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Pearls from artists* # 461

Whitney Museum of American 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.

I must not eat much in the evening, and I must work alone. I think that going into society from time to time, or just going out and seeing people, does not do much harm to one’s work and spiritual progress, in spite of what many so-called artists say to the contrary. Associating with people of that kind is far more dangerous; their conversation is always commonplace. I must go back to being alone. Moreover, I must try to live austerely, as Plato did. How can one keep one’s enthusiasm concentrated on a subject when one is always at the mercy of other people and in constant need of their society? Dufresne was perfectly right; the things we experience for ourselves when we are alone are much stronger and much fresher. However pleasant it may be to communicate one’s emotion to a friend there are too many fine shades of feeling to be explained, and although each probably perceives them, he does so in his own way and thus the impression is weakened for both. Since Dufresne has advised me to go to Italy alone, and to live alone once I am settled there, and since I, myself, see the need for it, why not begin now to become accustomed to the life; all the reforms I desire will spring from that? My memory will return, and so will my presence of mind, and my sense of order.

The Journal of Eugene Delacroix edited by Hubert Wellington

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* # 431

New York Harbor

New York Harbor

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

Writer Stanley Elkin suggested that all books retell the Old Testament story of Job.  Similarly one feels that behind most music there is a struggle with pain.  By the time we are adults, the songs we know by heart are often those that acknowledge grief or celebrate release, and the performers we respect are the ones who sing from need – people like Etta James, of whom it was said that she “always hit the notes with the right amount of hurt and hope.”

A photographer’s subject is his or her score, the given notes on a page.  The way the photographer hits these notes – shows the subject – determines whether we will be newly reconciled with it.          

Robert Adams in Art Can Help

Comments are welcome!

Q: I understand your comments to mean that being at the studio challenges you to be your best. How (why) do you think that works? (Question from Nancy Nikkal)

"Avenger," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“Avenger,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A: I am always trying to push my pastel techniques further, seeking to figure out new ways to render my subject matter, expanding my technical vocabulary. It would be monotonous to keep working the same old way.  Wasn’t it John Baldessari who said, “No more boring art?”  He was talking about art that’s boring to look at.  Well, as someone who CREATES art I don’t want to be bored during the making so I keep challenging myself.  I love learning, in general, and I especially love learning new things about soft pastel.

Very often I start a project because I have no idea how to depict some particular subject using pastel.  For example, one of the reasons I undertook “Avenger” was to challenge myself to render all of that hair!  Eventually I managed to figure it out and I learned a few new techniques in the process.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 372

Barbara’s studio

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.

Artists will, in their long education of sifting through what they like and respond to and what they don’t, find they “see” an artist’s work in the environment.  They see a Corot or a Hopper.  They know then that they have found a good subject because of the similarity of poetic attraction.  They see with a set of limits or conventions that speak to them.

But as time goes on and you continue working, you find you do not consider those subjects any longer but they still register.  They belong to someone else.  You have found other affinities.  Or perhaps more importantly you have found your own.  You respond now to your own internal song.  Art is about art as much as it is about nature.  Everything we respond to has passed through our filter of artistic influences.

Ian Roberts in Creative Authenticity:  16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I’m at the beginning on a small (26” x 20”) pastel painting.  The subject is a jaguar mask I photographed in La Paz.  This is painting number eleven in the “Bolivianos” series.  Lots of green colored dust now!

Comments are welcome!

Q: In the “Bolivianos” series you are exclusively depict masks. What drew you to them?

Source material for “The Champ”

Source material for “The Champ”

A:  For me a mask is so much more than a mask.  It is a living thing with its own mind, its own soul, and with a unique history.  With this series I feel as though I am creating portraits of living beings.  

These images are a return to my early days because I began as a photo-realist portrait painter.  So I am reconnecting with a first love, except with a welcome twist.  This time I do not have to satisfy a portrait client’s request to make my subject look younger or more handsome.  I am free to respond only to what the work needs. 

Comments are welcome!     

Q: What was the first painting you ever sold?

