Blog Archives

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!

Pearls from artists* # 412

Barbara’s studio

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.

The obstacles faced by women who hoped to leave a mark on humankind have, through the millennium, varied in height but not in stubborn persistence.  And yet, a great many women have stubbornly ignored them. The desire to put words on a page or marks on a canvas was greater than the accrued social forces that told them they had no right to do so, that they were excluded by their gender from that priestly class called artist.  The reason, according to Western tradition, was as old as creation itself:  For many, God was the original artist and society had assigned its creator a gender – He.  The woman who dared to declare herself an artist in defiance of centuries of such unwavering belief required monstrous strength, to fight not for equal recognition and reward but for something at once more basic and vital:  her very life.  Her art was her life.  Without it, she was nothing.  Having no faith that society would broaden its views on artists by dethroning men and accommodating women, in 1928 [Virginia] Woolf offered her fellow writers and painters a formula for survival that allowed them to create, if not with acceptance, then at least unimpeded.  A woman artist, she said, needed but two possessions:  “money and a room of her own.”          

Mary Gabriel in Ninth Street Women

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: What’s on the easel today?

Preliminary sketch

Preliminary sketch

A:  This is a preliminary charcoal sketch for my next large (58” x 38”) pastel painting.  I loved seeing “The Champ,” 26” x 20,” blown-up as a poster in the London Underground so I decided to create a larger original.  Now I can’t wait to tackle all that hair!  So far the sketch resembles a Rastafarian, but who knows if that will carry over to the pastel painting!  Stay tuned.

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 369

Central Park, NYC

Central Park, NYC

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

Salieri wrote a memoir of his own, which his friend Ignacio von Mosel used as the basis for a biography, published in 1827.  Salieri’s original document disappeared, but Mosel quoted parts of it.  One anecdote is particularly winning.  Salieri is recounting the premier, in 1770, of his second opera, “Le Donne Letterate” (“The Learned Woman”).  The applause is vigorous, prompting the young composer to follow the audience out into the street, in the hope of soaking up more praise.  He overheard a group of operagoers:     

The opera is not bad,” said one.  “It pleased me right well,” said a second (that man I could have kissed).  “For a pair of beginners, it is no small thing,” said the third.  “For my part,” said the fourth, “I found it very tedious.”  At these words I struck off into another street for fear of hearing something still worse.

Any creative person who has made the mistake of surreptiously canvassing public opinion will identify with Salieri’s fatal curiosity.

Alex Ross in Salieri’s Revenge in The New Yorker, June 3, 2019

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 308

"The Ancestors,” 70” x 50” framed, in Barbara's studio

“The Ancestors,” 70” x 50” framed, in 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.

Art is mysterious because its purpose is unknown and its effect always exceeds the ends we put it to.  If it is true, for instance, that nearly all human societies see the possession of artistic objects as a sign of prestige and power, it may simply be because art’s primary quality makes it a suitable sign for those who want to legitimize their authority.  And while it may be the case that art ennobles us by bringing beauty into our lives, or that it conveys complex cultural ideas simply and effectively, or that it preserves the beliefs of one age for the next – again, these functions could very well follow from art’s original, mysterious, irreducible shining.  Just as it is the gleam of gold that makes it precious in our eye and not its preciousness that makes it gleam, so the primary quality of art could precede all of its uses and appropriations.  In other words art may be something before it becomes all the things we claim it to be.           

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

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you describe how you are taking soft pastel in new directions as a fine art medium?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  I have been devoted to soft pastel for more than thirty years.  In this blog and in countless interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close.

I have developed my own original methods for working with soft pastel, pushing this venerable 500-year-old medium to its limits and using it in ways that no one has done before.  I have created a unique science of color in which I layer and blend pigments.  When viewers (including fellow artists) see my work in person for the first time, they often ask, “What medium is this?”  

My self-invented techniques for using soft pastel achieve rich velvety textures and exceptionally vibrant color.  Blending with my fingers, I painstakingly apply dozens of layers of pastel onto acid-free sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I blend new colors directly on the paper.  Each pastel painting takes about three months and hundreds of hours to complete. 

My subject matter is singular.  I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys.  On trips to these places and elsewhere I frequent local mask shops, markets, and bazaars searching for the figures that will populate my pastel paintings.  How, why, when, and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the creative process.  Each pastel painting is a highly personal blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.

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!     

Q: How do you decide how much realism and how much imagination to put into a pastel painting?

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

Models, reference photograph, and pastel painting in progress

A:  I wouldn’t say “decide” is the right word because creating a painting is not strictly the result of conscious decisions.  I think of my reference photograph, my preliminary sketch, and the actual folk art objects I depict as starting points.  Over the months that it takes to make a pastel painting, the resulting interpretive development pushes the painting far beyond this source material.  When all goes well, the original material disappears and characters that belong to the painting and nowhere else emerge.  

It is a mysterious process that I am still struggling to understand.  This is the best way I can describe what it feels like from the inside, as the maker.  

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 127

eBook cover

eBook cover

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

Two facts differentiate Daybook from my work in visual art.

The first is the simple safety of numbers.  There are 6500 Daybooks in the world.  My contribution to them was entirely mental, emotional.  I never put my hand on a single copy of these objects until I picked up a printed book.  I made no physical effort; no blood, no bone marrow moved from me to them.  I do not mean that I made no effort.  On the contrary, the effort was excruciating because it was so without physical involvement, so entirely hard-wrought out of nothing physical at all; no matter how little of the material world goes into visual art, something of it always does, and that something keeps you company as you work.  There seems to me no essential difference in psychic cost between visual and literary effort,  The difference is in what emerges as result.  A work of visual art is painfully liable to accident; months of concentration and can be destroyed by a careless shove.  Not so 6500 objects.  This fact gives me a feeling of security like that of living in a large, flourishing, and prosperous family.

Ancillary to this aspect is the commonplaceness of a book.  People do not have to go much out of their way to get hold of it, and they can carry it around with them and mark it up, and even drop it in a tub while reading in a bath.  It is a relief to have my work an ordinary part of life, released from the sacrosanct precincts of galleries and museums.  A book is also cheap.  Its cost is roughly equivalent to its material value as an object, per se.  This seems to me more healthy than the price of art, which bears no relation to its quality and fluctuates in the marketplace in ways that leave it open to exploitation.  An artist who sells widely has only to mark a piece of paper for it to become worth an amount way out of proportion to its original cost.  This aspect of art has always bothered me, and is one reason why I like teaching;  an artist can exchange knowledge and experience for money in an economy as honest as that of a bricklayer.   

Anne Truitt in Turn:  The Journal of an Artist

Comments are welcome!

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