Diane Rosen And Her Figurative Visual Language

I am THRILLED to introduce you to this month’s guest, Diane Rosen. I’ve been a huge fan of her work for years and so I held my breath as I reached out to invite her to guest post. She graciously accepted and I did a happy dance!

Diane’s work always has me asking questions. Her figures (generally women it seems) are so much more than traditional representations of the human body. They move towards abstraction, with focus on shape, texture, and design. They are often severely cropped and set in ambiguous contexts. With the uncertainty and tension we can feel, the paintings beg us to ask bigger questions beyond the metaphor and meaning of what’s being shown to us, questions about ourselves and our place in the world, questions about current social issues, questions about our relationship to our bodies. 

I wrote about one of Diane’s paintings (you’ll see it below) in one of my monthly round-up.

Don’t know her work? Have a peek!

Diane Rosen, “Pivot,” 2010, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39×27 in. SOLD. This limited-palette composition aimed for harmonies of shape and rhythmic flow of line and form in overall asymmetric balance.

Before I hand you over to Diane, first a bit about her.

Diane Rosen Bio

DIANE ROSEN, a New York-based artist, studied at the Art Students League, Columbia University, and in Paris on a French Government Painting Fellowship. She exhibits widely, and her award-winning work has been featured in publications such as The Pastel Journal, American Artist, and the book, Pure Color: the Best of Pastel. She has taught studio art privately and at Parsons School of Design/The New School in New York and is the author of numerous articles on creativity and the creative process. An elected Master Pastelist of the Pastel Society of America, Diane is listed in Who’s Who of American Women and Who’s Who in American Art.  You can see more of her work on her website.

