In the Studio: Ellen Eagle
Pastel portrait painter Ellen Eagle has been a New Yorker for the better part of her life, and the majority of her formative artistic memories reside in such formidable buildings as the Staten Island Museum, the High School of Music & Art, and The Arts Students League of New York, where she took her first class as a ten-year-old student in 1963. Today she makes her home and studio in a historic New Jersey suburb, where for the last twenty years she has continued to turn out the truthful, sensitively observed pastel portraits for which she is known. Having been an instructor herself at The Arts Students League for the last fifteen years, Eagle is a trusted name and mentor in the world of both portraiture and pastel. With many honors to her name—including the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery recently acquiring her portrait of author Maxine Hong Kingston—Eagle has decades of artistic and career experience to share, and in this Q+A she thoughtfully ruminates on the role, responsibility, and long road of an enduring painter and teacher.
AM: Where is your home/studio currently located, and how long have you been creating in that space? Do you find your community and surroundings conducive to a productive life as a painter?
EE: I live in a New Jersey suburb located thirty minutes by train from Midtown Manhattan. My 1909 home provides a very warm environment, and I feel comfortable in my surroundings. My husband and I converted the dark, single-windowed attic into a light-filled studio that feels cathedral-like. It is my sanctuary. The very act of walking up the long staircase to the studio feels transformational. A bank of windows runs nearly the full length of the room, and from there I can see treetops and open sky. On my favorite days, I watch and listen to the rain fall. I have been working here for about twenty years.
Our tree-lined town is nearly all residential, and remarkably quiet. Much of the town has been designated a National Historic District, as most of the homes were built around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Taking walks through the area and nearby parks is mood-enriching so, in that sense, the community is conducive to my life as a painter. We are also surrounded by lively artistic and activist communities: world-class writers, artists, musicians, journalists, and people engaged in all forms of creative and critical thinking have a history of settling here. There is a wealth of creative and intellectual output. Institutions include museums, performing-arts centers, and great libraries. It is a very stimulating place to live.
AM: Please describe your artistic education, from the time you first discovered your interest in art through your formal training and any continued education you did as an adult.
EE: I loved to draw from a very young age. When I was four, my mother found a drawing I had done, and she assumed my eleven-year-old brother had drawn it. She immediately enrolled me in art classes at the Staten Island Museum, and when I was ten, she took me to The Art Students League of New York’s Saturday children’s class. A couple of years later, when my brother started attending the City College of New York, he discovered that The High School of Music & Art [now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts] was located on CCNY’s campus. He phoned me and said, “Ellen, I know where in this world you belong!” When I was old enough to apply to the school, he drove me to the entrance exam.
Throughout my high-school years, I took piano lessons after class and on weekends, and I began college as a piano major at SUNY Binghamton. But my belief in my musical potential was shaky, and my love for drawing people was unshakeable. I transferred to the California College of Arts and Crafts [now the California College of the Arts] in Oakland, where I majored in drawing with a focus on the figure. Missing New York and feeling that my artistic interests were more aligned with New York artists, I returned home for my final college semester. My interest in character, so intrinsic to portraiture, had led me to an interest in narrative art, through which I could explore personal relationships. I enrolled in some illustration courses at Parsons School of Design. Still, my love of portraiture and figure drawing reigned, and following Parsons, I took four years of figure and portrait drawing at the National Academy School of Fine Arts. It was then that I first began to explore color, using pastel. I also started to look at children’s books. I saw some personal, expressive, touching artwork there. I was thinking about how to earn a living and, based on the pictures and text in the books, it was clear that my interest in character and relationships could potentially be satisfied in that context.
I put together a portfolio of work I believed to be appropriate, and for the next 10 years I illustrated children’s books until the publishing industry began to shrink. I was hired to do only what publishers had seen me do previously. The repetition killed the joy. I resolved to deliver my final book on my birthday and return to my first love. I enrolled in Harvey Dinnerstein’s painting class at The Art Students League of New York, and from the moment I walked into his classroom, I knew I had made the perfect choice. Harvey was/is a brilliant teacher. I was wholly committed to studying form, light, and the human presence. My delicate and incremental manner of applying pastel grew naturally out of my close and sustained observation. I couldn’t wait to go to sleep at night so that I could get up the next morning and get to class. I read every book about the figure and portrait that I could get my hands on. I took copious notes about the paintings I was working on. I wrote down quotes of artists and thinkers across disciplines that I related to great portraiture. When I became Harvey’s monitor, I arrived at school an hour and a half early to set up the studio and make the transition from crazed commuter to meditative student. I worked with Harvey for seven spectacular years, at which point I strongly sensed that it was time for me to work on my own. I left the formal classroom, and moved full-time in to my own studio.
