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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!

Q: What makes you drawn to face masks?

“Raconteur,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58” x 38,” in progress

A: For me a mask is so much more than a mask.  It is almost a living thing with its own soul and with a unique history.  I always wonder, who created this mask?  For what purpose?  Where has it been?  What stories would it tell if it could?  In my current “Bolivianos” series I feel as though I am creating portraits of living, or perhaps once living, beings.

In a way the masks are a pretext for a return to my early days as an artist.  When I resigned my Naval commission to pursue art full time, I started out as a photo-realist portrait painter.  The twist is that this time I do not have to satisfy a client’s request to make my subjects look younger or more handsome.  I am joyfully free to respond only to the needs of the pastel painting before me on the easel. 

Comments are welcome!

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!

Pearls from artists* # 458

"Prophecy," Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 58" x 38" Image, 70" x 50" Framed
“Prophecy,” Soft 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.

When I have painted a fine picture I have not given expression to a thought! That is what they say. What fools people are! They would strip painting of all its advantages. A writer has to say almost everything in order to make himself understood, but in painting it is as if some mysterious bridge were set up between the spirit of the persons in the picture and the beholder. The beholder sees figures, the external appearance of nature, but inwardly he meditates; the true thinking that is common to all men. Some give substance to it in writing, but in so doing they lose the subtle essence. Hence, grosser minds are more easily moved by writers than by painters or musicians. The art of the painter is all the nearer to man’s heart because it seems to be more material. In painting, as in external nature, proper justice is done to what is finite and to what is infinite, in other words, to what the soul finds inwardly moving in objects that are known through the senses alone.

The Journal of Eugene Delacroix edited by Hubert Wellington

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!

Pearls from artists* # 440

“Conundrum,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38” x 58” image, 50” x 70” framed
“Conundrum,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38” x 58” Image, 50” x 70” 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.

Most artists desire recognition, and the persistent lack of it may be a bitter pill to swallow.  The artist who is too-soon recognized, as Norman Mailer felt himself to be, might argue that early fame is harder on the artist than years of obscurity.   But the composer with a score for a powerful symphony locked away in his drawer, and the actress who has never found a way into a great drama, are hard-pressed to agree with Mailer.  Similarly, the painter who has her entire output of paintings to enjoy for herself because she cannot sell them may praise her fortitude and applaud her accomplishments, but still experiences great sadness.

 If you are not honored with real, appropriate recognition, you struggle not to consider yourself a failure.  You may argue that it is the world that has failed you… but it is hard to take comfort in that knowledge.  You need recognition more than you need accurate understanding of why recognition has eluded you.  And as you deal, during your years in the trenches, with what may turn out to be a maddingly insufficient lack of recognition, you are challenged to find ways of maintaining your faith, courage, good cheer, and emotional equilibrium.      

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

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 433

Chatting with Jenny Holzer.  It looks like she did not want her picture taken, but she was actually waiving. VIGIL: Jenny Holzer and @creativetime

Chatting with Jenny Holzer.  It looks like she did not want her picture taken, but she was actually waiving.

*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 positions exist, the artistic and the commercial.  Between these two an abiding tension persists.  The eighteenth-century American painter Gilbert Stuart complained, “What a business is that of portrait painter.  He is brought a potato and is expected to paint a peach.”  The artist learns that the public wants peaches, not potatoes.  You can paint potatoes if you like, write potatoes, dance potatoes, and compose potatoes, you can with great and valiant effort communicate with some other potato-eaters and peach-eaters.  In so doing you contribute to the world’s reservoir of truth and beauty.  But if you won’t give the public peaches, you won’t be paid much.

Repeatedly artists take the heroic potato position.  They want their work to be good, honest, powerful – and only then successful.  They want their work to be alive, not contrived and formulaic.  As the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch put it:  “No longer shall I paint interiors, and people reading, and women knitting.  I shall paint living people, who breathe and feel and suffer and love.”

The artist is interested in the present and has little desire to repeat old, albeit successful formulas.  As the painter Jenny Holzer put it, “I could do a pretty good third generation-stripe painting, but so what? 

The unexpected result of the artist’s determination to do his [sic] own best art is that he is put in an adversarial relationship with the public.  In that adversarial position he comes to feel rather irrational for what rational person would do work that’s not wanted? 

…Serious work not only doesn’t sell well, it’s also judged by different standards.  If the artist writes an imperfect but commercial novel it is likely to be published and sold.  If his screenplay is imperfect but commercial enough it may be produced.  If it is imperfect and also uncommercial it will not be produced.  If his painting is imperfect but friendly and familiar it may sell well.  If it is imperfect and also new and difficult, it may not sell for decades, if ever.

Ironically enough, the artist attempting serious work must also attain the very highest level of distinction possible.  He must produce Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov but not also The Insulted and Injured or A Raw Youth, two of Dostoevsky’s nearly unknown novels.  He is given precious little space in this regard.      

I daresay, this last is why I devote my life to creating the most unique, technically advanced pastel paintings anyone will see!

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

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!

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