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Pearls from artists* # 477

Photo: Izzy Nova
Photo: Izzy Nova

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

Although he produced thousands of works of art in his pitifully short time on earth, Vincent [van Gogh] – as, following his own example, we shall call him – failed to sell a single painting in his lifetime, despite the fact that his brother Theo was a prominent Paris art dealer who, among other business coups, made a fortune for Claude Monet. Although he suffered through periods of deepest doubt, Vincent knew that one day his work would be recognized for its true worth. All the same, he could not have dreamed that his jarringly revolutionary paintings would one day rise so high in popular regard.

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

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: Do you have a favorite among your thousands of travel photographs from around the world?

Tile worker, South India

Tile worker, South India

A:  I do!  It is this photograph of a family matriarch filling a water jar.  I don’t remember the name of the village, but it was somewhere in South India at a clay-tile-making workshop.

Walking in, I immediately stopped in my tracks.  Had I just traveled back in time to some 18th century workshop?  I found her appearance and demeanor extraordinary!  (Regretfully, I did not ask her name).  She was tiny, yet she was the boss whose authority and judgement were beyond question.   After observing her move around the studio for a few minutes, I asked if I might have a photograph.  She immediately struck this arresting and classic pose.  I smiled to myself, “Obviously, she has done this a few times!”

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!           

Pearls from artists* # 385

Potosí, Bolivia

Potosí, Bolivia

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

Sunday of Carnival, the parade begins.  For a whole day of celebration in music and dance, people can express their hope and fears, revive their myths and escape to a reality far from everyday life.

Thousands of spectators arrive from different parts if Bolivia and other countries.  Filling the streets, they straddle benches, window ledges, balconies, cats and eve hang from walls or roofs to witness the entrance of the Carnival.  Thus is the magnificent parade when Carnival makes its official entry into Oruro.  The comparsas (dance troupes) dance to music for20 blocks, nearly eight lies, to the Church of the Virgin of Socavón (Virgin of the Mine). Each tries to out do the next in the brilliance of their costumes, the energy of their dancing and the power of their music.  All their efforts are dedicated to the Virgin whose shrine is found on the hill called Pie de Gallo.

If there are thousands of spectators, there are also thousands of dancers from the city and other parts of the country.  Among the most remarkable are the Diablos and Morenos which count for eight of the 40 or 50 participating groups.  Keeping in mind that the smallest troupes have between 30 and 50 embers and the largest between 200 and 300, it is possible to calculate the number of dancers and imagine the spectacle.

Each dance recalls a particular aspect of life in the Andes.  Lifted from different periods and places, the dances offer a rich interpretation of historical events, creating an imaginative mythology for Oruro.

… Carnival blends indigenous beliefs and rituals with those introduced by the Spaniards.  Both systems of belief have undergone transformations, each making allowance for the other, either through necessity or familiarity.  The Christianity  fought from Europe becomes loaded with new meanings while the myths and customs of the Andes accommodate their language and creativity to the reality of their conquered world.  The process can be seen as a struggle culminating in a ‘mestizaje’ or new cultural mix.

El Carnaval de Oruro by Manuel Vargas in Mascaras de los Andes Bolivianos, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your work is unlike anyone else’s. There is such power and boldness in your pastels. What processes are you using to create such poignant and robustly colored work?

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

Barbara working on an interview. Photo: Maria Cox

A:  For thirty-three 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 using 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 about four months and hundreds of hours to complete.  

I 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 singular.  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: Do you plan your work in advance or is it improvisation?

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  My process is somewhere in between those two.  I work from my own set-up or on-site photographs and make a preliminary sketch in charcoal before I start a pastel painting.  Thousands of decisions about composition, color, etc. occur as I go along. 

Although it starts out somewhat planned, I have no idea what a pastel painting will look like when it’s finished.  Each piece takes about three months, not counting foreign travel, research, and a gestation period of several months to determine what the next pastel painting will even be.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Last week you spoke about what happens before you begin a pastel painting. Would you talk about how you actually make the work?

Beginning a new pastel painting

Beginning a new pastel painting

A:  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I try to be in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week. 

I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have thousands to choose from), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper.   A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel. 

My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?”  I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done before.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How long does it take you to complete a pastel-on-sandpaper painting?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  Mine is a slow and labor-intensive process.  First, there is foreign travel to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  If they are heavy I ship them home.  

Next comes planning exactly how to photograph them, lighting and setting everything up, and shooting a roll of 220 film with my Mamiya 6 camera.  I still like to use an analog camera for my fine art work, although I am rethinking this.  I have the film developed, decide which image to use, and order a 20” x 24” reference photograph from Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street.  

Then I am ready to start.  I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months.  I am in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week.  During that time I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have 8 tables-worth to choose from!), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper.  A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel.  My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?”  I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done.

Comments are welcome!

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