by: Karen Frankel
American Artist, February 1996
When Herman Margulies first started to paint with
pastels, he found the paper fraught with problems. "I realized that the surface
was relatively smooth and required the use of fixatives to hold each layer of
pastel firmly in place," he says. "With some paper, applying just a
moderate amount of pressure with the pastels fills in the valleys, making it difficult
to add subsequent layers to create the multicolor, vibrating effect I strive for."
So Margulies solved these problems as he has solved many others in his career
by taking things into his own hands: He invented a surface.
His specially coated pastel board took more than
ten years to develop. Its emulsion is composed of a mixture of volcanic ash, acrylic
pigments, and gesso on top of a fourply, acid-free museum mounting board. To prevent
buckling, he dampens the underside of the board with water before spreading the
coating. When the top layer is dry, he sands it lightly, "opening" the
surface so it can absorb the pastel pigments and increasing its adhesion. This
allows Margulies to apply many layers of pastel without using fixatives, which
can discolor the pigment and contaminate the studio air.
Once the board is sanded, he then wipes it with
a black polyester cloth to smooth the surface even more. "When applied to
this surface, my colors will look pure," he says, "and will be embedded
firmly. But if I don't like a part of the composition, I just take a sponge and
cold water and wipe it off; after it dries, which takes only a few minutes, I
can paint over the same spot without any trace of the correction. The largest
boards I use are 32" x 40", and those can be cut into smaller sizes
Margulies's pastel board is only one of his many
inventions. As manager of creative development for Sterling Drug in New York City,
a major pharmaceuticals manufacturer, Margulies was awarded twenty-two international
patents for inventions ranging from a new mousetrap to blister packs and the disposable
syringe. When he retired at the age of fifty-five, he began painting and teaching
art full-time. "I've changed professions on four occasions," he says,
"but art has always been the backbone of my life."
Born in Poland, Margulies used his artistic talents
to help him survive the concentration camps of World War 11. He falsified official
documents for fellow Jews, worked in Oscar Schindler's enamel factory, and did
portraits of Nazi soldiers in the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp for extra
bread or soup. Today, Margulies lives and works in Litchfield County, Connecticut,
with its rolling hills, winding back roads, and picturesque New England towns
His studio has high ceilings, skylights, and a
bedroom loft for his students (he runs weeklong workshops for two students at
a time). It's a completely professional setup, with framing tables, a projection
cubicle, and storage space for paintings and supplies. His Sennelier pastels are
kept in individual drawers, each labeled with a number. Bits and pieces of the
sticks are in aluminum-foil pans filled with rice that keep the sticks clean.
In some of the pans, the rice has acquired a faint coloring of its own-a tinge
of blue or an aura of mauve-beige-from the pastel dust.
Before starting a painting, Margulies approaches
his frame closet (he orders his frames and mats by the dozens in ten different
sizes). "Many times you'll do a painting and it won't fit a frame,"
he says. "What do you do?" He raises his voice slightly to make the
point. "So I decide everything before I begin, including the size of the
painting-I make sure it fits one of my frames." With the size determined,
he cuts his board and selects mats.|
Margulies uses wooden mats for paintings larger
than 24" x 32", although they're expensive. These wooden mats are coated
with an enamel finish that can be wiped clean of pastel dust with a wet sponge.
But to reduce the cost of framing, he recently developed-in collaboration with
a framer-a mat sealed with a low gloss lamination. The laminated surface can be
wiped clean like the wood. "When working with this mat, I have a different
method," the artist explains. "I actually use two mats, both placed
over the painting. The coated top mat has a slightly smaller opening (1/16"
smaller) than the acidfree mat I put over the painting first. A gutter is created
between the two mats to catch the excess pastel dust."
With this preparation done, Margulies goes to his
easel, on which a large piece of homosote, covered with black polyester material,
is mounted. He tacks his pastel board to the material (he photographs his work,
both in progress and when complete, and the black background makes his slides
more professional looking and isn't distracting). The easel sits next to the projection
booth, where his students can use two projectors to choose individual slides to
Margulies does a daily demonstration for his students
that is both a way of teaching and a performance. He begins by flipping through
slides culled from a collection of thousands he has taken himself and chooses
a subject; at this session, it's a barn he has painted several times before. "Every
painting is an innovation, an invention," he says. "I may use the same
barn for five paintings, but I do the work in five different ways-different perspectives,
different compositions, and therefore different paintings."