AM: I have heard some pastelists say that what they love about the medium is that it allows them to be both a draftsperson and painter at the same time. What is it about working in pastel that you love?
EE: Pastel appeals to many of my sensibilities. It allows me to act on my observations with immediacy. For instance, the moment I perceive a color, I can reach for the stick I need and apply the pastel—I don’t have to put my excitement on hold in order to mix paint on a palette—and in that way my excitement is preserved in the application. Also, if I worked in oil, I would frequently have to wait for an area to dry before taking a given area to the next stage. With pastel, I can work as long as I wish.
I have told my students that when I work I experience both spontaneous excitement and an unconditional sense of discipline. One of my responsibilities to my model and my painting is to maintain a balance between the two forces. They buttress each other. At the same time, I love to carefully observe my sitter over an extended series of sittings. I am constantly adjusting values as the ever-changing natural light emphasizes different aspects of the form. In the end, the portrait needs to exist in a single quality of light and atmosphere. This kind of observation and organization requires discipline.
Pastel is adaptable to a wide variety of temperaments, as it can be applied in many ways. I love to weave my colors together, stroke by stroke. I love to see the initial strokes peeking through the additional ones. Each color contributes its individual tone, as each individual instrument contributes to an entire symphony.
AM: You are known as a painter of portraits and figures. What is it about the human face and spirit that continues to be an endless inspiration for you?
EE: Artists have painted portraits throughout history, and others have written endless volumes about this question. The quest to understand our connections to one another and our place in the universe is, maybe, all there is? Maybe all human endeavor exists within that net? Portraiture and figure painting are both intimate and cosmic. In my little studio, I confront the issue on the most personal level. A perceptive artist sees the connective tissue of all humanity. If the artist finds significant personal qualities in the sitter, he or she evokes the universal.
Throughout my life I have experienced and observed people as being simultaneously fragile and courageous. I think back to my childhood playmates, and I remember our awkward collisions as we learned to navigate our new worlds. We all carry our childhood selves within us as we continue to search for and create our strongest adult selves. I am eternally grateful to the people who sit for me, who open themselves to my gaze. I am in awe of their inborn talents and the generosity they offer to the people in their worlds. They tell me stories of their lives, relationships, endeavors. I am compelled by the what their faces and postures express about their histories and how they might move through their futures. When my sitters come to my studio, I am acutely aware that I am the only person in the world, at this moment, who has the privilege to say something about this person. I always respond to their dignity.
And then, of course, there are the flesh tones, hairlines, bones, and muscles, all seen in light and atmosphere. What could be more tender?
AM: You gave a great description in your Artist Statement of the power of observing eternal light against the timeless yet fleeting face of human beings, your sitters. I’m sure other realizations of this nature have crossed your mind while painting portraits over the decades. Any others that you would like to share?
EE: Thank you, Allison. There is indeed one sensation that cycles through me often as I paint my portraits: We are here only briefly. Our bodies are here, and then we are gone. This duality—like the duality of courageousness and fragility—is, I believe, the undercurrent of all significant portraiture.
AM: Your Self-Portrait in Blue is an important piece that shows you taking off your glasses to take an introspective look at yourself. Can you describe the origins of that self-portrait and whether you have done another one in a similar vein since?
EE: Thank you very much. I love working in high-key colors, and I am enthralled by narrow value ranges. Early one morning I went upstairs to my studio before getting out of my nightgown. I glanced in the studio mirror and was taken by the closeness of values between the nightgown and the studio walls. That was my catalyst, but it was not sufficient content to explore. When I do a self-portrait, there is always a life event that I am striving to shape into the painting. I knew I wanted to make this a full figure, so I had to step back a distance from the mirror. Stepping back to gain a new perspective roused my feelings for my father, who was nearing the end of his life. His death was going to change my perspective as, without him, my place in the world and our family dynamic would shift. It was fitting that the nightgown is pale, the straps are thin, my shoulders are exposed, and my arms are outspread, heightening the sense of vulnerability—both my father’s and mine.
