Blog Archives

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!

Pearls from artists* # 474

“Madame Roulin and Her Baby,” 1888, Oil on canvas, Vincent Van Gogh, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

If ever an artist needed a degree of protection against his public, surely it is Vincent van Gogh. Reproductions of his most emblematic paintings, especially the gyrating nightscapes and the blazing series of sunflower studies made in his late years, adorn countless bedrooms, living rooms, and bathrooms all across what used to be known as the developed world. The popularity of the works executed in the great flowering of this last period, which began around the time of his revelatory visit in the autumn of 1885 to the newly completed Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, and ended when he died less than five years later at the age of thirty-seven, is unparalleled. Of the great ones among his contemporaries, and there were many, only Degas can come near to rivaling him as a mainstay of interior decoration.

John Banville in His Own Worst Enemy, The New York Review of Books, May 13, 2021

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Q: What’s on the easel today?

In progress

A: I continue slowly working on an untitled 58” x 38” pastel-on-sandpaper painting that is part of the acclaimed “Bolivianos” series.

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: 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 inspires you to start your next painting? (Question from Nancy Nikkal)

Source material for “The Champ”
Source material for “The Champ” and “Avenger”

A: For my current series, “Bolivianos,” I am using as source/reference material c-prints composed at a La Paz museum in 2017. I began the series by picking my favorite from this group of photos (“The Champ” and later, “Avenger”) before continuing with others selected for prosaic reasons such as I like some aspect of the photo, to push my technical skills by figuring out how to render some item in pastel, to challenge myself to make a pastel painting that is more exciting than the photo, etc. I like to think I have mostly succeeded.

At this time I am running low on images and have not yet imagined what comes next. Do I travel to La Paz again in 2021 to capture new photos? This series was a surprise gift so I am reluctant to deliberately chase after it knowing that ‘lightning never strikes twice.’ Will travel even be possible this year with Covid-19? These are questions I am wrestling with 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: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress
“Poker Face,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

A: I continue working on “Enigma,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20” x 26.” The title for this piece suggested itself as I was driving to my house in Alexandria, VA. I was listening to Lady Gaga’s current album, “Chromatica.” Her song “Enigma” came on and I thought, “That’s a great title for my painting because some areas of the ‘face’ are my own personal enigma!” They’re rather dark in my reference photo so I don’t yet understand what is happening there visually. But I will figure it out. I always do!

This is the second time I have titled a pastel painting based on a Lady Gaga song. It was “Poker Face,” from her debut album “The Fame.” My painting, “Poker Face,” was completed in 2012 and is number 24/45 in the “Black Paintings” series.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I recently started a new 26” x 20” pastel painting that is number 16 in the “Bolivianos” series.  More about this work at

https://barbararachko.art/en/paintings/bolivianos

Comments are welcome!

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