Margulies begins by sketching in broad sections
with charcoal. "I don't draw with the charcoal-I put lines down to indicate
basic shapes," he explains. "For me, the drawing is spontaneous, an
extension of my emotions, and each stroke has to convey this. If there is no emotion,
there is no painting."
After the charcoal is down, Margulies begins with
the color. Bits and pieces of pastel he on the easel shelf and in the rice pans
close at hand. Margulies paces back and forth, his glance going from the slide
to the painting. He tells his students to move back from their pictures as often
as possible and to look at them in a mirror to check for errors. "You should
think before you do anything," he instructs. "Sometimes you do more
thinking than other times, and sometimes you follow your instincts."
Rather than blend colors with a stick or a swab,
the artist employs many loose, separate, and isolated strokes. He even uses this
technique to produce masses. "This may look like a form of blending,"
he says, "but it's not; these many strokes are my way of giving the painting
definition. If you blend the colors with your finger or an implement, it looks
as if you wrote something and then erased it. So I leave the strokes alone."
After an hour and an half, Margulies takes a break
an intermission of sorts. "When I was visiting Giverny, Monet's gardens in
France, I did some painting," he recalls. "It was a sunny day, and because
of the sun's glare, I couldn't see the colors clearly. The glare kills them; it
flattens them out. Also, the light made the canvas blinding. That's why I've developed
a system for painting in a studio." He says he establishes his initial composition
while he's taking slides with his camera, but the actual photograph is used merely
as a reference.
After lunch, Margulies is ready to continue. He
goes back into sections of the panting repeatedly, intensifying the color-warming
it in some areas and cooling it in others. When he's finished, he taps the back
of the pastel board a few times to remove the excess pastel and shoots several
slides of the work for his records.
With all the components readily at hand, framing
takes a relatively short time. He cleans the glass and gives the pastel board
a final tap to remove any further loose dust. He stamps the back of each painting
with the work's title, date, and size plus his biography, then backs it with acid-free
foam board cut to the size of the frame. The hooks and hanging wire are attached
before the painting is set in the frame to prevent pastel dust from dropping onto
the glass, which could happen if the picture were put into the frame first. He
then takes out the loose-leaf notebook in which he keeps records of all his work.
On each page, there is a space for several slides of a painting, along with its
title, the date, and the location where it was painted. The work produced in this
demonstration is called Abandoned No. 56.
"Art isn't a mystery," Margulies says.
"It's about how you feel, what you're about, and how to express that emotionally."
His subjects range from ballet dancers to flowers, seascapes, and a variety of
landscapes. Margulies says he has to have an emotional connection with a subject
in order to paint it. "I have dozens of paintings of sheep, and the black
sheep is me," he says. "I identify with sheep, with cows, and even with
barnseverything that comes and goes as we do. We are very seasonal, and my work
is about the seasons.
"During the war, I used to hide in barns,
and they were instrumental in saving my life," he continues. "Today,
you see them decaying, left to the elements. Soon, you'll never know that a barn
existed in a specific spot. I hate to see them go. I have many childhood memories
of barns, and they're a link to the past. And what do you see now instead?"
He holds out his hands. "Banks, shopping malls. In my paintings, I'm recording
history so that future generations know their beginnings that the barn was once
the cornerstone of American life."
Margulies has sold around two hundred paintings
and won more than one hundred fifty awards. "My most expensive painting is
$5,000," he says, "and that's as high as I want to go. I want my works
to be affordable. When I die, I don't care what they're sold for-my concern is
leaving enough of them behind. My legacy is going to be the name I write in the
bottom, left-hand corner of each painting to defy the Nazis who wanted to erase
it during the Holocaust."
Margulies is an elected member and a Master Pastelist
of the Pastel Society of America. He is also an elected member of Knickerbocker
Artists, Allied Artists of America, Audubon Artists, The National Arts Club, the
Salmagundi Club, and the Hudson Valley Art Association. He is listed in Who's
Who in American Art and is represented in Connecticut by the PS Gallery in Litchfield,
Clapp and Tuttle in Woodbury, and Isabel Trimper of Art Services International
in Westport. His mats and frames are made by Greg Haas of The Frame Cellar Gallery
at 1004 Old Bethlehem Pike, Springhouse, PA 19477.