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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!

Q: What made you fall in love with soft pastel versus another medium?

 

“The Champ” in “Worlds Seen & Unseen” at Westbeth Gallery, NYC

“The Champ” in “Worlds Seen & Unseen” at Westbeth Gallery, NYC

A: I like to get my hands right into my work. In other words, I don’t like brushes or anything else to intervene between my hands and what I’m working on.

I work with 400 or 500 grit Uart sandpaper so the downside is that I rub my fingertips raw from blending layers of soft pastel onto sandpaper. I’ve tried using rubber gloves (they make my fingers sweat and wear out fast), cotton gloves (they leave bits of lint on the paper), using a blending stump (it leaves lint on the paper), etc., but nothing works as well as my own fingers. So sore fingertips are an unavoidable occupational hazard. I sometimes take days off from the studio just so that my hands can heal.

I adore color and love looking at the thousands of pastels in my studio!  After working with this medium for more than thirty years, I still love what I am able to accomplish and I am still pushing it to do new things. The colors are rich, intense, velvety.  No other medium is as sensuous or as satisfying.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you speak about the meaning of your work and the different materials you use?

About half of Barbara’s pastels

About half of Barbara’s pastels

A:  It is as difficult to explain the meaning of my art as it is to interpret the meaning of life!  I am invested in and concerned with process:  foreign travel, prodigious reading, devotion to craft, months of slow meticulous work in the studio trying to create an exciting work of art that has never been seen before, etc.  I love making pastel paintings!  Many years ago I challenged myself to push the limits of what soft pastel can achieve.  I am still doing so.

I leave it to others – viewers, arts writers, critics, art historians – to study my creative journey and talk about meanings.  I believe an artist is inspired to create and viewers ponder the creation.  I would not presume to tell anyone how to react to my work.

For many years I have been devoted to promoting soft pastel as a fine art medium.  There are excellent reasons it has been around for five hundred years!  It is the most permanent of media. There’s no liquid binder to cause oxidizing or cracking over time, as happens with oil paint.  Pastel colors are intense because they are close to being pure pigment.  Pastel allows direct application (no brushes) with no drying time and no color changes.

I use UArt acid-free sandpaper.  This is not sandpaper from a hardware store.  It is made for artists who work in pastel and allows me to build up layers of pigment without using a fixative.  My process – slowly applying and layering pastels, blending and mixing new colors directly on the paper, making countless adjustments, searching for the best and/or most vivid colors – continually evolves.  Each pastel painting takes months to create.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do your materials have properties that allow you to maximize what you depict in your work?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

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

The sandpaper support allows the build up 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.

Comments are welcome!

Q: You have spoken about your pastel technique, which involves layering pigments on top of each other, up to 25 to 30 layers. When you do this are you putting the same colors on top of each other?

 

An early version of "Oracle," 26" x 20"

An early version of “Oracle,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″

Finished

Finished

A:  I do layer Rembrandt black soft pastels on top of each other to achieve the dark backgrounds in my “Black Paintings” and “Bolivianos” series.  Black Rembrandts are the pastels I use most so I order them several dozen at a time.  The 400 or 500 grit sandpaper requires at least four layers of pastel just to achieve even coverage.  Over the next few months I add many more layers of black pastel to achieve the final rich look.

The figures and shapes in each pastel painting are a different  story.  Were you to x-ray them, you’d see many different colors underneath the final one.  Sometimes subsequent colors are closely related to earlier ones.  With each additional layer, I correct, refine, and strengthen my drawing so the objects depicted become more solid and/or three-dimensional.

In addition to the thousands of pastels I have to choose from, I mix and blend new colors directly on the sandpaper.  As I proceed, I am searching for the ‘best’ colors, those that make the overall painting more resonant, more alive, and more exciting to look at.  Of course, this is wholly subjective.

Comments are welcome!        

Pearls from artists* # 296

"Offering," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Offering,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

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

Meaning in art isn’t the same as meaning in science.  The meaning of the second law of thermodynamics, so long as the words are understood, isn’t changed by who reads it,or when, or where.  The meaning of Huckleberry Finn is. 

Writing is a risky business.  No guarantees.  You have to take the chance.  I’m happy to take it.  I love taking it.  So my stuff gets misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted – so what?  If it’s the real stuff, it will survive almost any abuse other than being ignored, disappeared, not read.      

Ursula K. Le Guin in No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 284

"The Magical Other," soft pastel on sandpaper, 48" x 38"

“The Magical Other,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 48″ x 38″

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

We can do anything, or almost, but how balanced, magnanimous, and modest one has to be to do anything!  And also how patient.  It is as true in the arts as anywhere else.

So… to work.  It is not a non sequitur.  I shall never be one of those directly active (except as a teacher, occasionally), but now and then I am made aware that my work, odd though it seems, does help people.  But it is only in these last years at Nelson that I have known that for sure.   

May Sarton in Journal of a Solitude:  The intimate diary of a year in the life of a creative woman   

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 282

"The Champ," soft pastel on sandpaper, 26" x 20"

“The Champ,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″

*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 longstanding, at one time almost universal, dismissal of one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century as essentially decorative and superficial is based, at any rate in part, on a simplistic response to the poise, clarity and radiant colour of Matisse’s work that fails to take account of the apprehensive and at times anguished emotional sensibility from which it sprang.

Hilary Spurling in Matisse the Master, A Life of Henri Matisse:  The Conquest of Colour, 1909 – 1954  

Comments are welcome!

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