“Bryan’s Ph.D.”, 11″ x 13 1/2″, soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  I believe my first sale was “Bryan’s Ph.D.”  I made it in 1990 as one of several small paintings created to improve my skills at rendering human hands in pastel.  I had recently left the Navy and was building a career as a portrait artist.  Bryan, my late husband, was often my model for these studies, not only because it was convenient, but because he had such beautiful hands. 

In 1990 Bryan was working on his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Maryland.  In this painting he is drawing a diagram that illustrates a theoretical point about “international public goods,” the subject of his research.  He was sitting in an old wooden rocking chair in our backyard in Alexandria, VA.  I still own the chair and the house.  I photographed his hands close-up and then created the painting.  I don’t remember which of Bryan’s cameras I used, but it was one that took 35 mm film; perhaps his Nikon F-2.  Somewhere I must still have the negative and the original reference photo.

“Bryan’s Ph.D.” is 11″ x 13 1/2″ and it sold for $500 at a monthly juried exhibition at The Art League in Alexandria.  I have not seen it since 1990.  (Above is a photograph of “Bryan’s Ph.D.” from my portfolio book).

Not long ago the owner contacted me, explaining that she had received the painting as a gift from her now ex-husband.  She was selling it because it evoked bitter memories of her divorce.  Her phone call was prompted by uncertainty about the painting’s value now.  She had a likely buyer and needed to know what price to charge.

I was saddened because I have so many beautiful memories of this particular painting and of an idyllic time in my life with Bryan.  He was on a leave of absence from the Pentagon to work on his dissertation, while I was finished with active duty.  At last I was a full time artist, busily working in the spare bedroom that we had turned into my first studio.  

My conversation with the owner was a reminder that once paintings are let out into the world, they take on associations that have nothing to do with the personal circumstances surrounding their creation.  In short, what an artist creates solely out of love, stands a good chance of not being loved or appreciated by others.  This is one reason to only sell my work to people I select personally.  I ended the telephone conversation hoping that “Bryan’s Ph.D.” fares better in its new home.  

Comments are welcome!     

Q: Would you say there is a unifying quality to all of the work you have produced in the last thirty years?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  Yes, I can think of several.  Whether making pastel paintings or printing photographs in the darkroom, I have always been concerned with quality and craftsmanship and never pronounce a work finished until it is the best thing I can make. 

Although I started out as a maker of photorealist portraits in pastel, for twenty-odd years I have worked with Mexican folk art as my primary subject matter, treating these objects very differently in three separate series:  “Black Paintings,” “Domestic Threats,” and “Gods and Monsters.”  The first two are pastel-on-sandpaper paintings while the last is comprised of chromogenic photographs (c-prints).  A few years ago I also started making “Teleidoscopes” using an iPad app to photograph my Mexican and Guatemalan folk art collection.  This last one is just for fun; I do not offer them for sale.

Soft pastel is my first love and the two series of pastel paintings are my best-known work.  My technique for using pastel continues to evolve in intriguing ways.  I doubt I can ever learn all there is to know not only about color, but also about this medium.  Pastel is endlessly fascinating, which is why I have never wanted to switch to anything else. 

Comments are welcome!      

Pearls from artists* # 164

Untitled chromogenic print, 24" x 24," edition of 5

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x 24,” edition of 5

* 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 Eastern and Western classics are full of gods, saints, and heroes, all striving against life’s odds and overcoming them with perseverance, courage, energy  and hope as well as help from some sort of divine energy.  Unlike the gods, the saints, gurus, and heroes are humanized in creative works.  Otherwise, we would find it difficult to accept them, relate to them or look up to them for inspiration and courage.  It is the humanization of the subject that makes the supernatural sometimes feel real.   And sometimes makes the impossible seem reachable and achievable.  The classic writings all contain humanized heroes, saints and gods.  The characters in these books are so humanized that the courage and inspiration we get from their endurance in overcoming life’s challenges will keep on inspiring readers forever.  Because of this we can aspire to their accomplishments.  If we too are able to create meaningful works providing timeless inspiration to help others, our work will live on.

Samuel Odoquei in Origin of Inspiration:  Seven Short Essays for Creative People  

Comments are welcome!          

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