work in this medium

These are the words with which one of New York’s newspaper critics hailed the opening of Mrs. Davis’ exhibition of pastels in November 1941 at the Midtown Galleries. Another critic wrote—“She handles pastel very much the same way she uses oils, getting a lush richness and Renoir-like glow in the colors. Also the subjects that are the most successful are those that have given her oil paintings such distinction—pensive girls and young women in natural, unposed attitudes.” “In none of her pastels,” observed another, “is there a hint of the pale lavenders, the feminine pinks usually associated with the word ‘pastel.’ The chalk medium has responded to her love of strong, rich color.”

The pastels seen in this exhibition, executed during the past year, represent the artist’s first work in the medium. And now, after this brief fut highly successful excursion in the new medium, she has laid aside her chalks to take up her familiar brush once more. What prompted this pastel period? She was attracted to the medium, she declares, because it enables the artist to execute, in a few days, a portrait which, in oil, would occupy several weeks of continuous painting. A portrait commission in pastel, it follows, is not such an expensive luxury—it is within the means of a wider public.

 The use of pastel as a painting medium has always been pretty much confined to casual undertakings, principally in the field of portraiture. It has not generally been looked upon as a medium for serious work, in spite of the achievements of not a few fine artists who have devoted themselves to it. Rosalba Carriera of Venice (1675-1757), who was one of the first to carry the art to perfection, is represented in the Dresden Museum by 157 of her pastel portraits. Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788), the most eminent pastellist France has produced, painted a great many notable portraits. Hogarth, Sir Thomas Lawrence and George Romne, among English artists, turned occasionally to the pastel medium. Mary Cassatt, that distinguished American painter with whom Mrs. Davis has been compared—merely because of her fondness for the mother and child theme—was particularly successful with pastel.

Pastel has been quite extensively employed as a drawing medium. One recalls Degas’ innumerable studies of ballet dancers. Many of these are slight enough to be designated drawings; others were executed with a completeness approaching that of an oil painting. In the former the chalk has been chiefly used for delineation with no more than a suggestion of color; the paper, usually tinted, being a strong tonal factor in the result. In the latter the paper was often covered, or nearly so, and the chalks were handled in a painter-like manner.

Mrs. Davis’ pastels are definitely paintings. She pretty much eliminates the paper as a color element even though she doesn’t cover it all the way to the frame. She prefers fullness of representation to mere suggestion. Always a vigorous painter, known for her sculpturesque form and warm, glowing color, she succeeds in retaining these characteristics in pastel. She complains that the chalks do not give her quite the lush reds she is so fond of, but to critics of her sometimes too “hot” color this would seem to be a wholesome corrective.

In referring to these pictures as paintings we would not give the impression that Mrs. Davis, in her pastels, imitates oil painting technic. She fully appreciates the distinctive characteristics of the medium and exploits them intelligently; she does not attempt to force it beyond its natural limitations.

In turning from oils to pastels the painter has to adjust himself to the wholly different properties of the chalk medium. First to be noted, perhaps, is the extensive range of the pastel palette. Instead of a dozen oil colors which, through mixtures, supply his every need, he must have at hand between 150 and 250 sticks of chalk. Because the possibility of mixing pastel hues on paper is very limited the manufacturer has anticipated nearly every color need including, of course, the greatest variety of warm and cool grays. Pastels are usually arranged in a series of tones, the darkest ones consisting of pure color; the others of the series are mixed with white to a greater and greater degree as they ascend the scale toward the lightest.

Because the colors cannot readily be mixed and because the paper will hold but a limited amount of pigment, work in pastel has to be very direct. Pastel tones may be rubbed with the fingers or a stump, but the juxtaposition of colors and hatching give a more vibrant result. A certain amount of impasto may be desired here and there to suggest flesh quality. This, with reserve, is seen in Mrs. Davis’ portraits; but most of her picture surfaces are built up without rubbing or excessive piling up of chalk which is always applied as thinly as possible so that, as in watercolor, the paper itself may play some part in the effect.

There is considerable flexibility in the medium; parts of the picture can readily be wiped out with a rag and the detail reconstructed. But every such treatment reduces the freshness of the work and a new start on a fresh piece of paper is more practical if one gets into any real difficulty.

Perhaps the chief reason why pastels are not in more general favor is the fact that their life is precarious unless they are handled with extreme care. The chalks do not have the cohesion of oil pigments and a chance rubbing may well do great damage to a picture. To offset this disadvantage pastels promise even greater permanence than oils, being free from oils and varnishes which cause paintings to darken, grow yellow and crack. Once pastels are properly framed they will retain their original bloom indefinitely, as pastels painted two centuries ago have done.

As soon as Mrs. Davis completes a picture she covers it with cellophane to protect it until it is put safely behind glass by the framer. A little chalk dusts off on the cellophane but not enough to injure the surface. As a matter of fact it is advisable to tap the pastel gently on its back to free it of superfluous dust which might otherwise drop off the picture after it is in the frame.

The use of fixatif to prevent the rubbing of pastel is highly unsatisfactory; in fact it will spoil the picture, darkening the tones and destroying the bloom which is one of its principal charms. However, a moderate use of fixatif, while the picture is in progress, may be desirable. For example, Mrs. Davis sprays the picture slightly when it has reached a condition comparable to the second state in the series shown here. This “sets” the chalk somewhat, making it more receptive to further applications of pigment.

There are special pastel papers prepared with pumice or other abrasives intended to attract and hold the chalk. Mrs. Davis doesn’t like these—few professionals do—but uses a heavy, tinted paper, hard-surfaced but with sufficient tooth to take the chalk. Paper is a most important factor in pastel work and every artist experiments to discover the surface best suited to his individual needs.

Mrs. Davis conceives her pictures in color and mass rather than in line. This observation may seem to be refuted by the pencil drawings in line which represent her only preliminary studies on paper. But these drawings only serve the purpose of composition study, of searching for the right pose. That once established, she begins the massing of colors and tones after lightly indicating, in line, the placing of the figures. Having quite completely conceived the composition before starting, she works all over the picture at once until it is completed.

As might be expected, Mrs. Davis uses her children Deborah (Sissy) and Noel (Tuffy) for models. They are the subjects of some of her best pictures. The many paintings of nudes and semi-nudes testify to her love of painting “flesh infused with the glow of life.”