Take it away Diane!

~~~~~

Thank you so much, Gail, for the opportunity to share my art with your readers! I’m honored to be your guest blogger this month. 

As an art student, I never questioned that my visual language was figurative, specifically the figure: the most familiar and yet mysterious subject. To convincingly depict the embodied form and convey a sense of interior life was a thrilling goal. So I studied anatomy, drew from life till my fingers cramped, and put it all into practice while learning to paint. One day another student, a strict abstractionist, casually remarked that it was “a shame you need the crutch of figures in your work.” A crutch? To be honest, the comment triggered self-doubt and serious reflection: Is the figure really an outdated pictorial trope? Is pure abstraction the “right” path? Should I reevaluate my aesthetic priorities? 

Diane Rosen, "Exeunt Omnes," 2021, assorted soft pastels, acrylic paint, and collage on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39x27 in. The title is a theatrical direction meaning all actors leave the stage. Along with the shredded mask, it refers to exiting Covid confinement and returning to more normal life. Concept and title came first, leading me to search for a figure in motion as my subject.Diane Rosen, “Exeunt Omnes,” 2021, assorted soft pastels, acrylic paint, and collage on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39×27 in. The title is a theatrical direction meaning all actors leave the stage. Along with the shredded mask, it refers to exiting Covid confinement and returning to more normal life. Concept and title came first, leading me to search for a figure in motion as my subject.

That random encounter ultimately had a very positive outcome. For one, it helped me confirm my path as a figurative artist. Figuration and abstraction are equally valid means of expression, but I knew where I felt creatively at home. More interestingly, I also realized that if you substitute the word composition for abstraction, this was already a huge part of what motivated my art, and still does: relationships of values, color, line and form, spatial organization, proportion, pattern symmetry/ asymmetry, and so on. It’s worth noting, too, that historically dominant styles inevitably shift with changes in the art market and prevailing critical taste. In a difficult moment turned serendipitous, I learned an important lesson: trust your own creative voice.

Diane Rosen, "Instructions Not Included," 2020, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39x27 in. In the compressed space of a vaguely literal interior, this figure represents the existential dilemma of having many questions in life but few definite answers.Diane Rosen, “Instructions Not Included,” 2020, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39×27 in. In the compressed space of a vaguely literal interior, this figure represents the existential dilemma of having many questions in life but few definite answers.

Pastels took me by surprise. Initially, I worked in oils while studying with Dan Greene at the Art Students League in New York City. Greene, a brilliant pastelist, also periodically did class demos in pastel. Watching him work with rich, pure color and bold line, I discovered that this tactile, versatile medium not only offers seemingly infinite possibilities, it perfectly suited my twin passions: drawing and painting. I was intrigued, and then hooked!

Inspiration

After art school I was fortunate to win a French Government Fellowship in Painting for my pastel work, allowing me to live and paint in Paris for a year. When not in the studio I was at the Louvre or other museums absorbing every Degas I could find. His sublime draftsmanship, unexpected use of color in flesh tones, inventive pastel techniques, and unconventional approach to composition remain an ongoing source of inspiration for me. 

Diane Rosen, "Discontinuous Present," 2021, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39x27 in. The bird's eye view was a challenge in perspective. To heighten the dramatic effect of a shadow in the source photo, I emphasized its shape and painted it in rich ultramarine and prussian blues.Diane Rosen, “Discontinuous Present,” 2021, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39×27 in. The bird’s eye view was a challenge in perspective. To heighten the dramatic effect of a shadow in the source photo, I emphasized its shape and painted it in rich ultramarine and prussian blues.

Like many 19th century French artists, Degas was fascinated with Japanese Ukiyo-e prints– “pictures of the floating world”– featuring scenes from everyday life. These relatively small woodblock prints included voyeuristic depictions of women bathing, combing their hair, applying makeup, and other domestic scenes. Degas transformed this style into images of women à la toilette, shopkeepers, dancers straining to hold difficult or awkward positions, idle prostitutes lounging around. Their uneasy or distracted poses have a deeply visceral effect, imbuing even ordinary subjects with an underlying psychological tension.

Diane Rosen, "Anonym," 2021, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 24x18 in. Drip marks and lightly brushed paint echo folds and flow of semi-transparent fabric. The headless subject remains intentionally ambiguous.Diane Rosen, “Anonym,” 2021, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 24×18 in. Drip marks and lightly brushed paint echo folds and flow of semi-transparent fabric. The headless subject remains intentionally ambiguous.

Ukiyo-e most likely also influenced Degas’ frequent use of decentralized composition, extreme perspective, and radical cropping that enhance an edgy pictorial energy and the feeling of implied movement. This dynamic aspect of his work has had a strong impact on how I approach composition.

Composition

I rarely do separate preliminarily drawings for specific paintings, but there’s definitely a preparatory phase! Over the years I’ve taken hundreds of photos of models (with their permission, of course!) and now have a huge archive of 4×6 inch images. When starting a new piece I’ll have a sense of the type of pose I want– open or closed, active or relaxed, standing or reclining etc. Also, I might search for images that convey a particular thought or emotion I’m preoccupied with at the time. 

Diane Rosen, "Spiked," 2021, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media paper, 27x20 in. Based on one of many photos from sessions with an inspiring model.Diane Rosen, “Spiked,” 2021, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media paper, 27×20 in. Based on one of many photos from sessions with an inspiring model.

