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* # 450

On the road 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.

All the journeys that have transpired in my life have been animated by interest. Something or someone has stopped me in my tracks. Interest, that thing that cannot really be faked, is an invitation to adventure. It has always been disorienting to do but I have to act on these interests. Somehow I know that in order to keep on working as an artist, I have to keep on changing. And this means that when interest is piqued, I must follow or die. And I know that I will have to hang on tight for the ride. These rides have changed me irrevocably.

The primary tool in a creative process is interest. To be true to one’s interest, to pursue it successfully, one’s body is the best barometer. The heart races. The pulse soars. Interest can be your guide. It always points you in the right direction. It defines the quality, energy and content of your work. You cannot feign or fake interest or choose to be interested in something because it is prescribed. It is never prescribed. It is discovered. When you sense this quickening you must act immediately. You must follow that interest and hold tight.

… If the interest is genuine and large enough and if it is pursued with tenacity and generosity, the boomerang effect is resounding. Interest returns volley to affect your life and inevitably alter it. You must be available and attentive to the doors that open unexpectedly. You cannot wait. The doors close fast. It will change your life. It will give you adventures you never expected. You must be true to it and it will be true to you.

Anne Bogart in A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre

Comments are welcome!

Q: How has photography changed your approach to painting?

Alexandria, VA (composed on an iPad Pro)

A: Except for many hours spent in life-drawing classes and still life setups that I devised when I was learning my craft in the 1980s, I have always worked from photographs. My late husband, Bryan, would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate “Domestic Threats” setups using his Toyo-Omega view camera. I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive (film) camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and needed to learn how to use them. Starting 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.

Early on I discovered that the sense of composition, color, and form I had developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was, and is, just another medium with which to express ideas. Pastel painting will always be my first love. However, pastel paintings take months of work, while photography offers instant gratification, especially with my current preferred camera, an iPad Pro.

Comments are welcome!

Q; What was the spark that got you started? (Question from Barbara Smith via Facebook)

Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983
Ensign Barbara Rachko, circa 1983

A: If I had to select one factor, I would say, profound unhappiness with my professional life. In 1986 I was a 33-year-old Navy Lieutenant working as a computer analyst at the Pentagon. I hated my job, was utterly miserable, and moreover, I was trapped because unlike many jobs, it’s not possible to resign a Naval commission with two weeks notice.

My bachelor’s degree had been in psychology. When I was in my 20s and before I joined the Navy, I had spent two years and my own money training to become a licensed commercial pilot and Boeing-727 Flight Engineer. I had planned to become an airline pilot, but due to bad timing (airlines were not hiring pilots when I was looking for a job), that did not come to pass.

So there I was with absolutely no interest, nor any training in computers, working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and completely bored. I knew I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere and resolved to make a significant change. Searching around, I discovered a local art school, the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, and began taking drawing classes.

One drawing class lead to more. Within a couple of years, due to being highly motivated to change my life, my technical skills rapidly improved. Even then, I believe, it was obvious to anyone who knew me that I had found my calling. I resigned my active duty Naval commission and have been a fulltime professional artist since October 1989. (Note: For fourteen more years I remained in the Naval Reserve working, mostly at the Pentagon, one weekend a month and two weeks each year, and retired as a Navy Commander in 2003).

Life as a self-employed professional artist is endlessly varied, fulfilling, and interesting. I have never once regretted my decision to pursue art fulltime!

Comments are welcome!

Q: You are a multi-talented woman! Tell us about your book, “From Pilot to Painter,” and how writing, for you, compares to painting and photography. Which do you prefer?

“From Pilot to Painter”

“From Pilot to Painter”

A:  I am pleased that my eBook FROM PILOT TO PAINTER is available on Amazon and iTunes.  It is based on my blog and is part memoir, including my personal loss on 9/11, insights into my creative practice, and intimate reflections on what it’s like to be an artist living in New York City now. The eBook includes new material not found on the blog, plus 25+ reproductions of my vibrant pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, a Foreword by Ann Landi (who writes for ARTnews and The Wall Street Journal), and more.

“Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust” (the title of my blog) 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 has encouraged me to become a better writer.

From the beginning in the 1980s I used photographs as reference material and 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 two 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.

Comments are welcome!

Q: When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what have those experiences taught you?

Mexico City

Mexico City

A:  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure. 

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975.  

The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (During my research I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!

Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people tending their ancestors’ graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with these beautiful people and their beliefs. 

From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. The first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Was there a pivotal time in your life when you were forced to choose between two different paths? Do you have any regrets?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  In 1988 I was a Navy Lieutenant working at the Pentagon as a computer analyst. I hated my boring job! For about two years I had been taking drawing classes at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA and was rapidly improving. More importantly, I discovered that making art was endlessly fascinating and challenging.

After much soul searching, I made the scary decision to resign from active duty.  Sept. 30, 1989 was my last day. I have been a professional visual artist ever since and surprisingly (to me!), have never needed a day job.

However, for fourteen years I remained in the Naval Reserve, working in Virginia one weekend a month and for two weeks each year. After I moved to New York in 1997, I used to take Amtrak to Washington, DC. I would go from my full time New York artist’s life to my part time military life. It was extremely interesting to be around such different types of people, to say the least! On November 1, 2003 I retired as a Navy Commander.

I have never, ever regretted the path I chose. I love being an artist and would not want to spend my life doing anything else.

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!

Pearls from artists* # 162

"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.

Particle after particle of the living self is transferred into the creation, until at last it is an external world that corresponds to the inner world and has the power of outlasting the author’s life.  

I suspect that some such dream is shared by many authors, but among those interviewed it is Faulkner who has come closest to achieving it, and he is also the author who reveals it most candidly.  “Beginning with Sartoris,” he says, I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top.  It opened up a mine of other people, so I created a cosmos of my own.  I can move these people around like God, not only in space but in time.”  And then he says, looking back on his work as if on the seventh day,  “I like to think of the world I created as being a kind of keystone in the universe; that, small as that keystone is, if it were ever taken away the universe itself would collapse.  My last book will be the Doomsday Book, the Golden Book, of Yoknapatawpha County.  Then I shall break the pencil and I’ll have to stop.”

Malcolm Cowley in Writers  at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series

Comments are welcome!

    

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