James Kasperek’s graphic design skills — and a dark painting surface — inform his expressive, light-filled pastels.
By Tamera Lenz Muente
In the cool light of dawn, flames illuminate a hot-air balloon. Warm squares of color like a fiery patchwork quilt glow against a blue-gray sky. The rainbow shells of two deflated balloons lie in the grass, their baskets overturned to reveal their dark interiors. The image suggests a striking before-and-after. The empty balloons unfurled on the ground, and the upright balloon, its heated bulk lighter than air.
James Kasperek remembers this morning as a moment when he faced his fear of heights. He and his wife had received a hot-air balloon ride as an anniversary gift the year before; he finally had built up the nerve to take the flight. When he saw the balloon’s glow just before the first light of day, he took several photographs of the scene for paintings, including Early Riser. “I was a little anxious when we reached about 3,000 feet,” he recalls. “But the feeling as we came back down, floating silently just a couple hundred feet over farm fields, was amazing.”
Getting into a hot-air balloon was a gutsy move for someone who fears heights. Kasperek’s painting style is bold, as well. He applies pure colors in confident, chunky strokes on dark paper. The resulting pastels possess a strength and immediacy that stand out in a medium often known for blended, layered color, and soft edges.
Design, Light, and Color
Kasperek’s work spans a range of subjects, from landscape to still life, from figures to florals. But, he says, “I focus not so much on subject matter, but more on design, light, and color.” These interests are evident whether he’s painting poppies, foxglove, or daylilies from his perennial garden; golden trees along a road in autumn; long, blue shadows on a snowy hill; or the repeating white patches on the faces of cows standing in a row in a pasture.
It’s easy to see how the skills necessary for his design career have informed his pastels. Kasperek works full-time as a senior graphic designer at a major defense firm. Yet he still finds time to paint regularly on his own. “Although working in design is very creative,” he says, “the framework and constraints of corporate needs can be quite demanding. Deadlines can be tough.” He continues, “I feel fortunate to have both types of art in my life. Seeing artistic projects — whether business or personal — from concept to finish is very rewarding.”
The Perfect Blend
About 40 years ago, Kasperek studied fine art at the Columbus College for Art and Design, in Ohio, and at the Center for Creative Studies, in Detroit. As a student, he began using graphite and charcoal. He then moved on to color, eventually settling on pastels in the ’80s. “My early work in pencil and charcoal was highly rendered, with a strong emphasis on value and modeling,” he says. “As I moved into oil, my style became looser. I grew more interested in color and the placement of shapes. I loved the texture and surfaces I could achieve, but found drying time frustrating.”
He continued trying different media, but couldn’t get the richness of color he was after with watercolor, gouache, or acrylic. “Because I always had loved to draw and was more comfortable with a pencil than a brush in my hand, I moved into colored pencil.” He tried working on textured linen surfaces with Prismacolor pencils, but gradually wanted to work larger with more expression and intensity of color. “So, I moved into pastels,” says Kasperek. “They were the perfect blend of drawing and painting for me.”
Working From Dark to Light
Kasperek begins most of his pastels with a photography session. “I take several photos of my subject and crop, color-correct, and sometimes manipulate objects to my desired composition in Photoshop.” He then prints the photos at approximately 8×10 inches.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Kasperek’s method is the painting surface — he uses Richeson’s 140-lb. Premium Pastel Surface in black almost exclusively. “Working out from a black surface comes from my early years of oil painting,” he says. “I was taught to first tone down the white canvas by applying washes of dark, neutral values and bring the painting out from dark to light. When I first started experimenting with pastel, I naturally sought out darker colored papers and eventually settled on pure black.”
He begins his pastels by quickly sketching his composition in vine charcoal on the paper. “Even though it’s black charcoal going over black paper, the drawing stands out enough for me to see it and then basically disappears beneath the pastel.”
He then starts to apply his preferred Sennelier soft pastels. “I work very deliberately, with little or no blending, going after my middle tones first, while leaving the black of the paper as my darkest darks,” he says. “Once I establish the backbone of the painting, I’ll then go in and place my lighter values, all the while consider- ing balance of shape, movement and color. The Sennelier pastels offer a beautiful, rich color range. I love the way they feel — and how they jump out from the black surface.”
