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: 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!

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: 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 inspires you?

On Lake Titicaca in Bolivia

A: I love to travel and the more remote the destination the better! My current pastel painting series is based on a 2017 trip to Bolivia that continues to inspire me. More info about this work is at https://barbararachko.art/en/paintings/bolivianos

Also, I find the medium of soft pastel to be more fascinating now than ever. There is still so much to learn as I challenge myself to do more with it and to become a better artist.

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!

Pearls from artists* # 408

“No Cure for Insomnia,” pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″ image, 70” x 50” framed

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

Classics have nothing to do with aesthetic sophistication.  They use the aesthetic as a springboard to something else.  The creation of a classic will often require the artist to deviate from prevailing standards in order to push the ordinary vision through.  If there is one prerequisite for producing a classic, it is the willingness to follow the vision wherever it leads, even if it demands a breach of convention, technique, or popular taste.  (It may not even be a question of if or when, for how can one produce a truly singular work without reinventing the medium to some extent?)  We often hear that the master artist is “in love” with her material:  that the sculptor loves the marble, the dancer loves the body, the musician loves his instrument.  For the maker of classics, however, the medium always seems to be an obstacle; love is never without a tinge of spite.  William S. Burroughs was so contemptuous of language that he took to describing it as a disease.  He conceived his work as an attempt to confront language in hopes to cure the mind of the “word virus.”  Indeed, if the goal of art is to take us beyond the ordinary preoccupations to reach the heart of the Real, it would seem essential that there be a fight, a struggle to wrest from the medium something to which Consensus dictates it is not naturally inclined. 

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action

Comments are welcome!

Q: How long did it take you to discover the properties of pastel? (Liliana Mileo via facebook.com/BarbaraRachko/)

A charcoal self-portrait from 1988

A charcoal self-portrait from 1988

A:  After I moved to Alexandria, Virginia in the mid-1980s, I began taking classes at The Art League School.  I was extremely unhappy with my career as a Navy Lieutenant.  I worked as a computer analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and was searching for something more meaningful to do with my life.

I began with a basic drawing class and liked it.  I enrolled in more classes and decided to spend two years working exclusively in black and white media, such as charcoal and graphite, before advancing to color.  Fortunately, early on I found an excellent teacher in Lisa Semerad.  I remain deeply grateful for the strong foundational drawing skills she imparted to me during this period.

After two years I tried water color and soon discovered it was not for me, a perfectionist who needs to refine my work.  Then I tried etching and found it extremely tedious, the antithesis of instant gratification.

Finally I began studying soft pastel with Diane Tesler, another gifted teacher, and fell in love with this medium!  At The Art League School I also completed a one-week workshop with Albert Handell, who introduced me to the archival sandpaper that I have been using ever since.

While I fell in love with pastel three decades ago, I continue to learn about its unique properties.  I am pushing pastel to new heights as my techniques continually evolve.  This is a lifetime journey of learning.  I hope to never know all there is to know.

Comments are welcome!  Ask anything and I may answer in a future blog post, as you’ve seen here with Liliana’s question.

 

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