Amherst artist Richard Cohen, originally from New Jersey, says he grew up watching his mother, who had studied with a French painter, create oil and watercolor paintings. Mom also took him to a number of art museums in New York and encouraged him to develop his own work in sculpture, watercolors and photography.
Then, about 20 years ago, Cohen says, her youngest daughter, then a high school art student, suggested she try working with pastels. It was “love at first sight”, he says: “[P]Astels have the advantage of simplicity, convenience and versatility. There is immediate contact of the pastel stick with the paper, making it look like an extension of your fingers. It is also a medium, notes Cohen, which lends itself well to the painting of his favorite subject: nature.
Hampshire Life: Talk about the work you currently do. What does it entail and what are you trying to accomplish?
Richard Cohen: I have recently been trying to get a better sense of ‘vibe’ and ‘atmosphere’ in my paintings, with an emphasis on subtle lighting. It’s trickier than it looks. I met my teacher, Kathleen Galligan, in Maine in September and spent a lot of time talking about techniques for creating atmosphere. I am now experimenting with these techniques.
HL: What inspires you?
CR: I love canoeing, hiking, running, or doing almost anything outdoors, so I am inspired by the beauty and serenity of the natural world.
HL: How do you know your work is done?
CR: One of the hardest judgments is knowing when to stop. I have often been tempted to exaggerate the light in the sky or other features to make the painting more dramatic or complex. More often than not, this kind of effort will backfire. Generally, less is more.
That said, I will usually keep a painting that I considered finished in my studio, unframed, and return there occasionally to polish it. I even took paintings out of their frames to make minor edits. Part of me thinks that any painting can be improved, that paintings should always be in progress. Luckily, I eventually get to a point where I feel it’s as good as it gets and move on, despite the lingering imperfections.
HL: Name two artists you admire or who have influenced your work.
CR: I love Maxfield Parrish’s landscapes. He was a master of technique and composition. Moreover, he managed to capture the nuances of light better than almost any other modern artist. I also admire Rockwell Kent, who had a clear and simple vision of his work.
HL: What’s your favorite snack while you’re working?
CR: One of the first things I was told in my first pastel class was never eating while working with pastels.
HL: Do you listen to music while you work? What kind?
CR: Yes always. My preference is for Celtic instrumental music. Repetitions and patterns like this help me get into a meditative state, and they help trigger the creative, intuitive, non-verbal right side of my brain.
HL: What do you do when you’re stuck?
CR: There are usually two situations where I can get stuck, including at first. It can be a little paralyzing to start a painting, with a blank sheet of paper staring me in the face. There are an infinity of subjects to paint in an infinity of ways. One approach is to impulsively put colors on paper (surprisingly often, a design will emerge from this chaos), and the other is to step back and polish another painting already in progress. Once I get some momentum from this exercise, I can go back to the blank paper and dive into it.
Although relatively rare, I can also get stuck in the middle of a painting. I may even be making good progress and realize that something is missing or wrong with the composition, but I can’t put my finger on it. If it starts to get frustrating, I’ll remove the paper from the easel and set it aside, then revisit the painting every few days until I fix the problem.
Richard Cohen’s “Exploring Light, Dark and Color,” an exhibition of pastel landscapes, is on view at Amherst Jewish Community, 742 Main St., through January 30, 2020. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or by appointment.