Sifting through many photos, a few will resonate with my general idea. I photocopy these, cut the figures out, then arrange and rearrange them without regard to actual backgrounds or spatial constraints. When this looks/feels right, the cutouts are taped onto a small sheet of paper, and, voilà: what I call a photo-sketch appears. 

Diane Rosen, "Intently Watching," Reference photos Figs.1 & 2Diane Rosen, “Intently Watching,” Reference photos Figs.1 & 2
Diane Rosen, "Intently Watching," Cutouts as photo-sketch with Fig. 1 flipped horizontally, 4x6 in.Diane Rosen, “Intently Watching,” Cutouts as photo-sketch with Fig. 1 flipped horizontally, 4×6 in.

With this for reference, I use soft charcoal to draw directly onto my pastel paper, usually a 39×27 inch sheet. If the image doesn’t work at the larger scale, or just isn’t satisfying for whatever reason, I wipe off parts or all of it and start over. This happens a lot! The photo-sketch is a starting point, but many adjustments are made while drawing and re-drawing on the actual painting surface.   

Diane Rosen, "Intently Watching," 2012, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39x27 in. A rhythmic interplay of shapes anchors figures in the pictorial space but their gaze is far outside the frame.Diane Rosen, “Intently Watching,” 2012, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39×27 in. A rhythmic interplay of shapes anchors figures in the pictorial space but their gaze is far outside the frame.

I tend to spend a long time on this part of the process, repeatedly roughing in and modifying line/form and figure/ground until relationships feel resolved. Similar to basic formalist techniques, it’s an approach that in my opinion applies to all good composition, whether abstract or figurative. This puzzle-solving aspect of composing can be frustrating, but it’s also exciting and motivating. 

Diane Rosen, "Drift," Cutouts as photo-sketch, 4x6 in.Diane Rosen, “Drift,” Cutouts as photo-sketch, 4×6 in.
Diane Rosen, "Drift," 2017, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39x27 in. SOLD. Time and perspective are replaced by free interplay of forms that assert their own sense of relative distance and movement. Hot orange-red lines of pastel energize the forms.Diane Rosen, “Drift,” 2017, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39×27 in. SOLD. Time and perspective are replaced by free interplay of forms that assert their own sense of relative distance and movement. Hot orange-red lines of pastel energize the forms.

Whether a composition includes one figure or more, the same process applies. I love the challenge of balancing vital elements of figurative realism and essentially abstract qualities of shape, pattern, and rhythm. Linear perspective is often replaced by a free interplay of near and far, suggesting a space and place beyond logical experience. What interests me is creating environments that shift from clear to uncertain, rational to intuitive, predictable to open-ended, and situating figures within these ambiguous settings. 

Mixing It Up

My preferred paper is a rough-textured, neutral pH (acid free) Murillo Fabriano 360gsm. The lightly sized surface makes it suitable for mixing dry and wet media, which I almost always do to add visual interest. In a loose, playful way, I spatter and drip acrylic paint thinned with water over the entire charcoal sketch, positive and negative areas alike. The resulting mottled patterns are random, though I may decide along the way to fling more paint at certain sections of the composition. 

Diane Rosen, "Quaranta Giorni," 2020, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39x27 in. From the Italian root of our word quarantine: quaranta (forty) and giorni (days), expressing a sense of isolation during the pandemic, and in general.Diane Rosen, “Quaranta Giorni,” 2020, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39×27 in. From the Italian root of our word quarantine: quaranta (forty) and giorni (days), expressing a sense of isolation during the pandemic, and in general.

Any drop, drizzle or streak of paint can turn out to matter in ways I couldn’t have foreseen, so incorporating even this small element of chance evokes surprises that enrich the process for me.

Diane Rosen, "Dark Roots," 2018, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media paper, 27x20 in. SOLD. When layers of pastel completely obscured underlying patterns, I splattered acrylic over the figure and painted negative space solid black to create a silhouette effect.Diane Rosen, “Dark Roots,” 2018, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media paper, 27×20 in. SOLD. When layers of pastel completely obscured underlying patterns, I splattered acrylic over the figure and painted negative space solid black to create a silhouette effect.

A Progression

‘Anima Mundi’ is Greek for world soul, a vital force intrinsically connecting all living things on the planet. As the title of this painting, it’s meant to signify complementarity, a duality that is also a single interdependent entity. Similar to the Zen concept of yin-yang, this both-and perspective replaces traditional either-or dichotomies with other inherent, more organic kinds of equilibrium. 

My photo-sketch indicated relative positioning of the two figures, but several things changed in the charcoal sketch including the amount of cropping. I’ve always enjoyed doing portraits, but when painting figure compositions I frequently crop faces extensively as I did here. This helps move the viewer’s eye through the whole composition instead of staying fixed on the strong pull that faces can exert. 

Diane Rosen, “Anima Mundi,” Reference photo 2, 6×4 in.
Diane Rosen, "Anima Mundi," Reference photo 1, 6x4 in.Diane Rosen, “Anima Mundi,” Reference photo 1, 6×4 in.
Diane Rosen, "Anima Mundi," Cutouts as photo-sketch, 6x4 in.Diane Rosen, “Anima Mundi,” Cutouts as photo-sketch, 6×4 in.

Working over the entire surface I blocked in shadow-shapes first, not necessarily differentiating between figures and ground where darks were contiguous; then moving on to lights and mid-tones. At this early stage I use Nupastels because these harder sticks don’t immediately fill the paper’s tooth. From here, a variety of soft pastels — Sennelier, Rembrandt and Holbein — take center stage. As I worked on this piece, much of the prior splashing was covered by pastel, but still it helped suggest the flattened perspective and intentionally ambiguous realm inhabited by the figures. 

