Blog Archives

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: 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’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  Progress is slower than usual during the current pandemic lockdown.  I continue working on “Trickster,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26” x 20.”

Comments are welcome!

Q: Travel is an essential aspect of your work. How do you decide where to travel next?

In the Bolivian Andes at about 14,000’

In the Bolivian Andes at about 14,000’

 A:  Generally, I am most interested in exploring Mexico and destinations in Central and South American because they offer endless inspiration to further my work.  I’m not exactly certain why this is the case.  I DO know that I cannot get enough of travel to points south!

My 2017 trip to Bolivia proved to be crucial for my current pastel painting series.  “Bolivianos” is based on an exhibition of Carnival masks encountered at the National Museum of Ethnology and Folklore in La Paz.

I had high hopes of making a return visit – along with a private tour guide – last February.  However, since President Moreno resigned last November, much political instability, violence, and turmoil resulted.  I would not have felt safe traveling to Oruro to see Carnival celebrations this year.

In the mean time I look forward to traveling to Chile, the Atacama Desert, and Easter Island next winter!

Comnents are welcome!

Q: Do you think artists should post prices on their websites?

Screenshot of Barbara’s homepage

Screenshot of Barbara’s homepage

A:  It depends on what the purpose and objectives of a particular artist’s website are.  I use my website to document all of the work, the process, exhibitions, and press in one central place.  I do not list prices.  If someone is interested in more information, including prices, they can easily email or call me. 

I have two assistants who help with social media and my online presence continues to grow.  Many of my available pastel paintings are included on commercial sites like Artsy.  Current prices are listed there.

Comments are welcome!   

Q: What was the first painting you ever sold?

“Bryan’s Ph.D.”, 11″ x 13 1/2″, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.”  I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel.  I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist.  Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands. 

In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland.  In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research.  He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA.  I still own the chair and the house.  I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting.  I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2.  Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.

“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria.  I have not seen it since 1990.  (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).

Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband.  She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce.  Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now.  She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.

I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan.  He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty.  At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.  

My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation.  In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others.  This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally.  I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.  

Comments are welcome!     

Q: Why don’t you make political art?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I have little interest in dealing with political events in my work because these events come and go.  They have a short shelf life.  Fine art based on current events quickly loses its context and becomes outdated and irrelevant.

I prefer art that is timeless.  My intention is to create personal work about deeper psychological issues and the human condition.  Done well, personal work is more likely to speak to and stay with an audience long after the news cycle has moved on.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?

Barbara in Bali (far right)

Barbara in Bali (far right)

A:  My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive. 

First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice. 

My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work.  As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next.  Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material. 

In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows.  Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.

In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera.  In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.   

Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  Now I go to Duggal.  Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.

Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper.  The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead. 

Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting. 

Comments are welcome!    

Q: What does your creative process look like when you are ready to begin a new painting?

 

Preliminary sketch

Preliminary sketch

A:  My working methods have changed dramatically over the years with my current process being a much-simplified version of how I used to work.  In other words as I pared down my imagery in the “Black Paintings,” my process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite logically to the next.  Another is that I always have set up a scene, lit and photographed it, and worked with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material.  In the “Domestic Threats” series I shot with a 4″ x 5″ view camera.  Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of images to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images and uses film) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  I get the print made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.

Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper.  The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead.  For example, in the photograph above I had originally thought about creating a vertical painting, but changed to horizontal format after discovering spatial problems in my sketch.  

Also, I decided to make a small painting now because it has been two years since I last worked in a smaller (than my usual 38″ x 58″) size.  I am re-using the photograph on which “Epiphany” is based.  Using a photograph a second time lets me see how my working methods have evolved over time.     

Comments are welcome! 

Q: How long have you been working in your current studio?

Barbara in her studio; Photo:  Elliott Jones

Barbara in her studio; Photo: Elliott Jones

A:  I have been in my West 29th Street space for seventeen years, but from the beginning, in the mid-1980’s, I had a studio.  My first one was in the spare bedroom of the Alexandria, Virginia, house that I shared with Bryan and that I still own.  For about three years in the 1990s I had a studio on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a building in Alexandria that is open to the public.  People come in, watch artists work, and occasionally buy a piece of art. 

In April 997 an opportunity to move to New York arose and I didn’t look back. By then I was showing in a good 57th Street gallery, Brewster Arts Ltd. (the gallery focused exclusively on Latin American artists; I was thrilled with the company I was in; the only fellow non-Latina represented by owner, Mia Kim, was Leonora Carrington), and I had managed to find a New York agent, Leah Poller, with whom to collaborate.  I looked at only one other space before finding my West 29th Street studio.  An old friend of Bryan’s from Cal Tech rented the space next door and he had told us it was available.  Initially the studio was a sublet.  The lease-holder was a painter headed to northern California to work temporarily for George Lucas at the Lucas Ranch.   After several years she decided to stay so I was able to take over the lease.  

My studio continues to be 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 and always feel more calm the moment I arrive.  It’s my absolute favorite place in New York!    

Comments are welcome!

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