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!

Q: Who are you and what do you do? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

At the studio
At the studio

A: Here is my professional bio.

I am an American contemporary artist and author who divides my time between residences in New York City and Alexandria, VA.  I am best known for my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, my  eBook, “From Pilot to Painter,” and this blog, which now has over 70,000 subscribers!

Friends say that I have led an extraordinary, inspiring life.  I learned to fly at the age of 25 and became a commercial pilot and Boeing-727 flight engineer before joining the Navy. As a Naval officer I spent many years working at the Pentagon and retired as a Commander.

On 9/11 my husband, Dr. Bryan C. Jack, was tragically killed on the plane that hit the Pentagon.

I use my large collection of Mexican and Guatemalan folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys – to create one-of-a-kind pastel-on-sandpaper paintings that combine reality and fantasy and depict personal narratives.   In 2017 I traveled to Bolivia where I became inspired to paint Bolivian Carnival masks. 

My pastel paintings are bold, vibrant, and extremely unusual.  Perhaps my business card says it all: “Revolutionizing Pastel as Fine Art!”

I exhibit nationally and internationally and have won many accolades during my 30+ years as a professional artist.  For additional info, please see the links in the sidebar.

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: Would you speak about the creative process that resulted in your 1994 pastel painting, “Amok”?

Barbara with “Amok” photo and painting
Barbara with “Amok,” c-print and pastel painting

A: Behind me in the photo above is one of my circa 1994 50” x 40” c-prints, signed by both Bryan, my late husband, and me. The photo was my reference for a pastel painting titled, “Amok” (right, above).

I staged these photos in our Alexandria house (staged photography was popular then), refined the composition over days or weeks, and lit the scene using two tungsten studio lights. I was careful to accentuate the shadows, doing what I could to light everything as though it were a film noir set. (Film noir is still a favorite movie genre of mine).

In those days I knew nothing about photography so I considered these photos collaborations, since Bryan clicked the shutter. (He typically shot two pieces of film using his old Toyo Omega 4 x 5 view camera with a rented wide angle lens). Bryan was reluctant to take any credit- insisting that the idea, concept, etc. were mine – but I persuaded him to also sign the photos. (How I wish he were still around to fill in forgotten details about our collaboration).

People enjoyed and often asked to purchase the reference photos so I sometimes had them enlarged and sold them. The dragon in the foreground is significant because it was my first purchase in Oaxaca during our initial trip to Mexico.

If anyone is interested, please remind me to tell the (long) story about how I got it home on the plane!  

Comments are welcome!

Q: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

"Us and Them," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38" image, 60" x 50" framed

“Us and Them,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″ image, 60″ x 50″ framed

A:  On September 11, 2001, my husband Bryan, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist (with an IQ of 180 he is the smartest man I have ever known) and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterrey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College. He had the horrible misfortune of flying out of Dulles Airport and boarding the plane that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people. Losing Bryan was the biggest shock of my life and devastating in every possible way.

The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work. Learning about photography and pastel painting became avenues to my well-being. I use reference photos for my paintings, so my first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera (Bryan always took these reference photos for me).

In July 2002 I enrolled in a one-week view camera workshop at the International Center of Photography in New York. Much to my surprise, I had already acquired substantial technical knowledge from watching Bryan. Still, after the initial workshop, I threw myself into this new medium and continued studying photography at ICP for several years. I began with Photography I and enrolled in many more classes until I gradually learned how to use Bryan’s extensive camera collection, to properly light my setups, and to print large chromogenic photographs in a darkroom.

In October 2009 it was very gratifying to have my first solo photography exhibition with HP Garcia in New York. Please see http://barbararachko.art/images/PDFS/ BarbaraRachko-HPGargia.pdf. I vividly remember tearing up at the opening as I imagined Bryan looking down at me with his beautiful smile, beaming as he surely would have, so proud of me for having become a respected photographer.

Continuing to make art had seemed an impossibility after Bryan’s death. However, the first large pastel painting that I created using a self-made reference photograph proved my life’s work could continue. The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” is certainly autobiographical. “She” is me, and “it” means continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you have a home studio or do you go to an outside studio to work? Which do you prefer and why?

At work

At work

A: I have always preferred a separate studio. Pastel creates a lot of dust, it’s toxic to breathe, plus I do not want to live with the mess! I need a place to go in the mornings, someplace where I can focus and work without any distractions. It’s difficult to do that at home.

From the beginning of my time as an artist, in the mid-1980’s, I had a studio. My first one was in the spare bedroom of the Alexandria, Virginia, house that I shared with my late husband, Bryan, and that I still own.

For about three years in the 1990s I had a studio on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a building in Alexandria, VA that is open to the public. People would come in, watch artists at work, and sometimes buy a piece of art.

In April 1997 an opportunity to move to New York arose and I didn’t look back. By then I was showing in a good 57th Street gallery, Brewster Arts Ltd. (the gallery focused exclusively on Latin American artists; I was in the company of Leonora Carrington, Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, etc.), and I had managed to find a New York agent, Leah Poller, with whom to collaborate.

I looked at only one other space before finding my West 29th Street studio and knew instantly it was the one! An old friend of Bryan’s from Cal Tech rented the space next door and he had told us it was available. Initially the studio was a sublet. The lease-holder was a painter headed to northern California to work temporarily for George Lucas at the Lucas Ranch. After several years she decided to stay so I was able to take over the lease. I feel extremely fortunate to have been in my West 29th Street, New York City space now for twenty-three years. In a city where old buildings are perpetually knocked down to make way for new ones this is rare.

