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Pearls from artists* # 474

“Madame Roulin and Her Baby,” 1888, Oil on canvas, Vincent Van Gogh, The Metropolitan Museum of 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.

If ever an artist needed a degree of protection against his public, surely it is Vincent van Gogh. Reproductions of his most emblematic paintings, especially the gyrating nightscapes and the blazing series of sunflower studies made in his late years, adorn countless bedrooms, living rooms, and bathrooms all across what used to be known as the developed world. The popularity of the works executed in the great flowering of this last period, which began around the time of his revelatory visit in the autumn of 1885 to the newly completed Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, and ended when he died less than five years later at the age of thirty-seven, is unparalleled. Of the great ones among his contemporaries, and there were many, only Degas can come near to rivaling him as a mainstay of interior decoration.

John Banville in His Own Worst Enemy, The New York Review of Books, May 13, 2021

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 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: You earned a degree in psychology. From that I’m sure you gained an in-depth understanding of humans and their stories. How has that influenced your art?

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

“Conundrum,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

A:  I suppose there must be some deep connection, but I have never seen much of a correspondence between my psychology degree and the art I create. As an undergraduate psych major at the University of Vermont, my intent was to become a clinical psychologist. However, by the time I received my BA, I was no longer interested in making that my life’s work.

Comments are welcome!

 

Pearls from artists* # 203

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

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

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

One day, looking for something that might interest those few buyers there were, Marquet and I decided to reconnoiter.  So we went to the Pavillon de Rohan, to the Galeries de Rivoli, where there were dealers in engraving and in all kinds of curiosities that might attract foreign customers.  We each came back with an idea:  mine was to do  a park landscape with swans.  I went to the Bois de Boulogne to do a study of the lake.  Then I went to buy a photo showing swans and tried to combine the two.  Only it was very bad; I didn’t like it – in fact nobody liked it; it was impossible; it was stodgy.  I couldn’t change; I couldn’t counterfeit the frame of mind of the customers on the rue de Rivoli or anywhere else.  So I put my foot through it.  

I understood then that I had no business painting to please other people; it wasn’t possible. Either way, when I started a canvas, I painted it the way I wanted with things that interested me.  I knew very well that it wouldn’t sell, and I kept putting off the confection of a picture that would sell.  And then the same thing would happen the next time.

There are plenty of artists who think it’s smart to make paintings to sell.  Then – when they have acquired a certain reputation, a degree of independence – they want to paint things for themselves.  But that simply isn’t possible.  Painting’s an uphill task and if you want to find out what you’re capable of, you can’t dillydally on the way.  

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

Comments are welcome!

  

 

 

Q: How do you achieve such richness of color in your pastel-on-sandpaper paintings?

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

“Motley,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

 

A:  This results from the several months of studio time and many layers of soft pastel that go into creating each painting.  In a sense my technique is analogous to glazing done by the Old Masters.  They slowly built up layers of thin paint to achieve a high degree of finish.  Colors were not mixed physically, but optically.  I gradually build up layers of soft pastel, as many as 30, to create a pastel painting.  After a color is applied, 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 overall painting.

Comments are welcome!     

Q: You have written about how you came to your current subject matter, but what led you away from photorealism to work that while not exactly abstract, leans more in that direction?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Once I had achieved a high degree of technical facility with soft pastel, there was not much more to be gained from copying reality.  Cameras do an excellent job of that so what would be the point? 

Ultimately, all art lies in following an experience through to the end.  Art is in the choices one makes.  A visual artist’s private decisions about what to include and what to leave out become her unique inimitable style.  Years ago I made a conscious decision to abandon photorealism.  Since then I have been on a journey to work more from imagination and direct experience and less from physical reality. 

It’s funny.  I have always worked from photographs.  Because I have a strong work ethic and substantial technical skill, I often feel like a slacker if I do not put in all the details that I see in the reference photo.  That’s why the journey has been so slow, I think, as I convince myself it’s really ok to omit more and more details.  

Comments are welcome!       

Pearls from artists* # 112

New York, NY

New York, NY

* 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 the goal of art is Beauty and if we assume that the goal is sometimes reached, even if always imperfectly, how do we judge art?  Basically, I think, by whether it reveals to us important Form that we ourselves have experienced but to which we have not paid adequate attention.  Successful art rediscovers Beauty for us.

One standard, then, for the evaluation of art is the degree to which it gives us a fresh intimation of Form.  For a picture to be beautiful it does not have to be shocking, but it must in some significant respect be unlike what has preceded it (this is why an artist cannot afford to be ignorant of the tradition within his medium).  If the dead end of the romantic vision is incoherence, the failure of classicism, which is the outlook I am defending, is the cliché, the ten thousandth camera-club imitation of a picture by Ansel Adams.

Robert Adams in Beauty in Photography 

Comments are welcome!

 

 

 

Q: What in your opinion marks a work of art as contemporary?

West 26th Street, NYC

West 26th Street, NYC

A:  “Contemporary art” is defined formally as art made since 1970 by living artists who are still making new work.  People often confuse the term “contemporary art” with “modern art,” but they are not the same.  “Modern art” refers to art made during the period between, roughly, the 1860’s to 1970. 

Nowadays there are so many different kinds of art – new forms are developing all the time – and almost anything can be considered contemporary art as long as someone, an artist, says it is art.  Ours is a fascinating, but bewildering, crazy, and often silly art world.  Since I am based in New York, I see a lot that makes me ask, “Is this really art?” and “Why would anyone make such a thing?” 

If there is one single element I look for in visual art it would have to be a high degree of craft.  I enjoy seeing work that is beautiful, well-crafted, and that makes me wonder how the artist made it.  With the exception of Ai Weiwei and Julie Mehretu (maybe others I can’t think of just now), I prefer art made by a single creator, as opposed to artists like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, who employ dozens of people to make their work.        

Comments are welcome!      

Pearls from artists* # 62

"The Sovereign," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Sovereign,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

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

Yes, I’m formalistically obsessed.  I see in a picture what I see in nature – everything has its place and is integrated.  Like a tree or a human body, the image is put together for a greater whole.  If you chop off something, you immediately destroy the organism.  Form is crucial to what I do, and I believe that the form, in a way, creates the content.  If you don’t have the form, you don’t get the content.  If you get the maximum formal relationships in a precise, organic, metaphoric methodology, then you have a better chance of bringing out the content to its full degree.  Of course, a picture doesn’t stand alone by its form.  You can have forms that relate but offer no meaning.  Ultimately, a picture is judged by its meaning, and I think that’s what a lot of people lose sight of.     

Interview with Roger Ballen in Lines, Marks, and Drawings:  Through the Lens of Roger Ballen, Craig Allen Subler and Christine Mullen Kreamer

Comments are welcome!

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