Category Archives: Working methods

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

A: I continue slowly working on a 26” x 20” pastel painting that has given me plenty of problems, mostly on the ‘face.’ Hopefully, this painting is in the homestretch now.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you speak about the creative process that resulted in your 1994 pastel painting, “Amok”?

Barbara with “Amok” photo and painting
Barbara with “Amok,” c-print and pastel painting

A: Behind me in the photo above is one of my circa 1994 50” x 40” c-prints, signed by both Bryan, my late husband, and me. The photo was my reference for a pastel painting titled, “Amok” (right, above).

I staged these photos in our Alexandria house (staged photography was popular then), refined the composition over days or weeks, and lit the scene using two tungsten studio lights. I was careful to accentuate the shadows, doing what I could to light everything as though it were a film noir set. (Film noir is still a favorite movie genre of mine).

In those days I knew nothing about photography so I considered these photos collaborations, since Bryan clicked the shutter. (He typically shot two pieces of film using his old Toyo Omega 4 x 5 view camera with a rented wide angle lens). Bryan was reluctant to take any credit- insisting that the idea, concept, etc. were mine – but I persuaded him to also sign the photos. (How I wish he were still around to fill in forgotten details about our collaboration).

People enjoyed and often asked to purchase the reference photos so I sometimes had them enlarged and sold them. The dragon in the foreground is significant because it was my first purchase in Oaxaca during our initial trip to Mexico.

If anyone is interested, please remind me to tell the (long) story about how I got it home on the plane!  

Comments are welcome!

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: Walk us through your “typical day”?

Barbara at work on “Schemer,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 26” x 20”

Barbara at work on “Schemer,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 26” x 20”

A:  I’ll describe a typical day at the studio.  When I first arrive in the morning, I read for 30 minutes. Reading focuses and quiets my mind and gets me ready to begin the day’s work.  While I read, I look at the pastel painting that’s on my easel to see where to begin.  Then I close the book, turn on some music, plug in the Halogen lamps I use while working, apply a barrier cream to my hands, put on a surgical mask (to avoid breathing pastel dust), pick up a pastel, and start.   

I never sit while working.  I enjoy the physicality of art-making and prefer to stand at my easel so I can back up to see how the pastel painting looks from a distance.  I like being on my feet all day and getting some exercise.  I work for a couple of hours, break for lunch, and then work the rest of the afternoon.

I believe artists need to be disciplined.  I work five days a week, taking Wednesdays and Sundays off, and spend seven hours or more per day in the studio.  Daylight is essential so I work more hours in summer, fewer in winter.  I like to think of art-making as independent of time tables, but I tend to work in roughly two-hour blocks before taking a break.  I typically work until 5:00 or so.

Studio hours are sacrosanct and exclusively for creative work.  I do not have WiFi at my studio and prefer to keep my computer and mobile devices elsewhere (they devour time).  Art business activities – answering email, keeping up with social media, sending jpegs, writing blog posts, doing interviews, etc. – are accomplished at home in the mornings, in the evenings, and on days off from the studio.

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: 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: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  Amidst the noisy construction happening next door,  I continue slowly working on “Jokester” (tentative title), soft pastel on sandpaper, 58” x 38.”  I’ve just begun to add stripes into the shirt.

It is the fifteenth piece in the “Bolivianos” series.  Read more about this work at https://barbararachko.art/en/paintings/bolivianos

Comments are welcome!

(My blog turns 8 years old on July 15! As I have done for past anniversaries, I am republishing the very first post from July 15, 2012.) Q: What does it take to be an artist, especially one living and working in New York?

Barbara's Studio (in 2012) with works in progress

Barbara’s Studio (in 2012) with works in progress.

A:  The three Big P’s – Patience, Persistence, and Passion.  Without all three you will not have the stamina to work tirelessly for very little external reward.  You can expect help from no one. 

There are so many obstacles to art-making and countless reasons to just give up.  When you really think about it, it’s amazing that great art gets made at all.  So why do we do it?  Above all it’s about making our the ime on earth matter, about devotion to our innate gifts and love of our hard-fought creative process. 

And, my God, it even gets harder as we get older!  So what do we do?  We dig in that much deeper.  It’s a most noble and sacred calling – you know when you have it – and that’s what separates those of us who are in it for the long haul from the wimps, fakers, and hangers-on.  I say to my fellow artists who continue to work despite the endless challenges, we are all true heroes! 

__________

What I wrote eight years ago still rings true.  

Most importantly, THANK YOU to my 61,000+ subscribers for taking this journey with me!

Comments are welcome!     

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Finished and signed lower left

Finished and signed lower left

A:  At last!  I’ve finished and signed “Trickster,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26” x 20.” 

Comments are welcome!

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