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Q: When did you start using the sandpaper technique and why (Question from “Arte Realizzata”)

The start of a new pastel-on-sandpaper painting

A: In the late 1980s when I was studying at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, I enrolled in  a three-day pastel workshop with Albert Handel, an artist known for his southwest landscapes in pastel and oil paint.  I had just begun working with soft pastel and was experimenting with paper.  Handel suggested I try Ersta fine sandpaper.  I did and nearly three decades later, I’ve never used anything else. 

This paper is acid-free and accepts dry media, mainly pastel and charcoal.   It allows me to build up layer upon layer of pigment and blend, without having to use a fixative.  The tooth of the paper almost never gets filled up so it continues to hold pastel.  (On the rare occasion when the tooth DOES fill up, which sometimes happens with problem areas that are difficult to resolve, I take a bristle paintbrush, dust off the unwanted pigment, and start again).  My entire technique – slowly applying soft pastel, blending and creating new colors directly on the paper, making countless corrections and adjustments, rendering minute details, looking for the best and/or most vivid colors – evolved in conjunction with this paper. 

I used to say that if Ersta ever went out of business and stopped making sandpaper, my artist days would be over.  Thankfully, when that DID happen, UArt began making a very similar paper.  I buy it in two sizes – 22″ x 28″ sheets and 56″ wide by 10-yard-long rolls.  The newer version of the rolled paper is actually better than the old, because when I unroll it, it lays flat immediately.  With Ersta I would lay the paper out on the floor for weeks before the curl would give way and it was flat enough to work on.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do you make a preliminary drawing before you begin a pastel painting?

Preliminary charcoal drawing for “Enigma,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26” x 20”

A: I make a preliminary charcoal drawing because that’s how I like to begin thinking about and planning a new pastel painting. I always make preliminary drawings the same size as the upcoming pastel painting. While I draw, I make decisions about the overall composition, decide where the major light and dark shapes will be, and envision the likely problem areas that lie ahead. These drawings are done quickly. I spend perhaps an hour on them.

Once the drawing is in my head I no longer need it. So I put it away and when it’s time to begin a subsequent pastel painting, I erase it. I wipe it out with a paper towel and make the next preliminary charcoal drawing directly on top. These are ephemeral tools, existing only for as long as I need them.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 437

Dragonfly on final approach

Dragonfly on final approach

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

There really is nothing to fear in fantasy unless you are afraid of the uncertainty.  This is why it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who likes science can dislike fantasy.  Both are based so profoundly on the admission of uncertainty, the welcoming acceptance of unanswered questions.  Of course, the scientist seeks to ask how things are the way they are, not to imagine how they might be otherwise.  But are the two operations opposed, or related?  We can’t question reality directly, only by questioning our conventions, our belief, our orthodoxy, our construction of reality.  All Galileo said, all Darwin said, was, “It doesn’t have to be the way we thought it was.”       

Ursula K. Le Guin in No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 435

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.

Most artists are not as estranged from their fellow human beings, as bereft of reasons for existing, or as alienated from the common values and enthusiasms of the world as are the outsider characters created by existential writers like Kafka, Camus, and Sartre.  But insofar as artists do regularly feel different from other people, a differentness experienced both as a sense of oddness and a sense of specialness, they identify with the outsider’s concerns and come to the interpersonal moment in guarded or distant fashion.

In part, artists are outsiders because of the personal mythology they possess.  This mythology is a blend of beliefs about the importance of the individual, the responsibility of the artist as a maker of culture and a witness to the truth, and the ordained separateness of the artist.  Artists often stand apart on principle, like Napoleonic figures perched on a hill overlooking the battle.

The artist may also find himself [sic] speechless in public.  Around him people chat, but he has little to offer.  Too much of what he knows and feels has gone directly into his art and too much has been revealed to him in solitude – infinitely more than he can share in casual conversation.     

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

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists # 429

“Vincent’s Books” by Mariella Guzzoni

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

Vincent [van Gogh] found himself in perfect harmony with[Emile] Zola’s world view.  Neither of them sugarcoated or idealized the harsh reality of the everyday life that surrounded them, or the subjects it offered up.  The same reality was at the heart of both of their work.  In July 1883, Vincent read Zola’s essay on art, ‘Le Moment artistique,’ contained in one of his critical works on literary and artistic life, Mes haines (My Hatreds), in which Zola reflected on a crucial aspect of artistic creativity, going beyond the word ‘realistic;’ ‘the word “realist” means nothing to me, and I declare reality subordinate to temperament.’  Therefore, according to Zola, a ‘work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament.’ Vincent did not comment on this passage directly, but in his lines we see that in Zola’s words he found confirmation of his own beliefs.  To Theo, in 1885, he wrote of his attempts to capture the effects of light in The Potato Eaters:   “Not always literally exactly – rather never exactly – for one sees nature through one’s temperament.”  The two contrasting souls that live side by side in the author of Les Rougon Macquart, one methodical, the other creative, reflected Vincent’s own creative approach.                     

