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Q: What kind of art do you create?

At work

At work

A:  I live in the West Village in New York City and have been a working artist for thirty-four years. I create original pastel paintings that use my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, and toys – as subject matter. Blending with my fingers, I spend months painstakingly applying dozens of layers of soft pastel onto acid-free sandpaper. My self-invented technique achieves extraordinarily rich, vibrant color and results in paintings that uniquely combine reality, fantasy, and autobiography. Please see https://barbararachko.art/en/

For the last three years I have been working on a series called, “Bolivianos,” based on an exhibition of Carnival masks seen in La Paz. Art critics and others have said that these are my strongest pastel paintings so far. As I write I am working on the fifteenth piece in the series.  

Comments are welcome!

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: 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: What is more important to you, the subject of the painting or the way it is executed?

"Sam and Bobo,"soft pastel on sandpaper, 36" x 31", 1989

“Sam and Bobo,”soft pastel on sandpaper, 36″ x 31”, 1989

A:  In a sense my subject matter – folk art, masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, toys – chose me.  With it I have complete freedom to experiment with color, pattern, design, and other formal properties.  In other words, although I am a representational artist, I can do whatever I want since the depicted objects need not look like real things.  Execution is everything now.

This was not always the case.  I started out in the 1980s as a traditional photorealist, except I worked in pastel on sandpaper.  (For example, see the detail in Sam’s sweater above).  As I slowly learned and mastered my craft, depicting three-dimensional people and objects hyper-realistically in two dimensions on a piece of sandpaper was thrilling… until one day it wasn’t.  

My personal brand of photorealism became too easy, too limiting, too repetitive, and SO boring to execute!  In 1989 I had at last extricated myself from a dull career as a Naval officer working in Virginia at the Pentagon.  Then after much planning, in 1997 I was a full-time professional artist working in New York.  

Certainly I was not going to throw away this opportunity by making boring photorealist art.  I wanted to do so much more as an artist:  to experiment with techniques, with composition, to see what I could make pastel do, to let my imagination play a larger role in the paintings I made. I was ready to devote the time and do whatever it took to push my art further.

After spending the early creative years perfecting my technical skills, I built on what I had learned.  I began breaking rules – slowly at first – in order to push myself onward.  And I continue to do so, never knowing what’s next.  Hopefully, in 2018 my art is richer for it.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you share your current elevator pitch?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Here it is:

I live in New York and have been a working artist for more than thirty years.  I create original pastel paintings that use my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, and toys – as subject matter.  

Blending with my fingers, I spend months painstakingly applying dozens of layers of soft pastel onto acid-free sandpaper.  My self-invented technique achieves extraordinarily rich, vibrant color and results in paintings that uniquely combine reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

My background is extremely unusual for an artist.  I am a pilot, a retired Navy Commander, and a 9/11 widow.  Besides making art, I am a published author and blogger best known for my eBook, “From Pilot to Painter,” on Amazon and iTunes, and my popular blog, “Barbara Rachko’s Colored Dust.”

Please see images and more at http://barbararachko.art/en/

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Would you say there is a unifying quality to all of the work you have produced in the last thirty years?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  Yes, I can think of several.  Whether making pastel paintings or printing photographs in the darkroom, I have always been concerned with quality and craftsmanship and never pronounce a work finished until it is the best thing I can make. 

Although I started out as a maker of photorealist portraits in pastel, for twenty-odd years I have worked with Mexican folk art as my primary subject matter, treating these objects very differently in three separate series:  “Black Paintings,” “Domestic Threats,” and “Gods and Monsters.”  The first two are pastel-on-sandpaper paintings while the last is comprised of chromogenic photographs (c-prints).  A few years ago I also started making “Teleidoscopes” using an iPad app to photograph my Mexican and Guatemalan folk art collection.  This last one is just for fun; I do not offer them for sale.

Soft pastel is my first love and the two series of pastel paintings are my best-known work.  My technique for using pastel continues to evolve in intriguing ways.  I doubt I can ever learn all there is to know not only about color, but also about this medium.  Pastel is endlessly fascinating, which is why I have never wanted to switch to anything else. 

Comments are welcome!      

Q: Would you talk about your use of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art as a convenient way to study formal properties such as color, shape, pattern, composition, etc. in your pastel paintings?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  For me an interesting visual property of these objects is that they readily present themselves as a vehicle for exploring formal artistic properties, like color, pattern, shape, etc. especially compared to my earlier subject matter:  hyper-realistic portraits and still-lifes.  Intent as I was on creating verisimilitude in the earlier work, there was little room for experimentation.  

Many Mexican and Guatemalan folk art objects are wildly painted and being a lover of color, their brilliant colors and patterns are  what initially attracted me.  As a painter I am free to use their actual appearance as my starting point.  I photograph them out-of-focus and through colored gels in order to change their appearance and make them strange, enacting my own particular version of “rendering the familiar strange.”  Admittedly these objects are not so familiar to begin with. 

When I make a pastel painting I look at my reference photograph and I also look at the objects, positioning them within eye-shot of my easel.  There is no need whatsoever to be faithful to their actual appearance so my imagination takes over.  As I experiment with thousands of soft pastels, with shape, with pattern, with composition, and all the rest, I have one goal in mind – to create the best pastel-on-sandpaper painting I am capable of making. 

Comments are welcome!         

Q: How important is the feedback of your audience? Do you ever think about who will enjoy your Art when you conceive it?

Painting, subject, reference photo

Painting, subject, reference photo

A:  I can’t say that I think at all about audience reaction while I’m creating a painting in my studio.  Although, of course I want people to respond favorably to the work.

Generally, I’m thinking about technical problems – making something that is exciting to look at, well-composed, vibrant, up to my exacting standards, etc.  When I finish a painting, it is the best thing I am capable of making at that moment in time. 

I think about a painting and look at it for so long and with such intensity, that it could hardly have turned out any differently.  There is an inevitability to the whole lengthy process that goes all the way back to when I first laid eyes on the folk art figures in a dusty shop in a third world country.  Looking at a newly-finished painting on my easel I often think, “Of course!  I was  drawn to this figure so that it could serve this unique function in this painting.”

Comments are welcome!                

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?

Barbara in Bali (far right)

Barbara in Bali (far right)

A:  My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive. 

First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice. 

My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work.  As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next.  Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material. 

In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows.  Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.

In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera.  In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.   

Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  Now I go to Duggal.  Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.

Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper.  The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead. 

Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting. 

Comments are welcome!    

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I continue to work on “Motley,” a large pastel-on-sandpaper painting that features two folk art pieces I found in Mexico City in March.

Comments are welcome!

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