Blog Archives

Q: What is the most important factor behind your success?

At work
At work

A: In a word, I’d say it’s love. I love soft pastel! I love being an artist! I love looking at the thousands of pastels in my studio while I think about the possibilities for mixing new colors and making exciting new pastel paintings. Soft pastels are rich and intense.

Even after more than thirty years as an artist, I still adore what I am able to accomplish. I continually refine my craft as I push pastel to new heights. My business card says it all: “Revolutionizing Pastel as Fine Art!”

The surfaces of my finished pastel paintings are velvety and demanding of close study and attention. Soft pastel on sandpaper – no other medium is as sensuous or as satisfying. Who could argue with that!

Comments are welcome!

Q; What was the spark that got you started? (Question from Barbara Smith via Facebook)

Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983
Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983

A: If I had to select one factor, I would say, profound unhappiness with my professional life. In 1986 I was a 33-year-old Navy Lieutenant working as a computer analyst at the Pentagon. I hated my job, was utterly miserable, and moreover, I was trapped because unlike many jobs, it’s not possible to resign a Naval commission with two weeks notice.

My bachelor’s degree had been in psychology. When I was in my 20s and before I joined the Navy, I had spent two years and my own money training to become a licensed commercial pilot and Boeing-727 Flight Engineer. I had planned to become an airline pilot, but due to bad timing (airlines were not hiring pilots when I was looking for a job), that did not come to pass.

So there I was with absolutely no interest, nor any training in computers, working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and completely bored. I knew I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere and resolved to make a significant change. Searching around, I discovered a local art school, the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, and began taking drawing classes.

One drawing class lead to more. Within a couple of years, due to being highly motivated to change my life, my technical skills rapidly improved. Even then, I believe, it was obvious to anyone who knew me that I had found my calling. I resigned my active duty Naval commission and have been a fulltime professional artist since October 1989. (Note: For fourteen more years I remained in the Naval Reserve working, mostly at the Pentagon, one weekend a month and two weeks each year, and retired as a Navy Commander in 2003).

Life as a self-employed professional artist is endlessly varied, fulfilling, and interesting. I have never once regretted my decision to pursue art fulltime!

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your work is unlike anyone else’s. There is such power and boldness in your pastels. What processes are you using to create such poignant and robustly colored work?

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

A:  For thirty-three years I have worked exclusively in soft pastel on sandpaper.  Pastel, which is pigment and a binder to hold it together, is as close to unadulterated color as an artist can get.  It allows for very saturated color, especially using the self-invented techniques I have developed and mastered. I believe my “science of color” is unique, completely unlike how any other artist works.  I spend three to four months on each painting, applying pastel and blending the layers together to mix new colors on the paper.  

The acid-free sandpaper support allows the buildup of 25 to 30 layers of pastel as I slowly and meticulously work for hundreds of hours to complete a painting.  The paper is extremely forgiving.  I can change my mind, correct, refine, etc. as much as I want until a painting is the best I can create at that moment in time. 

My techniques for using soft pastel achieve rich velvety textures and exceptionally vibrant color.  Blending with my fingers, I painstakingly apply dozens of layers of pastel onto the sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I make new colors directly on the paper.  Regardless of size, each pastel painting takes about four months and hundreds of hours to complete.  

I have been devoted to soft pastel from the beginning.  In my blog and in numerous interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close. 

My subject matter is singular.  I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys.  On trips to these countries and elsewhere I frequent local mask shops, markets, and bazaars searching for the figures that will populate my pastel paintings.  How, why, when, and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the creative process.  Each pastel painting is a highly personal blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you remember the first pastel painting that you ever made?

First framed pastel painting, 1988

First framed pastel painting, 1988

A:  Yes, it was a small head-and-neck portrait of a live model in a figure drawing class at The Art League School in Alexandria, VA.   I don’t know what became of it.

I also remember the first pastel painting that I ever framed because it is still hanging in my Alexandria house. It is dated 1988 (see photo) and was made in a one-week workshop with Diane Tesler at The Art League.  The workshop was specifically to teach artists how to paint from photographs and it was my first time studying with Diane.  I made the mistake of bringing, as reference material, a magazine photograph that was originally a perfume ad in the The Sunday Times Magazine. Diane tactfully explained that it was wrong to use someone else’s photograph instead of my own, but let me do it this one time. 

So many years later walking by my painting I still think of Diane.  She taught me a valuable lesson:  do not use anyone else’s photographs, ever!  

Comments are welcome!   

 

Q: Have any artists influenced you technically?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  I’d have to say no one, because my technique of using soft pastel on sandpaper is largely self-invented and it continues to slowly evolve.  I apply up to thirty layers of pigment, blending it with my fingers, and creating new colors directly on the sandpaper.  It is a rather meticulous process that suits my personality.