ANIMA MUNDI is one example of the ongoing back-and-forth process that occurs in developing each of my paintings.

Diane Rosen, “Anima Mundi,” 2018, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39×27 in. The title means psyche or world soul, a nod to all things being connected. Liberal use of overlapping pastel marks help unify figure and ground both in shadows and at edges in the light. Received First Place/PSA Founders Award, 2018 Pastel Society Annual, National Arts Club, New York City.

(This is the painting I wrote about in my Monthly roundup. You can read about here.)

Portraits

Capturing faces and hands, those revealing, ever-mobile aspects of human anatomy, has always appealed to me: how to distill unique qualities into line, form and color that convey something genuine about an individual. I’ve completed many portrait commissions and enjoyed doing that for a while. But eventually, I left it behind in favor of my “personal pantheon” series of portraits. These are imagined pairings of visionary artists and/or writers whom I greatly admire, like Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett or Georgia O’Keefe and Egon Schiele. 

Diane Rosen, "I can't go on/ Woolf & Beckett," 2020, assorted soft pastels, acrylic paint and collage on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 19x26 in. SOLD. To portray an introspective Virginia Woolf and defiant Samuel Beckett, I featured their faces in a stark composition that includes collaged print fragments of a line from Beckett's novel, The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.” From Personal Pantheon series, portraits of artists I admire.Diane Rosen, “I can’t go on/ Woolf & Beckett,” 2020, assorted soft pastels, acrylic paint and collage on Canson Mi-Teintes paper, 19×26 in. SOLD. To portray an introspective Virginia Woolf and defiant Samuel Beckett, I featured their faces in a stark composition that includes collaged print fragments of a line from Beckett’s novel, The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” From Personal Pantheon series, portraits of artists I admire.
Diane Rosen, "Agents Provocateurs/ O'Keefe & Schiele," 2021, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Canson Mi-Teintes paper 19x26 in. Angular patterns of acrylic paint emphasize the artists' incredible hands; background colors echo their saturated palettes. From my Personal Pantheon series of portraits, depicting artists who inspire me.Diane Rosen, “Agents Provocateurs/ O’Keefe & Schiele,” 2021, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Canson Mi-Teintes paper 19×26 in. Angular patterns of acrylic paint emphasize the artists’ incredible hands; background colors echo their saturated palettes. From my Personal Pantheon series of portraits, depicting artists who inspire me.

Despite their having had no connections in real life, in my mind, they are linked by intense resolve and astonishing creative power.  

A Dynamic Process

I think of painting as a type of self-organizing (autopoietic) system, with order emerging from disorder through dynamics that can’t be fully understood or explained. This is absolutely not to say that paintings can’t be planned, that skills need not be honed, or that there are no guidelines to be considered! Rather, I believe that all organic change — including how paintings evolve — is fueled to some extent by processes beyond conscious awareness or control. And hooray for that! 

Diane Rosen, "Noncompliance," 2021, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo per, 39x27 in. The title refers both to my explicit use of abstract shapes in a figurative work, and the subject's implied attitude of resistance to conformity.Diane Rosen, “Noncompliance,” 2021, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo per, 39×27 in. The title refers both to my explicit use of abstract shapes in a figurative work, and the subject’s implied attitude of resistance to conformity.

Openness to the unexpected and a willingness to build on accidents invigorate the painting process. I’m making decisions and choices, of course, but chance factors also contribute to generating anything new.

This approach underlies my work and practice; it’s reflected in my choice of subjects, how each work is begun, and how the process unfolds. Regardless of any personal viewpoints that launch new work, each painting hopefully contains as many independent meanings as there are viewers who see it.

Diane Rosen, "Sheltering In," 2020, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 24x18 in. Another image created during the pandemic.Diane Rosen, “Sheltering In,” 2020, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 24×18 in. Another image created during the pandemic.

*****

I don’t know about you but ohhhhhh my, did I ever love reading about and seeing how Diane Rosen composes and creates her work. Her process is unusual, at least, I haven’t seen this way of putting figures together in a composition before.

One other thing I’d like to bring to your attention: many of these paintings are large!!

I hope you enjoyed Diane’s guest post as much as I did. And now it’s your turn! What’s your biggest WOW moment? I’d love to hear from you and I’m sure Diane feels the same way so if you have any thoughts, opinions, or questions, please do leave them as a comment. So look forward to hearing what you think (and feel!) about Diane’s work.

Until next time,

~ Gail

And because I can’t help myself, here’s one more image from artist Diane Rosen…

Diane Rosen, "Hierarchies of Perception," 2014, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39x27 in. Here I wanted to explore rendering texture, space and dimensionality with the interaction between acrylic paint patterns and minimal application of pastel.Diane Rosen, “Hierarchies of Perception,” 2014, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on Fabriano Murillo paper, 39×27 in. Here I wanted to explore rendering texture, space and dimensionality with the interaction between acrylic paint patterns and minimal application of pastel.

PS. Notes on the Feature Image at the start of the blog:

Diane Rosen, “Möbius Redux,” 2021, assorted soft pastels and acrylic paint on two joined sheets of Fabriano Murillo paper, 27×42 in. In mathematics the Möbius strip is an infinite loop featuring a one-sided surface without boundaries; here it symbolizes infinity and unity. Received the Blick Art Materials Award, 2021 Pastel Society Annual, National Arts Club, New York City.