Blog Archives

Q: Can you explain how you choose colors? (Question from Maria Cox via Instagram)

“Overlord,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58” x 38”

A: I am wild about color! As I work to create a pastel painting, I apply a color, back up from my easel to see how it interacts with and affects the rest of the painting, and then I make revisions. This process necessitates countless color changes and hundreds of hours during months of work. I apply pastel using a meticulous layering process. Were you to x-ray one of them, the earlier, discarded versions of a pastel painting would be visible. All the while I carefully fine-tune and refine how the colors and shapes interact with each other.

The goal is to make an exciting painting that no one, especially me as the maker, has ever seen before. I have no desire to repeat myself, to make art that resembles work by any other artist, or to be forced into a niche.

I try to select intense, vibrant colors that are exciting to look at, that work well in relationship to each other, and that will grab the viewer. Sometimes I deliberately choose colors for their symbolic meanings. For example, I selected a dark purple for the alternating triangles (the ones with the pink dots above) in “Overlord” because purple denotes royalty.

I have been working with soft pastel for 37 years so I have a fairly intricate science of color at my disposal. No doubt, many unconscious factors are at play, too. More on that in future posts.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you speak about someone who made a difference in your professional life?

Buddhist monk reciting prayers over my aunt’s ashes, Leh, Ledakh, India

A: The first person who comes to mind is my favorite aunt, Teddie. In 1997 she was headed to northern California to attend a three-year-plus silent Tibetan Buddhist retreat at her teacher’s center. Teddie offered me her West 13th Street 6th-floor walkup apartment to live in while she was away. At the time I was based in Alexandria, VA and had just had my first solo exhibition at an important West 57th Street gallery, Brewster Fine Arts. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the limited Washington, DC art scene, had outgrown everything it had to offer, and felt New York pulling me towards new and exciting professional adventures.

Teddie, recognizing my talent and ambition, made it possible for me to afford to move to New York. She had practiced Tibetan Buddhism for 35 years and was soon to become a Buddhist lama. She had an extraordinary mind and thought deeply about life. We used to talk for hours. Teddie was 7 years older and seemed more like a sister than an aunt. Indeed, she was my first soul mate. (I have been extremely fortunate to have had two such relationships in my life. The other was my late husband, Bryan).

Unfortunately, dear Aunt Teddie died at the age of 67 of breast cancer. Recently, on September 25 I honored her life in a short ceremony on a mountain cliff in Leh, Ladakh (India). A Tibetan Buddhist monk recited prayers as he placed her ashes among the rocks.

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: Why art? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

Barbara’s studio
Barbara’s studio

A: I love this question!  I remember being impressed by Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts a few years ago.  What stayed with me most was her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard.”  There she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.

I want to share some of my own personal reasons for art-making here, in no particular order.  My list keeps changing, but these are true at least for today. 

1.   Because I love the entire years-long creative process – from foreign travel whereby I discover new source material, to deciding what I will make, to the months spent in the studio realizing my ideas, to packing up my newest pastel painting and bringing it to my Virginia framer’s shop, to seeing the framed piece hanging on a collector’s wall, to staying in touch with collectors over the years and learning how their relationship to the work changes.

2.   Because I love walking into my studio in the morning and seeing all of that color!  No matter what mood I am in, my spirit is immediately uplifted.  

3.   Because my studio is my favorite place to be… in the entire world.  I’d say that it is my most precious creation.  It’s taken more than twenty-two years to get it this way.  I hope I never have to move!

4.   Because I get to listen to my favorite music all day.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of its urgent problems.  The same goes for whatever personal problems I am experiencing.

6.   Because I am devoted to my medium.  How I use pastel continually evolves.  It’s exciting to keep learning about its properties and to see what new techniques will develop.

7.   Because I have been given certain gifts and abilities and that entails a sacred obligation to USE them.  I could not live with myself were I to do otherwise.