My studio is an oasis in a chaotic city, a place to make art, to read, and to think. I love to walk in the door every morning and I feel calmer the moment I arrive. It’s my absolute favorite place in New York! Sometimes I think of it as my best creation. For more about this please see

https://artofcollage.wordpress.com/2020/04/30/artists-and-their-relationship-to-their-studio

Comments are welcome!

Q: (Part I) Would you share your story of how creating art enabled you to heal after losing your husband on 9/11?

"She Embraced It and Grew Stronger," 2003, 70” x 50” framed, the first pastel painting I completed after Bryan was killed

“She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” 2003, 70” x 50” framed, the first pastel painting I completed after Bryan was killed

A:  On June 16, 2001, I married Dr. Bryan Jack, my longtime companion and soulmate, during a very private ceremony in the garden of an historic Alexandria, Virginia residence. In attendance were a justice of the peace, me, and Bryan.  He and I were 48 years old and this was the first marriage for us both.  Sadly, we never celebrated an anniversary.  Exactly 87 days later my new husband was the victim of a terrorist attack.

On September 11, 2001, Bryan, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist, and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College. He boarded the American Airlines plane out of Dulles Airport that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.

To this day I consider how easily I, too, could have been killed on 9/11, if I had just decided to travel with Bryan to California. Plus, the plane crashed directly into my Navy office on the fifth floor E-ring of the Pentagon. (I am a retired Navy Commander and worked at the Pentagon for many years). But for a twist of fate, we both would have died:  Bryan on the plane, me either beside Bryan or inside the building.

In September 2001 Bryan and I had been together for fourteen and a half years. Surprisingly, we were happier than we had ever been.  At a time when other couples we knew were settling into a certain boredom and routine, our life together was growing richer and more interesting.  So losing Bryan – especially then – was heart-breaking, cruel, and devastating beyond comprehension.  It was so unfair.  I was numb and in shock.

The next six months passed by in a blur. But I had made a decision and pledged that I would not let the 9/11 attackers claim me as one more victim.  My life had been spared for a reason so I began to pick up the pieces and worked to make every day count.  Even many years later, wasting time still feels like a crime.

The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work in my studio. I knew exactly what I must do.  More than ever before, learning and painting would become the avenues to my well-being.

Continued next week…

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you speak about how important it was to get back to work after losing your husband on 9/11?

"She Embraced It and Grew Stronger," 2002, the first pastel painting I completed after Bryan was killed

“She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” 2003, the first pastel painting I completed after Bryan was killed

A:  On September 11, 2001, my husband Bryan, a high-ranking federal government employee, a brilliant economist (with an IQ of 180 he is still the smartest man I’ve ever met) and a budget analyst at the Pentagon, was en route to Monterrey, CA to give his monthly guest lecture for an economics class at the Naval Postgraduate College.  He had the horrible misfortune of flying out of Dulles airport and boarding the plane that was high-jacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.  Losing Bryan was the biggest shock of my life and devastating in every possible way.

The following summer I was ready to – I HAD to – get back to work.  Learning about photography and pastel painting became avenues to my well-being.  I use reference photos for my paintings, so my first challenge was to learn how to use Bryan’s 4 x 5 view camera (Bryan always took these reference photos for me).

In July 2002 I enrolled in a one-week view camera workshop at the International Center of Photography in New York.  Much to my surprise, I had already acquired substantial technical knowledge from watching Bryan.  Still, after the initial workshop, I threw myself into this new medium and continued studying photography at ICP for several years.  I began with Photography I and enrolled in many more classes until I gradually learned how to use Bryan’s extensive camera collection, to properly light my setups, and to print large chromogenic photographs in a darkroom.

In October 2009 it was very gratifying to have my first solo photography exhibition with HP Garcia in New York. (Please see http://barbararachko.art/images/PDFS/BarbaraRachko-HPGargia.pdf).  I vividly remember tearing up at the opening as I imagined Bryan looking down at me with his beautiful smile, beaming as he surely would have, so proud of me for having become a respected photographer.

Continuing to make art had seemed an impossibility after Bryan’s death.  However, the first large pastel painting that I created using a self-made reference photograph proved my life’s work could continue.  The title of that painting, “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” is certainly autobiographical.  “She” is me, and “it” means continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Is there a pastel painting that you are most proud of?

"She Embraced It and Grew Stronger," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58," 2003

“She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38,” 2003

A:  Without a doubt I am most proud of “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger.” 

After Bryan was killed on 9/11, making art again seemed an impossibility.  When he was alive I would spend weeks setting up and lighting the tableau I wanted to paint.  Then Bryan would shoot two negatives using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera.  I would select one and order a 20″ x 24″ reference photo to be printed by a local photography  lab.  

“She Embraced It…” is the first large pastel painting that I created without using a photograph taken by Bryan.  This painting proved that I had learned to use his 4 x 5 view camera to shoot the reference photographs that were (and still are) integral to my process.  My life’s work could continue!

Certainly the title is autobiographical.  ‘She’ in “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger” is me and ‘It’ means continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.

Comments are welcome!   

Q: What was the first painting you ever sold?

“Bryan’s Ph.D.”, 11″ x 13 1/2″, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.”  I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel.  I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist.  Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands. 

In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland.  In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research.  He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA.  I still own the chair and the house.  I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting.  I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2.  Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.

“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria.  I have not seen it since 1990.  (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).

Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband.  She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce.  Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now.  She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.

I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan.  He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty.  At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.  

My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation.  In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others.  This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally.  I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.  

Comments are welcome!     

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