Opening began as another high-key arrangement, this time simply of a painter observing herself as a painter. Hence, the apron. I was happy with the composition. To me, the yellow shirt suggested optimism. During the course of working on the painting, I went through a challenging personal experience. The experience disoriented me. I was unsure of what I saw in myself as I looked in the mirror. I didn’t want to give my difficult situation the power to steal the joy and optimism from which the painting originated. The painting stalled. With time, I emerged from the disorientation. I returned to the painting with a new strength. It was at this point that I added the open window, allowing light and fresh air to return to my studio, and to me.
AM: Who have been some of your greatest influences and mentors?
EE: The number one inspiration for me is my great teacher, Harvey Dinnerstein. The personal nature of his artwork touches me deeply. His depictions of his relationship with New York City are exhilarating. I love the minimalist shapes with which he so solidly constructs form. There is veracity in all his work, and his elegant compositions convey an indisputable point-of-view. But it’s more than that. I am inspired by his unflinching dedication to his artistic principles and practice.
Daniel E. Greene is also a powerful teacher and shares his great breadth of experience and knowledge generously. I learned a great deal about pastel in his workshop, which was invaluable as I began my explorations into pastel. * Although I have not had the opportunity to study directly with Burt Silverman, his paintings are classrooms unto themselves, offering courses in emotional insight, superb drawing, design, tonal control, and atmosphere.
Other artistic ancestors that I look to, in no particular order, are Cecilia Beaux, Berthe Morisot, Käthe Kollwitz, Thomas Eakins, Vermeer, Degas, Lennart Anderson, Mary Cassatt, Christien Købke, Angelica Kauffman, and many more.
I also love to listen to dancers, writers, choreographers, playwrights, journalists, novelists, actors, directors, historians, et al discuss their motivations and processes.
AM: You published a book in 2013 called Pastel Painting Atelier, which is a great resource for aspiring or professional pastelists. Are there any other instructional sources you recommend for someone working in pastel in the realist tradition?
EE: Daniel E. Greene published a classic, comprehensive book titled Pastel in 1974, in which he discusses materials and technique. And Harvey Dinnerstein’s Harvey Dinnerstein: Artist at Work contains a full chapter on pastel. His pastel paintings are also presented throughout the book. Pastel Journal magazine is also a great resource, especially for information about new, innovative materials and the ways in which pastelists are incorporating them into their practice. There are instructional videos and courses all over the internet. I did a couple of videos for New Masters Academy, and they offer tutorials on a broad range of visual disciplines. The Pastel Society is a vital organization with a long history of pastel advocacy, education, and exhibition. I advise anyone interested in pastel to look into joining PSA. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay have a wealth of pastels in their collections. For those who live too far from museums to visit, or are waiting for them to reopen, many museums offer their collections for online viewing.
AM: What paintings or projects are currently in progress in your studio?
EE: I am in the very early stages of a painting about my ancestry. I am in the sketch stage, considering composition possibilities.
AM: The world is certainly in a unprecedented time of crisis right now. How have you coped with the unsettling nature of this pandemic, and in what ways have you seen painting and art serve you and others during this time?
EE: My family and I are taking all physical precautions to stay safe. To deal with emotion, I think of my mother's practical advice during past stressful times: She counseled her children to take care of one thing at a time, and do what needs to be done. That is all that can be done. The situation is devastating, but we increase our vulnerability if we panic. It is important to maintain clarity of mind if we are to help ourselves and others. Easy to say, not easy to do. I am constantly thinking of the people who are in trouble. But I am repeating my mother’s advice in my head.
It gives me hope to hear about the people around the world who are helping one another. Just as prisoners in concentration camps held on to life by painting, just as Käthe Kollwitz chronicled the horror, just as artists have recorded their own terrifying descents into illness, I know there are artists out there now delving into their own experiences and creating art that represents the current terror.
In my own work, this unrecognizable world and the uncertainty of the future is causing me to be more introspective than ever. I am looking back to my roots. I am joining the people whose faces I will never see again in life, and whose voices I will not hear, except in my heart. Despite social distancing, I feel together with loved ones, here in my studio. The very act of creating art is an act of hope.
For more information on Eagle, visit elleneagleportraits.com. Eagle is represented by Forum Gallery.
* Post-interview, Ellen Eagle learned of Daniel E. Greene’s passing on April 5, 2020. She would like to share the following sentiment in the artist’s honor and memory:
“It is impossible to overestimate Daniel’s position in the world of pastel, and his lasting influence on generations of artists. I remember him as an incredibly kind and supportive human being. He has left an indelible legacy to us all.”