8.   Because art-making gives meaning and purpose to my life.  I never wake up in the morning wondering, how should I spend the day?  I have important work to do and a place to do it.  I know this is how I am supposed to be spending my time on earth.

9.   Because I have an enviable commute.  To get to my studio it’s a thirty-minute walk, often on the High Line early in the morning before throngs of tourists have arrived.

10.  Because life as an artist is never easy.  It’s a continual challenge to keep forging ahead, but the effort is also never boring.  

11.  Because each day in the studio is different from all the rest. 

12.  Because I love the physicality of it.  I stand all day.  I’m always moving and staying fit.

13.  Because I have always been a thinker more than a talker.  I enjoy and crave solitude.  I am often reminded of the expression, “She who travels the farthest, travels alone.”  In my work I travel anywhere.

14.  Because spending so much solitary time helps me understand what I think and feel and to reflect on the twists and turns of my unexpected and fascinating life.

15.  Because I learn about the world.  I read and do research that gets incorporated into the work.

16.  Because I get to make all the rules.  I set the challenges and the goals, then decide what is succeeding and what isn’t.  It is working life at its most free.

17.  Because I enjoy figuring things out for myself instead of being told what to do or how to think.

18.  Because despite enormous obstacles, I am still able to do it.  Art-making has been the focus of my life for thirty-three years – I was a late bloomer – and I intend to continue as long as possible.

19.  Because I have been through tremendous tragedy and deserve to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I love.  The art world has not caught up yet, but so be it.  This is my passion and my life’s work and nothing will change that.

20.  Because thanks to the internet and via social media, my work can be seen in places I have never been to and probably will never go.

21.  Because I would like to be remembered.  The idea of leaving art behind for future generations to appreciate and enjoy is appealing.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 453

Carnival Masks at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz
Carnival Masks at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, 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.

Art begins in the struggle for equilibrium. One cannot create from a balanced state. Being off balance produces a predicament that is always interesting on stage. In the moment of unbalance, our animal instincts prompt us to struggle towards equilibrium and this struggle is endlessly engaging and fruitful. When you welcome imbalance in your work, you will find yourself instantly face to face with your own inclination towards habit. Habit is an artist’s opponent. In art, the unconscious repetition of familiar territory is never vital or exciting. We must try to remain awake and alive in the face of our inclinations towards habit. Finding yourself off balance provides you with an invitation to disorientation and difficulty. It is not a comfortable prospect. You are suddenly out of your element and out of control. And it is here the adventure begins. When you welcome imbalance, you will instantly enter new and unchartered territory in which you feel small and inadequate in relation to the task at hand. But the fruits of this engagement abound.

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

Comments are welcome!

Q: What is the most important factor behind your success?

At work
At work

A: In a word, I’d say it’s love. I love soft pastel! I love being an artist! I love looking at the thousands of pastels in my studio while I think about the possibilities for mixing new colors and making exciting new pastel paintings. Soft pastels are rich and intense.

Even after more than thirty years as an artist, I still adore what I am able to accomplish. I continually refine my craft as I push pastel to new heights. My business card says it all: “Revolutionizing Pastel as Fine Art!”

The surfaces of my finished pastel paintings are velvety and demanding of close study and attention. Soft pastel on sandpaper – no other medium is as sensuous or as satisfying. Who could argue with that!

Comments are welcome!

Q: What inspires you to start your next painting? (Question from Nancy Nikkal)

Source material for “The Champ”
Source material for “The Champ” and “Avenger”

A: For my current series, “Bolivianos,” I am using as source/reference material c-prints composed at a La Paz museum in 2017. I began the series by picking my favorite from this group of photos (“The Champ” and later, “Avenger”) before continuing with others selected for prosaic reasons such as I like some aspect of the photo, to push my technical skills by figuring out how to render some item in pastel, to challenge myself to make a pastel painting that is more exciting than the photo, etc. I like to think I have mostly succeeded.

