Blog Archives

Q: How do you work and approach your subject? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

At work
At work

A: Undoubtedly, I could not make my work without UART sandpaper since my entire pastel technique evolved around it.  I use 400 0r 500 grit.  My favorite thing about it is its ‘tooth’ (i.e. texture or roughness).  

Over the many months I spend creating a pastel painting, I build layer upon layer of soft pastel.  Because the paper I use is relatively “toothy,” it accepts all of the pastel the painting needs.  And as many people know, I own and use thousands of soft pastels!

Many layers of soft pastel and several months of studio time go into creating each painting.  My self-invented technique is analogous to the glazing techniques used by the Old Masters, who slowly built up layers of thin oil paint to achieve a high degree of finish.  Colors were not only mixed physically, but optically.  

Similarly, I gradually build up layers of soft pastel, as many as thirty, to create a pastel painting.  After applying a color, I blend it with my fingers and push it into the sandpaper’s tooth.  It mixes with the color beneath to create a new color, continually adding richness, saturation, and intensity to the piece.  By the time a pastel painting is finished, the colors are bold, vibrant, and exciting.

From the beginning in the 1980s I used photographs as reference material and my late husband, Bryan, would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate setups with his Toyo-Omega view camera. In those days I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and I wanted to learn how to use them. In 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom.

Along the way I discovered that the sense of composition, form, and color I developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was just another medium with which to express my ideas. Astonishingly, in 2009 I had my first solo photography exhibition in New York.

It’s wonderful to be both a painter and a photographer. Pastel painting will always be my first love, but photography lets me explore ideas much faster than I ever could as a painter. Paintings take months of work. To me, photographs – from the initial impulse to hanging a framed print on the wall – are instant gratification.

For several years I have been using my iPad Pro to capture thousands of travel photographs.  Most recently, I visited Gujarat and Rajasthan in India. I have never been inclined to use a sketchbook so composing photos on my iPad keeps my eye sharp while I’m halfway around the world, far from my studio practice.

My blog, “Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust,” continues to be a crucial part of my overall art practice.  Blogging twice a week forces me to think deeply about my work and to explain it clearly to others.  The process has helped me develop a better understanding about why I make art and, I like to think, has helped me to become a better writer.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Who are you and what do you do? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

At the studio
At the studio

A: Here is my professional bio.

I am an American contemporary artist and author who divides my time between residences in New York City and Alexandria, VA.  I am best known for my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, my  eBook, “From Pilot to Painter,” and this blog, which now has over 70,000 subscribers!

Friends say that I have led an extraordinary, inspiring life.  I learned to fly at the age of 25 and became a commercial pilot and Boeing-727 flight engineer before joining the Navy. As a Naval officer I spent many years working at the Pentagon and retired as a Commander.

On 9/11 my husband, Dr. Bryan C. Jack, was tragically killed on the plane that hit the Pentagon.

I use my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys – to create one-of-a-kind pastel-on-sandpaper paintings that combine reality and fantasy and depict personal narratives.   In 2017 I traveled to Bolivia where I became inspired to paint Bolivian Carnival masks. 

My pastel paintings are bold, vibrant, and extremely unusual.  Perhaps my business card says it all: “Revolutionizing Pastel as Fine Art!”

I exhibit nationally and internationally and have won many accolades during my 30+ years as a professional artist.  For additional info, please see the links in the sidebar.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* #447

Barbara’s studio
Barbara’s studio

Cameron Crowe: I think this collection is a powerful gift, especially to young artists. It’s a portrait of you at a certain time in your life when you were having success. You could have plateaued at this stage for an entire career. Many did. But I listen to this and think the hidden message is don’t stop growing. Don’t stop heading to those deeper waters… challenge yourself… look where it may take you.

Joni Mitchell: That’s what the Van Gogh exhibition was to me. When I went to see the Van Gogh exhibition they had all his paintings arranged chronologically, and you’d watch the growth as you walk along. That was so inspiring to me, and I started to paint again. If it serves that purpose, that would be great. Really, that would make me very happy. It shows that from this… because the latter work is much richer and deeper and smarter, and the arrangements are interesting, too. Musically I grow, and I grow as a lyricist, so there’s a lot of growth taking place. The early stuff – I shouldn’t be such a snob against it. A lot of these songs, I just lost them. They fell away. They only exist in these recordings. For so long I rebelled against the term: “I was never a folk singer.” I would get pissed off if they put that label on me. I didn’t think it was a good description of what I was. And then I listened, and… it was beautiful. It made me forgive my beginnings. And I had this realization…

CC: What was it?

Joni: Oh God! (Laughs) I was a folksinger!

In A Conversation with Joni Mitchell by Cameron Crowe from Joni Mitchell Archives Volume I: The Early Years (1963-1967) 5 CD set

Comments are welcome!

Q: How has photography changed your approach to painting?

