Art Maker: Richard Cohen, pastel painter

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  • Painter Richard Cohen works with soft pastels in the studio of his Amherst home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Painter Richard Cohen works with soft pastels in the studio of his Amherst home. He took up pastels about 20 years ago and found the medium “love at first try.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Painter Richard Cohen works with soft pastels in the studio of his Amherst home. He took up pastels about 20 years ago and found the medium “love at first try.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Painter Richard Cohen works with soft pastels in the studio of his Amherst home. He took up pastels about 20 years ago and found the medium “love at first try.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A pastel landscape by painter Richard Cohen Image by Penny Leveritt/courtesy Richard Cohen

  • Pastel landscape by painter Richard Cohen. Image by Penny Leveritt/courtesy Richard Cohen

Published: 12/5/2019 5:33:33 PM
Modified: 12/5/2019 5:33:21 PM

Amherst artist Richard Cohen, a native of 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 City and encouraged him to develop his own work in sculpture, watercolors and photography.

Then about 20 years ago, Cohen says, his younger daughter, then a high school student studying art, suggested he try working with pastels. It was “love at first try,” he says: “[P]astels have the benefit of simplicity, convenience and versatility.  There is immediate contact of the pastel stick with the paper, which makes it seem like an extension of your fingers.” It’s also a medium, Cohen notes, that lends itself well to painting his favorite subject: nature.  

Hampshire Life: Talk about the work you’re currently doing. What does it involve, and what are you trying to achieve?

Richard Cohen: I’ve recently been trying to achieve a better sense of “mood” and “atmosphere” in my paintings, with emphasis on subtle lighting.  It’s trickier than it appears. I met with my teacher, Kathleen Galligan, in Maine in September and spent a lot of time talking about techniques to achieve atmosphere. I’m now in the process of experimenting with those techniques. 

HL: What do you draw inspiration from? 

RC: I love to canoe, hike, run or do almost anything outside, so I draw inspiration from the beauty and serenity of the natural world. 

HL: How do you know when your work is finished?

RC: One of the hardest judgment calls is to know when to stop. I’ve often been tempted to exaggerate light in the sky or some other features to make the painting more dramatic or complex. More often than not, that kind of effort will backfire. As a rule, less is more.

That said, I will generally keep a painting I considered finished in my studio, unframed, and occasionally go back and tweak it. I’ve even taken paintings out of their frames to make minor changes. Part of me thinks any painting can be improved, that paintings should always be in process. Fortunately, I eventually get to a point where I feel it’s as good as it’s going to get and I move on, despite any lingering imperfections.

HL: Name two artists you admire or who have influenced your work. 

RC: I love Maxfield Parrish’s landscapes. He was a master of technique and composition. Also, he succeeded in capturing nuances in light better than almost any other modern artist. I also admire Rockwell Kent, who had a clear and simple vision for his work.

HL: What’s your go-to snack while you’re working?

RC: One of the first things I was told, during my first pastel class, was never to eat while working with pastels.

HL: Do you listen to music while you’re working? What kind?

RC: Yes, always. My preference is Celtic instrumental music. The repetitions and patterns in this genre 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?

RC: There are generally two situations where I might get stuck, including at the beginning. It can be a bit paralyzing to start a painting, with a blank sheet of paper staring me in the face. There are an infinite number of subjects to paint in an infinite number of ways. One approach is to impulsively put colors down on the paper (surprisingly often, a design will emerge from that chaos), and the other is to back away and tweak another painting already in progress. Once I’ve gathered some momentum from that exercise, I can return to the blank paper and dive in.  

While it’s relatively rare, I can also get stuck in the middle of a painting. I may even be making good progress and then realize there’s something missing or “off” on the composition, but not be able to put my finger on it.  If it starts getting frustrating, I’ll take the paper off the easel and put it aside, then revisit the painting every few days until I resolve the problem.

— Steve Pfarrer

Richard Cohen’s “Exploring Light, Dark and Color,” an exhibit of pastel landscapes, is on view at the Jewish Community of Amherst, 742 Main St., through Jan. 30, 2020. Normal gallery hours are Tuesday-Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or by appointment.




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