My unique way of applying and mixing pastel is a richly complex science of color.  This intricate technique is one of the reasons that my pastel paintings cannot be forged by anyone.

Every great artist throughout history has invented their own techniques and created a world that is uniquely theirs, with its own iconography, its own laws, and its own specific concerns.  Artists who are most worthy of the name create their own tasks and make and break their own rules.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: What do you think are the most important qualities in an artist?

“Big Deal,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A: Two essentials immediately come to mind.  I believe imagination and curiosity are very important qualities, not only for artists, but for anyone who hopes to look back on a well-lived life.  As Lauren Bacall famously said, “Imagination is the highest kite one can fly.” 

It is curiosity that keeps people laser-focused on a lifetime journey of learning.  I’d venture to say that curiosity is the not-so-secret quality of accomplished people in every profession.  We humans can never know enough!

Comments are welcome!            

Pearls from artists* # 148

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

I want Bob Iger, the head of Disney, to invest in my ideas.  In fact … one of my ideas is … I love Walt Disney … I feel Disney should have an art fund that completely supports all of the arts.  And I feel that there should be a responsibility, recruiters, constantly looking for new thinkers and connecting them directly to companies that already work.  Why does the person who has the most genius idea or cultural understanding or can create the best art have to figure out how to become a businessman in order to become successful at expressing himself?  I think it’s important for anyone that’s in power to empower.

Kanye West in Choice Quotes from Kanye’s Address at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in Hyperallergic, May 12, 2015

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 125

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

My own natural proclivity is to categorize the world around me, to remove unfamiliar objects from their dangerous  perches by defining, compartmentalizing and labeling them.  I want to know what things are and I want to know where they are and I want to control them.  I want to remove the danger and replace it with the known.  I want to feel safe.  I want to feel out of danger.

And yet, as an artist, I know that I must welcome the strange and the unintelligible into my awareness and into my working process.  Despite my propensity to own and control everything around me, my job is to “make the familiar strange and the strange familiar,” as Bertolt Brecht recommended:  to un-define and un-tame what has been delineated by belief systems and conventions, and to welcome the discomfort of doubt and the unknown, aiming to make visible what has become invisible by habit.

Because life is filled with habit, because our natural desire is to make countless assumptions and treat our surroundings as familiar and unthreatening, we need art to wake us up.  Art un-tames, reifies and wakes up the part of our lives that have been put to sleep and calcified by habit.  The artist, or indeed anyone who wants to turn daily life into an adventure, must allow people, objects and places to be dangerous and freed from the definitions that they have accumulated over time.            

Anne Bogart in What’s the Story:  Essays about art, theater, and storytelling

Comments are welcome!

Q: In the “Black Paintings” you create a deep intellectual interaction and communicate a wide variety of states of mind. I admit that certain “Black Paintings” unsettle me a bit. I see in this series an effective mix between anguish and happiness. Rather than simply describing something, these paintings pose a question and force us to contemplation. Can you talk about this aspect of your work?

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  I’m sure you and other viewers will see all kinds of states of mind, like anguish, happiness, and everything in between.  I think that’s wonderful because it means my work is communicating a message to you.  Sometimes people have told me that my images are unsettling and that’s fine, too.  I would never presume to tell anyone what to think about my work.  As one reviewer put it, “What you bring to my work you get back in spades!”  

Some of this is intentional, but some is not.  My day-to-day experiences – what I’m thinking about, what I’m feeling, what I’m reading, the music I’m listening to, etc. –  get embedded into the work. I don’t understand exactly how that happens, but I am glad it happens. This work does come from a deep place, much deeper than I am able to explain even to myself. After nearly three decades as an artist, the intricacies of my creative process are still a mystery. Personally, I am very fond of mysteries and don’t need to understand it all.  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 59

Studio

Studio

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

Friends sometimes ask, “Don’t you get lonely sitting by yourself all day?”  At first it seemed odd to hear myself say No.  Then I realized that I was not alone; I was in the book; I was with the characters.  I was with my Self.

Not only do I not feel alone with my characters; they are more vivid and interesting to me than the people in my real life.  If you think about it, the case can’t be otherwise.  In order for a book (or any project or enterprise) to hold our attention for the length of time it takes to unfold itself, it has to plug into some internal perplexity or passion that is of paramount importance to us.  The problem becomes the theme of our work, even if we can’t at the start understand or articulate it.  As the characters arise, each embodies infallibly an aspect of that dilemma, that perplexity.  These characters might not be interesting to anyone else but they’re absolutely fascinating to us.  They are us.  Meaner, smarter, sexier versions of ourselves.  It’s fun to be with them because they’re wrestling with the same issue that has its hooks into us.  They’re our soul mates, our lovers, our best friends.  Even the villains.  Especially the villains.  

Stephen Pressfield in The War of Art

Comments are welcome!   

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