Alexandria, VA (composed on an iPad Pro)

A: Except for many hours spent in life-drawing classes and still life setups that I devised when I was learning my craft in the 1980s, I have always worked from photographs. My late husband, Bryan, would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate “Domestic Threats” setups using his Toyo-Omega view camera. I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive (film) camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and needed to learn how to use them. Starting in 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom.

Early on I discovered that the sense of composition, color, and form I had developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was, and is, just another medium with which to express ideas. Pastel painting will always be my first love. However, pastel paintings take months of work, while photography offers instant gratification, especially with my current preferred camera, an iPad Pro.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you give us your current elevator pitch?

Discussing Bolivian masks with Nika, Photo: David De Hannay

Discussing Bolivian masks with Nika, Photo: David De Hannay

A:  Here it is:

I am a New York visual artist, blogger, and author.  For thirty-four years I have been creating original pastel-on-sandpaper paintings that depict my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, and toys.  “Bolivianos,” my current series, is based on a mask exhibition I saw and photographed in La Paz in 2017 at the National Museum of Folklore and Ethnography.     

My technique is self-invented and involves applying dozens of layers of soft pastel onto acid-free sandpaper to create new colors directly on the paper.  Each pastel painting takes several months to complete.  Typically, I make four or five each year.  I achieve extraordinarily rich, vibrant color in pastel paintings that are a unique combination of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

My background is unusual for an artist.  I am a pilot, a retired Navy Commander, and a 9/11 widow.  Besides making art, I am a published blogger and author best known for my popular blog, “Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust” (53,000+ subscribers!) and my eBook, “From Pilot to Painter,” on Amazon and iTunes.

Please see images and more at http://barbararachko.art/en/

Comments are welcome!  

Q: What is your favorite art museum?

The Great Hall at the Met

The Great Hall at the Met

A:  My favorite art museum is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  The Met is peerless!  The breadth and quality of the collection is nearly inexhaustible.  It’s my library, the place I go to for inspiration and to deepen and broaden my knowledge of art.  The Met is a treasure for every working artist.  

Comments are welcome!   

Q: Besides your art materials is there something you couldn’t live without in your studio?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I would not want to work without music.  Turning on the radio or the cd player is part of my daily ritual before heading over to the easel.  (Next I apply barrier cream to my hands to prevent pastel being absorbed into my skin, put on a surgical mask, etc.).  I generally listen to WFUV, WBGO, or to my cd collection while I’m working.  

Listening and thinking about song lyrics is integral to my art-making process.  How this works exactly may be a topic to explore in a future blog post.

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 184

"Couple," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Couple,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

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

Do the poet and scientist not work analogously?  Both are willing to waste effort.  To be hard on himself is one of the main strengths of each.  Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for perfection.  As George Grosz says, “In art there is no place for gossip and but a small place for the satirist.”  The objective is fertile procedure.  Is it not?  Jacob Bronkowski says in the Saturday Evening Post that science is not a mere collection of discoveries, but that science is the process of discovering.  In any case it’s not established once and for all; it’s evolving.

Marianne Moore in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews Second Series  

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you say there is a unifying quality to all of the work you have produced in the last thirty years?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  Yes, I can think of several.  Whether making pastel paintings or printing photographs in the darkroom, I have always been concerned with quality and craftsmanship and never pronounce a work finished until it is the best thing I can make. 

Although I started out as a maker of photorealist portraits in pastel, for twenty-odd years I have worked with Mexican folk art as my primary subject matter, treating these objects very differently in three separate series:  “Black Paintings,” “Domestic Threats,” and “Gods and Monsters.”  The first two are pastel-on-sandpaper paintings while the last is comprised of chromogenic photographs (c-prints).  A few years ago I also started making “Teleidoscopes” using an iPad app to photograph my Mexican and Guatemalan folk art collection.  This last one is just for fun; I do not offer them for sale.

Soft pastel is my first love and the two series of pastel paintings are my best-known work.  My technique for using pastel continues to evolve in intriguing ways.  I doubt I can ever learn all there is to know not only about color, but also about this medium.  Pastel is endlessly fascinating, which is why I have never wanted to switch to anything else. 

Comments are welcome!      

Pearls from artists* # 139

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

“Broken,” 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.

Leaving a show of Pat Steir’s work called Winter Paintings at Cheim & Read Gallery, I thought back some years to when the Walker Art Center’s then curator Richard Flood was walking us through the Center’s collection and we came upon an abstract expressionist painting by Joan Mitchell that was so striking I asked him why it had taken so long for her to be recognized.  He answered with a wry expression:  “It’s the problem of beauty!”

A few days earlier our friends Kol and Dash came to lunch at our home, and Dash said at this time most visual art is conceptual.  “It’s a way of thinking,” she said.

Story/Time:  The Life of an Idea/Bill T. Jones

Comments are welcome! 

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