Blog Archives

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* # 451

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.

Your attitude towards resistance determines the success of your work and your future. Resistance should be cultivated. How you meet these obstacles that present themselves in the light of any endeavor determine the direction of your life and career.

Allow me to propose a few suggestions about how to handle the natural resistances that your circumstances might offer. Do not wait for enough time or money to accomplish what you think you have in mind. Work with what you have right now. Work with the architecture you see around you right now. Do not what for what you assume is the appropriate, stress-free environment in which to generate expression. Do not wait for maturity or insight or wisdom. Do not wait till you are sure you know what you are doing. Do not wait until you have enough technique. What you do now, what you make of your present circumstances will determine the quality of your future endeavors.

And, at the same time, be patient.

Anne Bogart in A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre

Comments are welcome!

Q: What do you enjoy most about being an artist?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  This is a question I like to revisit every so often because life as an artist does not get easier; just the opposite, in fact. Visual artists tend to be “one man bands.” We do it all notwithstanding the fact that everything gets more difficult as we get older. It’s good to be reminded about what makes all the sacrifice and hard work worthwhile.

Even after thirty-four years as an artist, there are so many things to enjoy! I make my own schedule, set my own tasks, and follow new interests wherever they may lead. I am curious about everything and am rarely bored. I continually push my pastel technique as I strive to become a better artist. There is still so much to learn!

My relationship with collectors is another perk. I love to see pastel paintings hanging on collectors’ walls, especially when the work is newly installed and the owners are excited to take possession. This means that the piece has found a good home, that years of hard work have come full circle! And it’s often the start of a long friendship. After living with my pastel paintings for years, collectors tell me they see new details never noticed before and they appreciate the work more than ever. It’s extremely gratifying to have built a network of supportive art-loving friends around the country.  I’m sure most artists would say the same!

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!

Pearls from artists* # 418

A Remedios Varo Plate from “Science and Surrealism”

A Remedios Varo Plate from “Science and Surrealism”

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

… both Surrealism’s birth and infancy coincided with probably the most momentous period in the history of physics.  The first Surrealist text, written by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault and titled Magnetic Fields, deployed the spontaneous technique of ‘automatic writing,’ which supposedly allowed direct access to unconscious material.  It appeared in 1920 but was written in the previous year, coinciding with the expedition led by the English astrophysicist, Arthur Eddington, to observe the solar eclipse from the island of Principe off the west coast of Africa.  It was this journey that proved predictions set out in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (1916) about the gravitational deflection of light by the sun.  Eddington’s experiment led not only to Einstein’s instant, mythic status as the ‘new Copernicus’ and the swift popularization of Relativity, but more specifically its appearance in the early theoretical writings of Surrealism’s principle spokesman, Breton, which helped lay the foundations of the movement.  Breton’s subsequent manifesto texts of 1924 and 1929, extending his discussion of what he deemed the narrow, restrictive logic of Western though, can be situated within the same historical context that bore the revolutionary discoveries of quantum mechanics, culminating in 1927.       

Sibylline Strangeness:  Surrealism and Modern Physics,” by Gavin Parkinson in Science in Surrealism, published by Gallery Wendy Norris

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 408

“No Cure for Insomnia,” pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″ image, 70” x 50” framed

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

Classics have nothing to do with aesthetic sophistication.  They use the aesthetic as a springboard to something else.  The creation of a classic will often require the artist to deviate from prevailing standards in order to push the ordinary vision through.  If there is one prerequisite for producing a classic, it is the willingness to follow the vision wherever it leads, even if it demands a breach of convention, technique, or popular taste.  (It may not even be a question of if or when, for how can one produce a truly singular work without reinventing the medium to some extent?)  We often hear that the master artist is “in love” with her material:  that the sculptor loves the marble, the dancer loves the body, the musician loves his instrument.  For the maker of classics, however, the medium always seems to be an obstacle; love is never without a tinge of spite.  William S. Burroughs was so contemptuous of language that he took to describing it as a disease.  He conceived his work as an attempt to confront language in hopes to cure the mind of the “word virus.”  Indeed, if the goal of art is to take us beyond the ordinary preoccupations to reach the heart of the Real, it would seem essential that there be a fight, a struggle to wrest from the medium something to which Consensus dictates it is not naturally inclined. 

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action

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!  

Pearls from artists* # 290

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

“Dichotomy,” 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.

Rational functionalism is technique,

Irrational functionalism is art.

Art is creation

It can be based on but is independent of knowledge.

We can study art through nature,

but art is more than nature. 

Art is spirit,

and has a life of its own.

Art in its nature is anti-historical

because creative work is looking forward.

It can be connected with tradition

but grows, consciously or unconsciously, out of an artist’s mentality.

Art is neither imitation nor repetition

but art is revelation. 

Joseph Albers in Truthfulness in Art iJoseph Albers in Mexico, edited by Lauren Hinkson

Comments are welcome! 

Pearls from artists* # 254

"Survivors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26" image, 28 1/2" x 35" framed

“Survivors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″ image, 28 1/2″ x 35″ framed

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

An artist learns by repeated trial and error, by an almost moral instinct, to avoid the merely or the confusingly decorative, to eschew violence where it is a fraudulent substitute for power, to say what he has to say with the most direct and economical means, to be true to his objects, to his materials, to his technique, and hence, by a correlated miracle, to himself.

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

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 226

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

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

Technique is the test of sincerity.  If a thing isn’t worth getting the technique to say, it is of inferior value.  All that must be regarded as exercise.  Richter in his Treatise on Harmony, you see, says, “These are the principles of harmony and counterpoint; they have nothing whatever to do with composition, which is quite a separate activity.”  

Ezra Pound in Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews Second Series, edited by George Plimpton

Comments are welcome! 

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