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Q&A with Pastel Artist Moira McQuillen

Meal Two, pastel by Moira McQuillen, awarded the Dee Gee Watling Memorial Award in the exhibit "Contemporary Realism."
Meal Two, pastel by Moira McQuillen, awarded the Dee Gee Watling Memorial Award in the exhibit “Contemporary Realism.”

One of the interesting things about visual art is how often it engages more than just our eyes. In the case of Moira McQuillen’s pastel painting above — winner of the Dee Gee Watling Memorial Award for pastel — the smell and taste of freshly baked summer desserts come quickly to mind. We asked longtime Art League member Moira to tell us more about her career and the recipe for the perfect still life:

What was your goal with Meal Two?
Moira McQuillen: Actually, I set it as a lesson for myself. This particular still life includes reflective metal, wet fruit, and a baked crust – very different textures.

Why chalk pastel?
I was an art major in college, working predominately in oil. I stopped painting for a bit when our children were very young and when I returned to painting, I chose pastel because it can be fast – no dry time and no brushes to wash. And I’ve always liked the flexibility and range of pastel. There are soft, buttery sticks that leave a broad swath of velvety color and hard sticks that can draw pin sharp lines.

My family moved to Washington, DC when I was in high school. We spent the month of August hiding out in the air conditioned museums downtown and I would pass the day in the National Gallery wandering between Whistler and Sargent and Cassatt. I was fascinated by Toulouse-Lautrec. The lines he drew were sinuous and alive. I’m still in love with the lines of drawing and I think of pastel as being an Impressionist medium, so those days in the Gallery clearly stayed with me.

Swing Me, pastel, by Moira McQuillen. From the October 2013 exhibit, "Body Language."
Swing Me, pastel, by Moira McQuillen. From the October 2013 exhibit, “Body Language.”

What do you think makes a good still life? What’s your favorite subject to paint?
Still life by definition is static, but something in the painting has to create energy that pulls your eye into and then around the painting. Maybe the subject matter isn’t as important as whether or not the interplay of textures and colors and shapes has created that energy.

Anything that sets your fingers itching to get painting is a good subject.

What is your creative process like, from the first idea to the finished piece?
I love when I know what I want to paint. Things move very quickly when I’m excited about the subject.

I use colored paper to mimic the under wash on a canvas and I try to let the texture and color of the paper show through. I lightly sketch in the general position of the elements of the painting. Unlike oil painting, where I would work on the whole canvas, building levels evenly, pastel requires a different approach. Because I don’t spray with a fixative, I work from the top of the paper to the bottom, moving from left to right (I’m right handed). I work the pastel with my fingers quite a bit. You can’t mix an exact color like in oil painting, so I layer colors – sometime smudging them together and sometimes scumbling the top color and leaving the under color to show.

I have an odd dislike of signing my paintings so that the signature shows. And I’m pretty bad at naming paintings – hence Meal One, Meal Two, and Meal Three.

There’s real magic in painting. Up close, it looks like absolutely nothing – just color, just lines. As you move back those little squiggles trick your eye into believing that you are seeing the curve of a cheek or a reflection on silverware. It never fails to amaze me.

Do you remember when you first wanted to be an artist?
I simply don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t think of myself as an artist.

My mother tells this story. When I was in kindergarten, my mother was frustrated with my messy printing. She asked the teacher what she could do to make me “stay in the lines.” The teacher told my mother that I was an artist and that they could certainly force me to stay in the lines, but that I would lose my gift.

My mother became my biggest fan.

What are you working on now?
Clouds. Big, enormous clouds that fill the entire sky (and the entire painting). If I do it right, the painting will give a sense of vast distance and space.

“Contemporary Realism” is on view through October 6, 2014.

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