Mariella Guzzoni in Vincent’s Books:  Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him 

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Pearls from artists* # 428

View from Isla del Sol in Bolivia

View from Isla del Sol in Bolivia

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

In its spectacle and ritual the Carnival procession in Oururo bears an intriguing resemblance to the description given by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega of the great Inca festival of Inti Raymi, dedicated to the Sun.  Even if Oururo’s festival did not develop directly from that of the Inca, the 16th-century text offers a perspective from the Andean tradition:

“The curacas (high dignitaries) came to their ceremony in their finest array, with garments and head-dresses richly ornamented with gold and silver.

Others, who claimed to descend from a lion, appeared, like Hercules himself, wearing the skin of this animal, including its head.

Others, still, came dressed as one imagines angels with the great wings of the bird called condor, which they considered to be their original ancestor.  This bird is black and white in color, so large that the span of its wing can attain 14 or 15 feet, and so strong that many a Spaniard met death in contest with it.

Others wore masks that gave them the most horrible faces imaginable, and these were he Yuncas (people from the tropics), who came to the feast with the heads and gestures of madmen or idiots.  To complete the picture, they carried appropriate instruments such as out-of-tune flutes and drums, with which they accompanied the antics.

Other curacas in the region came as well decorated or made up to symbolize their armorial bearings.  Each nation presented its weapons:  bows and arrows, lances, darts, slings, maces and hatchets, both short and long, depending upon whether they used them with one hand or two.

They also carried paintings, representing feats they had accomplished in the service of the Sun and of the Inca, and a whole retinue of musicians played on the timpani and trumpets they had brought with them.  In other words, it may be said that each nation came to the feast with everything that could serve to enhance its renown and distinction, and if possible, its precedence over the others.”    

El Carnaval de Oruro by Manuel Vargas in Mascaras de los Andes Bolivianos, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

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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: Your work is unlike anyone else’s. There is such power and boldness in your pastels. What processes are you using to create such poignant and robustly colored work?

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

A:  For thirty-three 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 using 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 about four months and hundreds of hours to complete.  

I 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 singular.  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* # 188

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

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

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

HM:  In order to create a work of art, you need an artist, an object, the work, and the audience.  Indeed, where there’s no audience, there’s no artist.  Renoir used to say, “No painters in Hamlet.” meaning that on a desert island you wouldn’t paint.

( I confess I am a little surprised.  For my part, I find it difficult to believe that the true artist cannot work without hope.  It seems to me that art is first and foremost an internal necessity, a need to escape from life.  It is true that this is closer to the mystics’ point of view and that the artist, if he does not work directly for his contemporaries, at least looks forward to some future resonance.  Nonetheless, I ask the same question again.)  

PC:  Even a true painter wouldn’t paint on a desert island?

HM:  No…  Painting is a means of communication, a language.  An artist is an exhibitionist.  Take away his spectators and the exhibitionist slinks off with his hands in his pockets.

The audience is the material in which you work.  You don’t see the face of the audience.  It’s huge, an immense mass.  The public is – listen, it’s the man you encounter one fine day, who says, “Monsieur Matisse, I can’t tell you how much I love your picture, the one you exhibited at the salon,” and this man is a clerk who could never spend a red cent on painting.  The public is not the buyer; the public is the sensitive material on which you hope to leave an imprint.

PC:  Through the picture, the audience returns to the source of emotion.

HM:  Yes, and the artist is the actor, the fellow with the wheedling voice who won’t rest until he’s told you his life story.     

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: What time of day do you find best for working?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I have always been a morning person.  When I was learning to fly at the age of twenty-five, I would be at the airport before 6 a.m. for flying lessons.   When I was in the Navy, I needed to be at my Pentagon office by 7.  

Mornings are still my most productive time.  Generally, I wake up early and then head directly to work at my studio or to swim laps at a nearby pool.  The windows in my studio face east so it gets lovely morning light.

Comments are welcome! 

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