At this time I am running low on images and have not yet imagined what comes next. Do I travel to La Paz again in 2021 to capture new photos? This series was a surprise gift so I am reluctant to deliberately chase after it knowing that ‘lightning never strikes twice.’ Will travel even be possible this year with Covid-19? These are questions I am wrestling with now.

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: Why do you make art?

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

“Why Do I Make Art” by Ursula von Rydingsvard

A:  Last spring I viewed Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  One thing that stayed with me is her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard” in which she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.  

I want to share some of my own personal reasons here, in no particular order.  My list keeps changing, but these are true at least for today. 

1.   Because I love the entire years-long creative process – from foreign travel whereby I discover new source material, to deciding what I will make, to the months spent in the studio realizing my ideas, to packing up my newest pastel painting and bringing it to my Virginia framer’s shop, to seeing the framed piece hanging on a collector’s wall, to staying in touch with collectors over the years and learning how their relationship to the work changes.

2.   Because I love walking into my studio in the morning and seeing all of that color!  No matter what mood I am in, my spirit is immediately uplifted.  

3.   Because my studio is my favorite place to be… in the entire world.  I’d say that it is my most precious creation.  It’s taken more than twenty-two years to get it this way.  I hope I never have to move!

4.   Because I get to listen to my favorite music all day or to Public Radio stations.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of it’s urgent problems.  The same goes for whatever personal problems I am experiencing.

6.   Because I am devoted to my medium.  How I use pastel continually evolves.  It’s exciting to keep learning about its properties and to see what new techniques will develop.

7.   Because I have been given certain gifts and abilities and that entails a sacred obligation to USE them.  I could not live with myself were I to do otherwise.

8.   Because art-making gives meaning and purpose to my life.  I never wake up in the morning wondering, how should I spend the day?  I have important work to do and a place to do it.  I know this is how I am supposed to be spending my time on earth.

9.   Because I have an enviable commute.  To get to my studio it’s a thirty-minute walk, often on the High Line early in the morning before throngs of tourists have arrived.

10.  Because life as an artist is never easy.  It’s a continual challenge to keep forging ahead, but the effort is also never boring.  

11.  Because each day in the studio is different from all the rest. 

12.  Because I love the physicality of it.  I stand all day.  I’m always moving and staying fit.

13.  Because I have always been a thinker more than a talker.  I enjoy and crave solitude.  I am often reminded of the expression, “She who travels the farthest, travels alone.”  In my work I travel anywhere.

14.  Because spending so much solitary time helps me understand what I think and feel and to reflect on the twists and turns of my unexpected and fascinating life.

15.  Because I learn about the world.  I read and do research that gets incorporated into the work.

16.  Because I get to make all the rules.  I set the challenges and the goals, then decide what is succeeding and what isn’t.  It is working life at its most free.

17.  Because I enjoy figuring things out for myself instead of being told what to do or how to think.

18.  Because despite enormous obstacles, I am still able to do it.  Art-making has been the focus of my life for thirty-three years – I was a late bloomer – and I intend to continue as long as possible.

19.  Because I have been through tremendous tragedy and deserve to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I love.  The art world has not caught up yet, but so be it.  This is my passion and my life’s work and nothing will change that.

20.  Because thanks to the internet and via social media, my work can be seen in places I have never been to and probably will never go.

21.  Because I would like to be remembered.  The idea of leaving art behind for future generations to appreciate and enjoy is appealing.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you work with a particular audience in mind?

"Shamanic," 26" x 20," finished

“Shamanic,” 26″ x 20,” finished

A:  In general I would answer no, I have no ‘specific’ audience in mind.  But I DO consider the audience in this sense.  As I put finishing touches on a pastel painting, I pay attention to how all of my decisions up to that point lead  the viewer’s eyes around.  I fine tune – brightening some areas, heightening the contrast with what’s next to it, blurring, fading, and pushing back others – all to keep the viewer’s gaze moving around the painting.  Once I am satisfied that it’s as visually exciting as I can make it, I consider the pastel painting finished, ready to be photographed, and driven to Virginia for framing.

Comments are welcome!    

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