Category Archives: Pastel Painting

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress
“Poker Face,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

A: I continue working on “Enigma,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20” x 26.” The title for this piece suggested itself as I was driving to my house in Alexandria, VA. I was listening to Lady Gaga’s current album, “Chromatica.” Her song “Enigma” came on and I thought, “That’s a great title for my painting because some areas of the ‘face’ are my own personal enigma!” They’re rather dark in my reference photo so I don’t yet understand what is happening there visually. But I will figure it out. I always do!

This is the second time I have titled a pastel painting based on a Lady Gaga song. It was “Poker Face,” from her debut album “The Fame.” My painting, “Poker Face,” was completed in 2012 and is number 24/45 in the “Black Paintings” series.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

"Us and Them," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38" image, 60" x 50" framed

“Us and Them,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″ image, 60″ x 50″ framed

A:  On September 11, 2001, my husband Bryan, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist (with an IQ of 180 he is the smartest man I have ever known) and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterrey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College. He had the horrible misfortune of flying out of Dulles Airport and boarding the plane that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people. Losing Bryan was the biggest shock of my life and devastating in every possible way.

The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work. Learning about photography and pastel painting became avenues to my well-being. I use reference photos for my paintings, so my first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera (Bryan always took these reference photos for me).

In July 2002 I enrolled in a one-week view camera workshop at the International Center of Photography in New York. Much to my surprise, I had already acquired substantial technical knowledge from watching Bryan. Still, after the initial workshop, I threw myself into this new medium and continued studying photography at ICP for several years. I began with Photography I and enrolled in many more classes until I gradually learned how to use Bryan’s extensive camera collection, to properly light my setups, and to print large chromogenic photographs in a darkroom.

In October 2009 it was very gratifying to have my first solo photography exhibition with HP Garcia in New York. Please see http://barbararachko.art/images/PDFS/ BarbaraRachko-HPGargia.pdf. I vividly remember tearing up at the opening as I imagined Bryan looking down at me with his beautiful smile, beaming as he surely would have, so proud of me for having become a respected photographer.

Continuing to make art had seemed an impossibility after Bryan’s death. However, the first large pastel painting that I created using a self-made reference photograph proved my life’s work could continue. The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” is certainly autobiographical. “She” is me, and “it” means continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What kind of art do you create?

At work

At work

A:  I live in the West Village in New York City and have been a working artist for thirty-four years. I create original pastel paintings that use my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, and toys – as subject matter. Blending with my fingers, I spend months painstakingly applying dozens of layers of soft pastel onto acid-free sandpaper. My self-invented technique achieves extraordinarily rich, vibrant color and results in paintings that uniquely combine reality, fantasy, and autobiography. Please see https://barbararachko.art/en/

For the last three years I have been working on a series called, “Bolivianos,” based on an exhibition of Carnival masks seen in La Paz. Art critics and others have said that these are my strongest pastel paintings so far. As I write I am working on the fifteenth piece in the series.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I’m continuing to work on a 58” x 38” pastel painting.  The title is not definite yet, although I do have two that I am considering.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How many days a week do you work on your art?

Working on “Jokester”

At work

A:  My life is devoted to art and to art-making.  Working in pastel is slow and labor-intensive – in a good year I make four or five pastel paintings – so maintaining good work habits is imperative.  As a fulltime professional artist, I strive to  keep regular studio hours.  I work five days a week, roughly seven hours a day.

However, running the business side of things is an every day activity:  marketing, interviews, applying for exhibitions, making photographs, documenting my professional activities, sending JPEGs, responding to inquiries, etc.  There is always something to do!

Comments are welcome!   

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I recently started a new 26” x 20” pastel painting that is number 16 in the “Bolivianos” series.  More about this work at

https://barbararachko.art/en/paintings/bolivianos

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 416

"Acolytes," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Acolytes,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

The young man was experiencing that profound emotion which has stirred the hearts of all great artists when, in the prime of youth and their love of art, they approach a man of genius or stand in the presence of a masterpiece.  There is a first bloom in all human feelings, the result of a noble enthusiasm which gradually fades till happiness is no more than a memory, glory a lie.  Among such fragile sentiments, none so resembles love as the youthful passion of an artist first suffering that initial delicious torture which will be his destiny of glory and woe, a passion brimming with boldness and fear, vague hopes and inevitable frustrations.  The youth who, short of cash but long of talent, fails to tremble upon first encountering a master, must always lack at least one heartstring, some sensitivity in his brushstroke, a certain poetic expressiveness.  There may be concerned boasters prematurely convinced that the future is theirs, but only fools believe them.  In this regard, the young stranger seemed to possess true merit, if talent is to be measured by that initial shyness and that indefinable humility which a man destined for glory is likely to lose in the exercise of his art, as a pretty woman loses hers in the stratagems of coquetry.  The habit of triumph diminishes doubt, and humility may be a kind of doubt.         

Honore Balzac in The Unknown Masterpiece

Comments are welcome!

Q: Is the relationship to your studio about a HABIT you created for working – the sequence of reading, looking, then working? (Question from Nancy Nikkal)

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Yes, I suppose you could say that reading, looking, and then working are habits that get me started on what I will be doing for the day.  If I may quote from my blog:  

https://barbararachkoscoloreddust.com/2012/09/15/q-you-seem-very-disciplined-do-you-ever-have-a-day-when-you-just-cant-get-excited-about-working/

Comments are welcome!

Q: I understand your comments to mean that being at the studio challenges you to be your best. How (why) do you think that works? (Question from Nancy Nikkal)

"Avenger," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“Avenger,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A: I am always trying to push my pastel techniques further, seeking to figure out new ways to render my subject matter, expanding my technical vocabulary. It would be monotonous to keep working the same old way.  Wasn’t it John Baldessari who said, “No more boring art?”  He was talking about art that’s boring to look at.  Well, as someone who CREATES art I don’t want to be bored during the making so I keep challenging myself.  I love learning, in general, and I especially love learning new things about soft pastel.

Very often I start a project because I have no idea how to depict some particular subject using pastel.  For example, one of the reasons I undertook “Avenger” was to challenge myself to render all of that hair!  Eventually I managed to figure it out and I learned a few new techniques in the process.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Are pastel paintings easy to care for?

With “Poseur,” 70” x 50” Framed

With “Poseur,” 70” x 50” Framed

A:  Yes, they are.  I have used only the finest archival and lightfast materials to create and frame them because I want them to last.  Here are some instructions.  

Always treat pastel paintings with the utmost care.  Avoid bumping and other sorts of rough handling.   

Pastel paintings should be kept face up at all times, especially when they are being transported long distances. Use an art shipper and ensure they are familiar with the requirement to ship the work flat and face up.

Never hang pastel paintings (or any art!) in direct sunlght!  Sunlight makes colors fade over time.  Also, moisture droplets can form on the inside of the Plexiglas.  When they dry, it leaves marks.

Use a soft cloth and Plexiglas cleaner to dust off the glazing.  Never use Windex on Plexiglas.  

That’s it!  

If you have questions, please contact me at brachko@erols.com. 

Comments are welcome!  

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