Blog Archives

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress
Work in progress

A: I recently started another 26” x 20” pastel painting.

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’s on the easel today?

On the easel

A: I’m working on a preliminary charcoal sketch for my next “Bolivianos”pastel painting. This will be number 17 in the series.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Reference photo, preliminary charcoal drawing, pastel painting

A: (Foreground) “The Enigma,” soft pastel on sandpaper, “26” x 20” is awaiting finishing touches.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

A: I continue slowly working on a 26” x 20” pastel painting that has given me plenty of problems, mostly on the ‘face.’ Hopefully, this painting is in the homestretch now.

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: 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: Walk us through your “typical day”?

Barbara at work on “Schemer,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 26” x 20”

Barbara at work on “Schemer,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 26” x 20”

A:  I’ll describe a typical day at the studio.  When I first arrive in the morning, I read for 30 minutes. Reading focuses and quiets my mind and gets me ready to begin the day’s work.  While I read, I look at the pastel painting that’s on my easel to see where to begin.  Then I close the book, turn on some music, plug in the Halogen lamps I use while working, apply a barrier cream to my hands, put on a surgical mask (to avoid breathing pastel dust), pick up a pastel, and start.   

I never sit while working.  I enjoy the physicality of art-making and prefer to stand at my easel so I can back up to see how the pastel painting looks from a distance.  I like being on my feet all day and getting some exercise.  I work for a couple of hours, break for lunch, and then work the rest of the afternoon.

I believe artists need to be disciplined.  I work five days a week, taking Wednesdays and Sundays off, and spend seven hours or more per day in the studio.  Daylight is essential so I work more hours in summer, fewer in winter.  I like to think of art-making as independent of time tables, but I tend to work in roughly two-hour blocks before taking a break.  I typically work until 5:00 or so.

Studio hours are sacrosanct and exclusively for creative work.  I do not have WiFi at my studio and prefer to keep my computer and mobile devices elsewhere (they devour time).  Art business activities – answering email, keeping up with social media, sending jpegs, writing blog posts, doing interviews, etc. – are accomplished at home in the mornings, in the evenings, and on days off from the studio.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I’m continuing to work on a 58” x 38” pastel painting.  The title is not definite yet, although I do have two that I am considering.

Comments are welcome!

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