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!

Pearls from artists* # 542

Barbara’s Studio

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

Observing these objects and imagining their history broadened my perspective. In China, we were still living in a culturally impoverished era, but art had not abandoned us – its roots were deeply planted in the weathered soil. The stubborn survival of this indigenous artistic tradition demonstrated that our narrow-minded authoritarian state would never be able to remake our culture in its own image. From then on, when I wasn’t spending time with my parents, I was immersing myself in the world of antiques. The dealers found me perplexing, for I followed no prevailing tastes or conventional wisdom. Instead I was taken with obscure objects, and made a point of buying things that seemed to have little or no value; my hungry spirit was nourished as I imagined the stories lurking behind each piece. The observations and insights that came to me from the distant past spurred me on to make art of my own.

– Ai Weiwei in 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows

This is exactly my experience with the folk art I collect!

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 534

Barbara’s Studio

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

Today I am quoting myself:

I strive to always do what is best for my art practice. It’s difficult sometimes, but it’s important to ignore most of what other people say. They mean well, but advice to artists is often misguided, especially when it is unsolicited. Fortunately, our hearts are never wrong.

B. Rachko on a Facebook post

Comments are welcome!


Pearls from artists* # 524

Barbara’s New York Studio

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

I made a decision a long time ago to recite affirmations to myself every morning in order to stay on the right track. I first start out with The Lord’s Prayer, then I thank God for the blessings that have been bestowed on me, then I ask for preservation of health, and then close with a very purposeful statement about who I am and who I want to be. Affirming myself every morning is a very important part of my daily routine, because if I don’t know who I am, someone else will decide for me. You’ve got to know who you are and where you come from in order to get where you want to go! Believing in yourself and filling your mind and soul with purpose is essential to being able to create meaningful art.

Quincy Jones in the liner notes for We Are by Jon Batiste

Comments are welcome!

Q: What about the importance of vision in your training in the Navy has helped you be able to see what you want to create in your art? (Question from “Arte Realizzata”)

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

A: I continue to reflect on what my experiences as a Naval officer contributed to my present career.  Certainly, I learned attention to detail, time management, organization, and discipline, which have all served me well.  I keep regular studio hours (currently 10:00 – 4:00 on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) which I understand is rare among artists. 

Prior to joining the Navy, I had financed my own flight training to become a commercial pilot and Boeing-727 Flight Engineer. However, my Naval career consisted entirely of monotonous paper-work jobs that were not the least bit intellectually challenging.  Finding myself stuck in jobs that reflected neither my skills nor my interests, I made a major life change.  When I left active duty at the Pentagon I resolved, “I have just resigned from the most boring job.  I am going to do my best to never make BORING art!”  Other than this, I an hard-pressed to pinpoint anything the Navy contributed to my art career. 

Comments are welcome!         

Pearls from artists* # 476

Barbara’s Studio

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

For a great many artists solitude is the time when they feel most real and alive. It is when they have their most intense experiences, when they can vicariously live out any adventure, any dream. Tennessee Williams said, “I’m only really alive when I’m writing.” The painter Robert Motherwell wrote, “I feel most real to myself in the studio.” The young, exuberant Russian painter Marie Bashkirtseff exclaimed at the end of the last century:

In the studio all distinctions disappear. One has neither name nor family; one is no longer the daughter of one’s mother, one is oneself and individual, and one has before one art, and nothing else. One feels so happy, so free, so proud!

We may think of his aliveness as the accumulation of al the above-listed benefits, as the artist working out her life, manifesting her creativity, suiting her personality, playing, avoiding unwanted social interactions, working authentically and integrity, living intensely – as the artist being her grandest self.

Eric Maisel in A Life in the Arts: Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 461

Whitney Museum of American Art

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

I must not eat much in the evening, and I must work alone. I think that going into society from time to time, or just going out and seeing people, does not do much harm to one’s work and spiritual progress, in spite of what many so-called artists say to the contrary. Associating with people of that kind is far more dangerous; their conversation is always commonplace. I must go back to being alone. Moreover, I must try to live austerely, as Plato did. How can one keep one’s enthusiasm concentrated on a subject when one is always at the mercy of other people and in constant need of their society? Dufresne was perfectly right; the things we experience for ourselves when we are alone are much stronger and much fresher. However pleasant it may be to communicate one’s emotion to a friend there are too many fine shades of feeling to be explained, and although each probably perceives them, he does so in his own way and thus the impression is weakened for both. Since Dufresne has advised me to go to Italy alone, and to live alone once I am settled there, and since I, myself, see the need for it, why not begin now to become accustomed to the life; all the reforms I desire will spring from that? My memory will return, and so will my presence of mind, and my sense of order.

The Journal of Eugene Delacroix edited by Hubert Wellington

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* # 415

Staten Island Ferry

Staten Island Ferry

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

I like to think of myself (and each of you) as a high priest of memory protection.  Using our cameras, we protect the memories of our subjects; we protect the memories we have while interacting with those subjects; we help to protect the memories of our audience who sees our work.  This is truly a sacred calling, and one that deserves respect and a thoughtful approach.   

Scott Bourne in Photo Therapy Motivation and Wisdom by Rick Sammon 

Comments are welcome!

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