Although Kasperek typically works from photos, his pastels often appear gestural and intuitive. “Once I’ve determined a subject that interests me, I’m not big on a lot of pre-planning or pre- liminary sketching,” he says. “I’m usually quite anxious to start moving ahead quickly after
I sketch the movement and composition in vine charcoal. My favorite part of the creative pro- cess is building up the piece rhythmically with value, shape and color.”
He finds some parallels between his working style and music. “Music inspires me, particularly jazz,” he says. “I find my approach to art similar to a jazz musician’s approach to a performance. You go into it well-trained in theory and composition. You not only know what works harmonically, but also how to play outside the melody and improvise. Jazz musicians converse with one another as the piece progresses and transforms itself.
“For me, a painting starts with a sketch and an idea of where I want it to go, but I relish the point in the process when I can improvise and react to what the composition, color and medium are saying back to me.”
Kasperek also likes for viewers to be part of this improvisational process. “The most challenging aspect of my work is knowing when to stop,” the artist says. “I strive to say just enough for the viewer to feel what I’ve felt about the subject, while still leaving it fresh, loose and open for individual interpretation.”
Subjects Near and Far
Whether portraying subjects from his home state of Michigan or from places he visits such as Mexico and the United Kingdom, Kasperek embraces rhythm and improvisation while also paying close attention to design. In Impression: Street Market, he used bold marks of colors across the spectrum to depict the intense midday light at a market in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The wires above patrons’ heads and the receding lines of the street build a structure that holds the brilliant patches of color together while leading our eye through the market.
In Flags at Samye Ling, Kasperek revels in the repeated colorful shapes of Buddhist prayer flags against a dark backdrop of trees at a monastery in Scotland. The loosely handled pastel creates a sense of movement, as if the flags are flapping in the breeze.
An interior scene from the same location, Mia at Samye Ling, is a vivid portrait of Kasperek’s daughter, but also serves as his homage to the monastery’s tea room in which cobalt blues mingle with yellow-oranges and cadmium reds. “Travel has always been a positive influence on my work,” he says. “Differences in landscape, people and culture naturally give me a fresh way of looking at the world.”
Shape Meets Color
Closer to home, Kasperek captures the light and color of the flowers in his perennial garden. “It’s a continual source I go back to, with such great color and plays on light and dark,” he says. “Since it’s right outside my door, I can see it in various stages of changing light throughout the day.” He constructs these pastels by interweaving various shapes that lead the eye around the composition.
In Phlox and Daylilies, for example, the artist laid down lavender, blue and pink pastel to form the rounded heads of the phlox in the foreground. For a moment, it’s as if we stand close enough to touch the flowers. From the top of the phlox, elongated strokes of green end at angular orange daylily buds. The buds point to the horizon, taking us back into distant space. The tree line leads the eye to the right and back to the lily stems, which returns us to the phlox. The composition builds a dynamic circle that keeps the viewer exploring the scene.
In Foxglove and Poppies, towering pink forms begin large in the foreground, almost filling the height of the surface from bottom to top. They gradually get smaller as they recede into the background, creating a sense of space without much of a visible horizon line within the foliage-heavy confines of a mature garden. The contrast of the rosy spear-shaped blossoms against the dark shadowy trees develops an atmosphere of bright summer light. Like the colorful shapes in Flags at Samye Ling, the repeated forms of flowers become a design element that provides constant visual interest and adds depth from foreground to background.
Kasperek’s versatility proves that when inspiration strikes — and an artist has a strong command of the elements of design — vibrant and compelling paintings can be made about subjects on the other side of the globe as well as in one’s own backyard.
Meet the Artist
James Kasperek, of Romeo, Mich., studied fine art at the Columbus College for Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, and at the Center for Creative Studies, in Detroit. He’s a senior graphic designer for a major defense firm, but has spent almost 40 years painting in various media. His work recently placed in the Animal & Wildlife category of the 18th Annual Pastel 100 Competition. Learn more about him at jameskasperek.com.
Tamera Lenz Muente is associate curator for the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati.
You may also like: