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!

Q: Why art? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

Barbara’s studio
Barbara’s studio

A: I love this question!  I remember being impressed by Ursula von Rydingsvard’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts a few years ago.  What stayed with me most was her wall text, “Why Do I Make Art by Ursula von Rydingsvard.”  There she listed a few dozen benefits that art-making has brought to her life.

I want to share some of my own personal reasons for art-making here, in no particular order.  My list keeps changing, but these are true at least for today. 

1.   Because I love the entire years-long creative process – from foreign travel whereby I discover new source material, to deciding what I will make, to the months spent in the studio realizing my ideas, to packing up my newest pastel painting and bringing it to my Virginia framer’s shop, to seeing the framed piece hanging on a collector’s wall, to staying in touch with collectors over the years and learning how their relationship to the work changes.

2.   Because I love walking into my studio in the morning and seeing all of that color!  No matter what mood I am in, my spirit is immediately uplifted.  

3.   Because my studio is my favorite place to be… in the entire world.  I’d say that it is my most precious creation.  It’s taken more than twenty-two years to get it this way.  I hope I never have to move!

4.   Because I get to listen to my favorite music all day.

5.   Because when I am working in the studio, if I want, I can tune out the world and all of its urgent problems.  The same goes for whatever personal problems I am experiencing.

6.   Because I am devoted to my medium.  How I use pastel continually evolves.  It’s exciting to keep learning about its properties and to see what new techniques will develop.

7.   Because I have been given certain gifts and abilities and that entails a sacred obligation to USE them.  I could not live with myself were I to do otherwise.

8.   Because art-making gives meaning and purpose to my life.  I never wake up in the morning wondering, how should I spend the day?  I have important work to do and a place to do it.  I know this is how I am supposed to be spending my time on earth.

9.   Because I have an enviable commute.  To get to my studio it’s a thirty-minute walk, often on the High Line early in the morning before throngs of tourists have arrived.

10.  Because life as an artist is never easy.  It’s a continual challenge to keep forging ahead, but the effort is also never boring.  

11.  Because each day in the studio is different from all the rest. 

12.  Because I love the physicality of it.  I stand all day.  I’m always moving and staying fit.

13.  Because I have always been a thinker more than a talker.  I enjoy and crave solitude.  I am often reminded of the expression, “She who travels the farthest, travels alone.”  In my work I travel anywhere.

14.  Because spending so much solitary time helps me understand what I think and feel and to reflect on the twists and turns of my unexpected and fascinating life.

15.  Because I learn about the world.  I read and do research that gets incorporated into the work.

16.  Because I get to make all the rules.  I set the challenges and the goals, then decide what is succeeding and what isn’t.  It is working life at its most free.

17.  Because I enjoy figuring things out for myself instead of being told what to do or how to think.

18.  Because despite enormous obstacles, I am still able to do it.  Art-making has been the focus of my life for thirty-three years – I was a late bloomer – and I intend to continue as long as possible.

19.  Because I have been through tremendous tragedy and deserve to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I love.  The art world has not caught up yet, but so be it.  This is my passion and my life’s work and nothing will change that.

20.  Because thanks to the internet and via social media, my work can be seen in places I have never been to and probably will never go.

21.  Because I would like to be remembered.  The idea of leaving art behind for future generations to appreciate and enjoy is appealing.

Comments are welcome!

Travel photo of the month*

Road to Machu Picchu, Peru

*Favorite travel photos that have not yet appeared in this blog

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!

Pearls from artists* # 443

Working. Photo: Kimberly Okner-Kevorkian
Working. Photo: Kimberly Okner-Kevorkian

*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 theater has been good to me. It has produced great friendships, love, travel, hard work, fun, terror and pleasure. It has also offered an entire life of study. Study is a full-time engagement which includes reading books, reading people, reading situations, reading about the past and reading about the present. To study, you enter into a situation with your whole being, you listen and then begin to move around inside it with your imagination. You can study every situation you are in. You can learn to read life while life is happening.

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

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!

Pearls from artists* # 425

Gladstone, NJ

Gladstone, NJ

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

And yet books were faithful companions for Vincent, an important source of sustenance during his times of melancholy:  he periodically re-read his favourites, finding new meaning in the text and illustrations each time.  Van Gogh read in at least two ways: first “breathlessly,’ and then ‘by careful exploration.’  But we could add a third and a fourth way:  thirdly as an artist, and fourthly from the perspective of the writer he perhaps knew himself to be.  To Vincent, reading books meant above all to ‘seek in them the artist who made them,’ as he wrote to his sister Willemien.  He sought to open an internal dialogue with other writers as artists, and meditated on their words, stopping to consider and reconsider a phrase to make it resonate within him  He did this in more than one language – internalizing words, ruminating, bending them to his will, and finally assigning them to a fate of his choosing, over the years.  Remarkably several Prefaces by French Naturalist novelists such as Zola, De Goncourts or Maupassant (today considered genuine manifestos) were among the pages that truly challenged and engaged his mind.  In them he found the freedom that he was seeking in painting – the ‘confirmation’ of his own ideas, inspiration and encouragement.  The work of the illustrators of his favorite books and magazines equally attracted him and had a lingering effect on him, on which he paused to reflect repeatedly, extracting inspiration indirectly.              
Mariella Guzzoni in Vincent’s Books:  Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him 

Comments are welcome!

Travel photo of the month*

Calder Room at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Calder Room at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

*Favorite travel photos that have not yet appeared in this blog

Comments are welcome!

Travel photo of the month*

Smithsonian Castle, Washington, DC

Smithsonian Castle, Washington, DC

* Favorite travel photos that have not yet appeared in this blog

Comments are welcome!

Travel photo of the month*

Ollantaytambo in Peru‘s Sacred Valley

Ollantaytambo in Peru‘s Sacred Valley

* Favorite travel photos that have not yet appeared in this blog

Because reminiscing while looking through old photographs is one of the few ‘travel’ options open to Americans now… sigh!

Comments are welcome!

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