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!

Pearls from artists* # 441

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

The most perennially popular category of art is the cheerful, pleasant, and pretty kind: meadows in spring, the shade of trees on hot summer days, pastoral landscapes, smiling children. This can be deeply troubling to people of taste and intelligence.   

… The worries about prettiness are twofold. First, pretty pictures are alleged to feed sentimentality. Sentimentality is a symptom of insufficient engagement with complexity, by which one really means problems. The pretty picture seems to suggest that in order to make life nice, one merely has to brighten up the apartment with a depiction of some flowers. If we were to ask the picture what is wrong with the world, it might be taken as saying ‘You don’t have enough Japanese water gardens’ – a response that appears to ignore all the more urgent problems that confront humanity (primarily economic, but also moral, political, and sexual). The very innocence and simplicity of the picture seems to mitigate against any attempt to improve life as a whole. Secondly, there is the related fear that prettiness will numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices surrounding us.

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy 

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

A wall in Barbara's studio

A wall in Barbara’s studio

A:  When I left the active duty Navy in 1989, my co-workers threw a farewell party.  One of the parting gifts I received was a small plaque from a young enlisted woman whom I had supervised. The words on the plaque deeply resonated with me, since I was about to make a significant, risky, and scary career change.  It was the perfect gift for someone facing the uncertainty of an art career.

Many years later Tina’s plaque is still a proud possession of mine.  It is hanging on the wall behind my easel, to be read every day as I work.  It says:

“Excellence can be attained if you…

Care more than others think is wise…

Risk more than others think is safe…

Dream more than others think is practical…

Expect more than others think is possible.”

Comments are welcome!

 

 

Pearls from artists* # 439

New York Harbor

New York Harbor

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

Art is a way of preserving experiences, of which there are many transient and beautiful examples, and that we need help containing.  There is an analogy to be made with the task of carrying water and the tool that helps us do it.  Imagine being out in a park on a blustery April day.  We look up at the clouds and feel moved by their beauty and grace.  They feel delightfully separate from the day-to-day bustle of our lives.  We give our minds to the clouds, and for a time we are relieved of our preoccupations and placed in a wider context that stills the incessant complaints of our egos.  John Constable’s cloud studies invite us to concentrate, much more than we would normally, on the distinctive textures and shapes of individual clouds, to look at their variations in colour and at the way they mass together.  Art edits down complexity and helps us to focus, albeit briefly, on the most meaningful aspects.  In making his cloud studies, Constable didn’t expect us to become deeply concerned with meteorology.  The precise nature of a cumulonimbus is not the issue.  Rather, he wished to intensify the emotional meaning of the soundless drama that unfolds daily above our heads, making it more readily available to us and encouraging us to afford it the central position it deserves.                 

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy          

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 364

"White Star," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“White Star,” 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.

If we are left unmoved by a painting of the Virgin, it is likely because the artist was unmoved in the painting of her.  The subject matter is mostly irrelevant; it is important only as a vehicle for the artist’s attention.  Authenticity comes from how deeply the artist felt.  And this is the key to how much silence, how much consciousness or attention, the art contains.

subject matter, if the artist is even using it, is just an armature for the artist to engage his intensity of feeling.  It is the quality of your attention that influences how you see and how deeply you feel.  Different artists have affinities for different subject matter as a way into expressing themselves deeply.  And that depth is the quality, we, the viewers, respond to.  It is what we continue to respond to over the centuries in great works of art.  The fact that things last, that we continue to admire them, is in the end a good indicator of their quality, of their silence.  Art museums therefore, have little nodes of silence nestling in their galleries.  They are filled with, to use André Malraux’s expression, “the voices of silence.”

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 212

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

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

… the anthropologist Ellen Disanayake… in Homo Aestheticus, argues that art and aesthetic  interest belong with rituals and festivals – offshoots of the human need to ‘make special,’ to extract objects, events, and human relations from everyday uses and to make them a focus of collective attention.  This ‘making special’ enhances group cohesion and also leads people to treat those things which really matter for the survival of community – be it marriage or weapons, funerals, or offices – as things of public note, with an aura that protects them from careless disregard and emotional erosion.  The deeply engrained need to ‘make special’ is explained by the advantage that it has conferred on human communities, holding them together in times of threat, and furthering their reproductive confidence in times of peaceful flourishing.

Beauty:  A Very Short Introduction, by Roger Scruton

Comments are welcome!

      

Q: Can you speak about a book (or books) that deeply influenced you as an artist?

Barbara's well-worn copy of "Camille Pissarro:  Letters to His Son Lucien"

Barbara’s well-worn copy of “Camille Pissarro: Letters to His Son Lucien”

A:  One such book that stands out is “Camille Pissaro:  Letters to His Son Lucien.”  The book is comprised of weekly letters from a father conveying wisdom about his craft, art, and life, over roughly twenty years, to a beloved son, who is just beginning his artistic journey.  I discovered this gem about thirty years ago when I was just starting to find my way as an artist, too.  Pissarro’s words are beautiful, poignant, and deeply felt.   He has much to say to artists because, sadly, we still contend with the same problems, such as how to remain authentic and earn a living, how to deal with galleries and collectors, how to stay focused on the work, etc.  I often enjoy rereading favorite passages simply because it makes me feel less alone as an artist.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What historical art movement do you most identify with?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I’d have to say that I identify most with surrealism, although my work does not exactly fit into any particular art historical movement.  When I was first finding my way as an artist, I read everything I could find about surrealism in art and in literature.  This research still res0nates deeply and is a tremendous influence on my studio practice.  Elements of surrealism DO fit my work.  Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 20s and is best known for its visual artworks and writings.  The aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.”  Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself.  

Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; however, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, with the works being an artifact.  Leader Andre Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement.

I hope to expand on this in a future post.

Comments are welcome!            

Q: Do you have any essential words that you live by?

Studio wall

Studio wall

A:  I certainly do!  When I left the active duty Navy in 1989, my co-workers threw a farewell party.  One of the parting gifts I received was a small plaque from Tina Greene, a young enlisted woman whom I had supervised.  The words on the plaque deeply resonated with me, since I was about to make a significant, risky, and scary career change.  It was the perfect gift for someone facing the uncertainty of an art career. 

Many years later Tina’s plaque is still a proud possession of mine.  It is hanging on the wall behind my easel, to be read every day as I work.  It says:

“Excellence can be attained if you…

Care more than others think is wise…

Risk more than others think is safe…

Dream more than others think is practical…

Expect more than others think is possible.”

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 123

"Quartet" with self-portrait

“Quartet” with self-portrait

 

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

We artists should not underestimate the importance of the stories we tell ourselves about how our art will make a difference.  These motivational fictions describe the ways a work might interact with the world to justify our extravagant, and potentially narcissistic labors:  that our art has transformational potential.  A work might be understood as being critical of society or sanctuary from it, for instance, or a Trojan horse sent to the enemy as a nasty gift to unsettle their deeply entrenched frames of mind.  We need renewable encouragement to make fresh work year after year in the face of uncertain rewards.

David Humphrey quoted in THE ART LIFE:  On Creativity and Career by Stuart Horodner

Comments are welcome!

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