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Q: What is your process? (Question from artamour)

Some of Barbara’s pastels

A: For thirty-six 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 employing 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 three to four months and hundreds of hours to complete. 

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 unique.  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!

Pearls from artists* # 514

On my studio wall

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

Basically I am trying not to stagnate. I go this way and I go that way and I don’t know where I’m going next. But if I should get stagnant, I’d lose my interest.

There are so many things to be considered when making music. The whole question of life itself; my life in which there are many things on which I don’t think I’ve reached a final conclusion; there are matters I don’t think I’ve covered completely, and all these things have to be covered before you make your music sound any way. You have to grow to know.

When I was younger, I didn’t think this would happen, but now I know that I’ve still got a long way to go. Maybe when I’m sixty I’ll be satisfied with what I’m doing, but I don’t know… I’m sure that later on my ideas will carry more conviction.

I know that I want to produce beautiful music, music that does things to people that they need. Music that will uplift and make them happy – those are the qualities I’d like to produce.

Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews, edited by Chris DeVito

Comments are welcome!

Q: How would you describe the inside of your studio?

Barbara’s Studio

A: My studio is an oasis in a chaotic city, a place to make art, to read, and to think. I love to walk in the door every morning because it is my absolute favorite place in New York! Even after thirty-six years, I still find the entire process of making a pastel painting completely engaging. I try to push my pastel techniques further every time I work in the studio.

There’s one more thing about my studio: I consider it my best creation because it’s a physical environment that anyone can walk into and occupy, as compared to my artworks, which are 2D paintings hanging flat on a wall.  It has taken 25 years to get it the way it is now.  I believe my studio is the best reflection of my growth as an artist.  It changes and evolves as I change over the decades.

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!

Pearls from artists* # 377

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.

Life for an artist, any artist, was difficult.  There were few rewards other than the most important, which was satisfying one’s need to create.  But in the art world of galleries, collections, and museums that the avant-garde artists in New York would inherit in the late 1940s, the difficulties experienced by the men who painted and sculpted would be nothing compared to those of the women.  Society might mock the men’s work and disparage them for being “bums,” but at least they were awarded the dignity of ridicule.  Women had to fight with every fiber of their being not to be completely ignored.  In a treatise on men and women in America published at the start of the war, author Pearl S. Buck wrote,

The talented woman… must have, besides their talent, an unusual energy which drives them… to exercise their own powers.  Like talented men, they are single-minded creatures, and they can’t sink into idleness nor fritter away life and time, nor endure discontent.  They possess that rarest gift, integrity of purpose… Such women sacrifice, without knowing they do, what many other women hold dear – amusement, society, play of one kind or another –  to choose solitude and profound thinking and feeling, and at last final expression.

“To what end?” another woman might ask.  To the end, perhaps… of art – art which has lifted us out of mental and spiritual savagery.”

Mary Gabriel in Ninth Street Women

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 337

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 think society did a great disservice to artists when we started saying they were geniuses, instead of saying they had geniuses.  That happened around the Renaissance, with the rise of a more rational and human-centered view of life.  The gods and the mysteries fell away, and suddenly we put all credit and blame for creativity on the artists themselves – making the all-too-fragile humans completely responsible for the vagaries of inspiration.

In the process, we also venerated art and artists beyond their appropriate stations.  The distinction of “being a genius” (and the rewards and status often associated with it) elevated creators into something like a priestly cast – and perhaps even into minor deities – which I think is a bit too much pressure for mere mortals, no matter how talented.  That’s when artists start to really crack, driven mad and broken in half by the weight and weirdness of their gifts.       

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 190

Working

Working

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

For  fifty years, I worked tirelessly, never looking up, interested in nothing but the organization of my own brain.  And the works that came had their significance – which was just as well.  Otherwise, I’d be a completely useless fellow.

Still, that’s not the point.  The point is, I was lucky enough to be able to do fifty years’ work, until I was sixty-five.  What happened was, I had to pay for it.  It comes around for everyone.  I’ve paid my dues!

Chatting with Henri Matisse:  The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, translated by Chris Miller

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!

Q: Why do you prefer not to explain your titles and imagery?

"Truth Betrayed by Innocence," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“Truth Betrayed by Innocence,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  It’s mainly because answers close down imagination and creativity.  I enjoy hearing alternative interpretations of my pastel paintings.  People are wildly imaginative and each person brings unique insights to their art viewing.  By leaving meanings open, conversation is generated.  Most artists want viewers to talk about their work.

Once at a public artist’s talk that I attended, I was told by an artist that my interpretation of her title was completely wrong.  First of all, how can an interpretation honestly expressed by your audience be “wrong?”  Art is as open to interpretation as a Rorschach test (art IS a kind of Rorshach test).  Then she explained the thinking behind her title and succeeded in cutting off all further conversation.  I felt belittled.  Later several people told me that my interpretation was much more compelling.  Still, the experience was mortifying and I hope to never do that to anyone.

Comments are welcome!  

Q: So much of the art one sees in New York is ugly, but your art is consistently beautiful. Is beauty important to you?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Yes, beauty is extremely important.  In some art circles it is not fashionable to say so, but I completely agree with the photographer, Robert Adams, who writes,  “… the goal of art is Beauty.”  I’ll leave it to others to decide if this quality is reached in my pastel paintings, but I certainly strive towards it. 

Comments are welcome!  

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