Blog Archives

Q: Would you describe your current work in a few sentences?

Barbara’s Studio

A: Of course, my art practice continually evolves and so does my thinking about its meaning. Using my own iPad photographs of Bolivian Carnival masks from Oruro as source material, for the past five years I have been slowly building a rogue’s gallery of beautiful, if somewhat misunderstood, characters probably best described as oddballs and misfits. For me, the paintings have a deeper meaning as archetypes of the collective unconscious. Creating this series is an act of genuine love. It is my hope that the ”Bolivianos” pastel paintings convey my deep respect and compassion for people around the world.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 501

New York City

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

When I talk about “creative living” here, please understand that I am not necessarily talking about pursuing a life that is professionally or exclusively devoted to the arts. I’m not saying that you must become a poet who lives on a mountaintop in Greece, or that you must perform at Carnegie Hall, or that you must win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. (Though if you want to attempt any of these feats, have at it. I love to watch people swing for the bleachers.) No, when I refer to “creative living,” I am speaking more broadly. I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.

... A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner – continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you – is a fine art, in and of itself.

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Comments are welcome!

Q: How does art help you explore and understand other cultures? (Question from Arte Realizzata)

Shadow self-portrait, Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India

A: Art helps me explore and understand other cultures by revealing our shared humanity across space and time. For me art and travel are intertwined; there is no better education! My art-making has led me to visit fascinating places in search of source material, ideas, and inspiration:  to Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, France, England, Italy, Bali, Java, Sri Lanka, and India. I have seen firsthand that people all over the world are the same.

Art has led me to undertake in-depth studies of intriguing subjects:  drawing, color, composition, art, art history, the art business, film, film history, photography, mythology, literature, music, jazz, jazz history, and archaeology, particularly that of ancient Mesoamerica (Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya), and South America (the Inca and their ancestors).

This rich mixture of creative influences continually grows.  For anyone wanting to spend their time on earth studying, learning, and meeting new challenges, there is hardly anything more fascinating than to be a well-travelled, perpetually curious artist! 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 478

Julie Mehretu exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art

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

Artists, because of the demands of their personality, their sense of personal mission, and their need to create or perform, are driven people. Mixed with the love of work can be a terrible pressure to work. For many artists, and especially for the most productive ones, the line between love and obsession and between love and compulsion blurs or disappears entirely. Are such artists free or are they slaves to their work?

In The Artist and Society the psychiatrist Lawrence Hatterer said of such an artist:

His most recognizable trait is his recurring daily preoccupation with translating artistic activity into accomplishment. The consuming intensity of this artistic pursuit brooks no interference or obstacles. His absorption with the creative act is such that he experiences continually what the average artist feels only infrequently when he reaches unusual levels of creative energy with accompanying output. He appears to be incapable of willful nonproductivity.

This is Picasso working for 72 hours straight. This is van Gogh turning out 200 finished paintings during his 444 days in Arles. The artist who is “incapable of willful nonproductivity” is a workaholic for whom little in life, apart from his artistic productivity and accomplishment, may have any meaning.

Eric Maisel in A Life in the Arts: Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

Comments are welcome!

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: 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 do you enjoy most about being an artist?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  This is a question I like to revisit every so often because life as an artist does not get easier; just the opposite, in fact. Visual artists tend to be “one man bands.” We do it all notwithstanding the fact that everything gets more difficult as we get older. It’s good to be reminded about what makes all the sacrifice and hard work worthwhile.

Even after thirty-four years as an artist, there are so many things to enjoy! I make my own schedule, set my own tasks, and follow new interests wherever they may lead. I am curious about everything and am rarely bored. I continually push my pastel technique as I strive to become a better artist. There is still so much to learn!

My relationship with collectors is another perk. I love to see pastel paintings hanging on collectors’ walls, especially when the work is newly installed and the owners are excited to take possession. This means that the piece has found a good home, that years of hard work have come full circle! And it’s often the start of a long friendship. After living with my pastel paintings for years, collectors tell me they see new details never noticed before and they appreciate the work more than ever. It’s extremely gratifying to have built a network of supportive art-loving friends around the country.  I’m sure most artists would say the same!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What is your favorite thing about creating on sandpaper? (Cassandra Alvarado Oliphant via Instagram)

Ready to start

Ready to start

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

Over the many months I spend creating a painting, I build layer upon layer of soft pastel.  Because this paper 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.

Comments are welcome!           

Q: Do you enjoy being interviewed?

In the studio

In the studio

A:  I do very much.  Each new interview is another opportunity to discover what is remembered, what is kept because it still seems important, and how certain details are selected from amongst all the accumulated memories of a lifetime.  My own story is continually evolving as some facts are left out or rearranged, and others added.  New connections keep being made while some others are discarded.  I find it fascinating to read over old interviews and compare them with what I remember in the present.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you speak about the meaning of your work and the different materials you use?

About half of Barbara’s pastels

About half of Barbara’s pastels

A:  It is as difficult to explain the meaning of my art as it is to interpret the meaning of life!  I am invested in and concerned with process:  foreign travel, prodigious reading, devotion to craft, months of slow meticulous work in the studio trying to create an exciting work of art that has never been seen before, etc.  I love making pastel paintings!  Many years ago I challenged myself to push the limits of what soft pastel can achieve.  I am still doing so.

I leave it to others – viewers, arts writers, critics, art historians – to study my creative journey and talk about meanings.  I believe an artist is inspired to create and viewers ponder the creation.  I would not presume to tell anyone how to react to my work.

For many years I have been devoted to promoting soft pastel as a fine art medium.  There are excellent reasons it has been around for five hundred years!  It is the most permanent of media. There’s no liquid binder to cause oxidizing or cracking over time, as happens with oil paint.  Pastel colors are intense because they are close to being pure pigment.  Pastel allows direct application (no brushes) with no drying time and no color changes.

I use UArt acid-free sandpaper.  This is not sandpaper from a hardware store.  It is made for artists who work in pastel and allows me to build up layers of pigment without using a fixative.  My process – slowly applying and layering pastels, blending and mixing new colors directly on the paper, making countless adjustments, searching for the best and/or most vivid colors – continually evolves.  Each pastel painting takes months to create.

Comments are welcome!

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