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Pearls from artists* # 515

"The Orator," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"
“The Orator,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

“Under [General Francisco] Franco,” he said, “attendance at Catholic holidays was obligatory and much Catalan folklore was banned. People avoided the religious processions and, once they were no longer mandatory, ignored them… Marvesa’s [Spain] festive license of demons and dragons is no longer of darkness. If Franco claimed the mantle of Catholic light, then to party as Catalan devils is a happy celebration of freedom.

Demons and dragons are a customary feature of saints’ days and Corpus-Christi festivals throughout Spain and its former empire. They are also common in Carnivals. Indeed, it is partly because of the presence of demons, dragons, and other masked transgressive figures that Carnival has been so often designated – by defenders and detractors alike – as a pagan or devilish season, a time of unrestrained indulgence before the ascetic penances of Lent.

Julio Caro Baroja, the father of Spanish Carnival studies, scorned the antiquarian notion that the masked figures and seasonal inversions of Carnival were “a mere survival” of ancient pagan rituals. Carnival, he argued, was first nurtured by the dualistic oppositions of Christianity. Where it survives – for when he wrote it had been banned by Franco – it still enacts these old antagonisms. “Carnival,” he concluded, “is the representation of paganism itself face-to-face with Christianity.”

... Peter Burke, one of the more lucid historians of popular culture, has proposed that “there is a sense in which every festival [in early modern Europe] was a miniature Carnival because it was an excuse for disorder and because it drew from the same repertoire of traditional forms.

Max Harris in Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance

Comments are welcome!

Q: What is your process? (Question from artamour)

Some of Barbara’s pastels

A: For thirty-six years I have worked exclusively in soft pastel on sandpaper.  Pastel, which is pigment and a binder to hold it together, is as close to unadulterated color as an artist can get.  It allows for very saturated color, especially employing the self-invented techniques I have developed and mastered. I believe my “science of color” is unique, completely unlike how any other artist works.  I spend three to four months on each painting, applying pastel and blending the layers together to mix new colors on the paper. 

The acid-free sandpaper support allows the buildup of 25 to 30 layers of pastel as I slowly and meticulously work for hundreds of hours to complete a painting.  The paper is extremely forgiving.  I can change my mind, correct, refine, etc. as much as I want until a painting is the best I can create at that moment in time. 

My 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 the sandpaper.  In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I make new colors directly on the paper.  Regardless of size, each pastel painting takes three to four months and hundreds of hours to complete. 

have been devoted to soft pastel from the beginning.  In my blog and in numerous interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits.  For me no other fine art medium comes close. 

My subject matter is unique.  I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys.  On trips to these countries 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: You wear gloves and a mask when you are working in your studio, right? Can you tell me what kinds? (Question from Britta Konau)

Barbara at work

A: I wear a paper surgical mask – the type that has become ubiquitous since COVID – bought from a local medical supply store. I thoroughly coat my hands with barrier cream – Art Guard – to prevent pastel getting into my skin. The cream has an added benefit of making it easy to wash pastel off my hands. (Neither gloves nor individual finger cots ever worked for me. They made my fingers sweat and did not allow for the fine touch needed to blend new colors directly on sandpaper. Plus, they shredded from being rubbed against the paper’s grit). Also, it is very important that you work with your hand below your face so pastel dust falls below your nose, where you are less likely to breathe it in.

Comments are welcome!

Q: When did you start using the sandpaper technique and why (Question from “Arte Realizzata”)

The start of a new pastel-on-sandpaper painting

A: In the late 1980s when I was studying at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA, I enrolled in  a three-day pastel workshop with Albert Handel, an artist known for his southwest landscapes in pastel and oil paint.  I had just begun working with soft pastel and was experimenting with paper.  Handel suggested I try Ersta fine sandpaper.  I did and nearly three decades later, I’ve never used anything else. 

This paper is acid-free and accepts dry media, mainly pastel and charcoal.   It allows me to build up layer upon layer of pigment and blend, without having to use a fixative.  The tooth of the paper almost never gets filled up so it continues to hold pastel.  (On the rare occasion when the tooth DOES fill up, which sometimes happens with problem areas that are difficult to resolve, I take a bristle paintbrush, dust off the unwanted pigment, and start again).  My entire technique – slowly applying soft pastel, blending and creating new colors directly on the paper, making countless corrections and adjustments, rendering minute details, looking for the best and/or most vivid colors – evolved in conjunction with this paper. 

I used to say that if Ersta ever went out of business and stopped making sandpaper, my artist days would be over.  Thankfully, when that DID happen, UArt began making a very similar paper.  I buy it in two sizes – 22″ x 28″ sheets and 56″ wide by 10-yard-long rolls.  The newer version of the rolled paper is actually better than the old, because when I unroll it, it lays flat immediately.  With Ersta I would lay the paper out on the floor for weeks before the curl would give way and it was flat enough to work on.

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!

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!

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 is your favorite thing about creating on sandpaper? (Cassandra Alvarado Oliphant via Instagram)

Ready to start

Ready to start

A:  Undoubtedly, I could not make my work without UART sandpaper since my entire pastel technique evolved around it.   I use 400 and 500 grit.  My favorite thing about it is its ‘tooth’ (i.e. texture or roughness). 

Over the many months I spend creating a painting, I build layer upon layer of soft pastel.  Because this paper 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.

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.

 

Q: What does a pastel feel like in your hand?

With “Prophecy,” 70” x 50,” at Westbeth Gallery

With “Prophecy,” 70” x 50,” at Westbeth Gallery

A: Each manufacturer uses distinct binders to hold the raw pigment together to form a pastel stick. Due mainly to this binder, each pastel feels slightly different. Rembrandts are medium-hard and I generally use them for the first few layers.  The black backgrounds of my pastel paintings are achieved by layering lots of Rembrandt black.

I enjoy using Unison because they feel “buttery” as I apply them to the sandpaper.  If you’ve been to my studio, you know that I use just about every soft pastel there is!  Believe it or not, no two are the same color.

Each pastel has its own qualities and some are harder or more waxy than others. Henri Roche has the widest range of colors and they’re gorgeous!  I want them to show so I use them for the final layer, the ‘icing on the cake.”  

Comments are welcome!

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