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Pearls from artists* # 495

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

Murch: …There’s a wonderful quotation from Goethe – he must have been frustrated at some point about the difficulty of communication. He said, “Utterly futile to try to change, by writing, someone’s fixed inclination. You will only succeed in confirming him in his opinion, or, if he has none, drenching him in yours.”

Ondaatje: There’s a poet in Vancouver who said, “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

M: Exactly. I’m sure Goethe didn’t think that way most of the time, otherwise he wouldn’t have kept on writing. He was talking in black-and-white terms: Agree with me or not! The richest zone of communication is the grey area… where the reader is somewhat receptive to what the author writes but also brings along his own images, and ideas, which in a creative way do violence to the author’s vision and ideas. A synergy results from what the writer presents and what the reader brings. That communication, initially present in neither the sender nor the receiver, is greater than the message of the writer alone or the thoughts of the reader alone.

It’s similar to what happens with human sight. Your left eye sees one thing and your right eye sees something else, a slightly different perspective. They’re so close and yet different enough that when the mind tries to see both simultaneously, to resolve their contradictions, the only way it can do so is to create a third concept, an arena in which both perspectives can exist: three-dimensional space. This “space” doesn’t exist in either of the images – each eye alone sees a flat, two-dimensional view of the world – but space, as we perceive it, is created in the mind’s attempt to resolve the different images it is receiving from the left and the right eye.

In The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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Pearls from artists* # 485

New York City

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

[Michael] Ondaatje: It’s an odd thing: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of ambiguity in film, and the need to save that ambiguous quality which exists in a book or painting, and which you think a film does not often have. And at the same time in a mix you are trying to “perfect” that ambiguity.

[Walter] Murch: I know. It’s a paradox. And one of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix – even though it had been ambiguous up to that point – I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of hemorrhaging of the organism.

O: And more of a confusion.

M: Yes. I keep thinking about it, and it’s a wonderful dilemma: you have to acknowledge that there must be unsolved problems at each stage. As hard as you work, you must have this secret, unspoken hope that one very significant problem will remain unsolved. But you never know what that will be until the film is done. You can almost define a film by the problem it poses, that it can’t answer itself, that it asks the audience to solve.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje

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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.

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Pearls from artists* # 378

With “Poseur,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 70” x 50,” 2019

With “Poseur,” Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 70” x 50,” 2019

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

[John] Graham told Lee [Krasner] and Jackson [Pollock] they were at the most wonderful part of their artistic journey because they were unknown and therefore free, and that there was only one thing they had to dread:  fame.

 How many men of great talent on their way to remarkable achievement in the present day are ruthlessly destroyed by critics, dealers, and public while mediocre, insensitive hacks, who by intrigue and industrious commercial effort have gained recognition and success, will go down in history with their inane creations.  Success, fame, and greatness coincide very seldom.  The great are not recognized during their life-time… Poe, Van Gogh,Rembrandt, Cezanne, Gauguin, Modigliani, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and others could not make even a miserable living out of their art.

 As Graham described it, true art could never be of the world because it was always steps, decades, light-years ahead of it.  Artists, therefore, had no need to be part of the world, either.  Their only duty was to persevere.  Humanity, he said, depended on it.

Mary Gabriel in Ninth Street Women

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Q: Do you have a mentor?

"Alone Together," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Alone Together,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  No, but I often wish I did.  How wonderful it would be to consult someone who’s been there, a productive and successful artist who could provide advice on all the concerns, especially the problems and dangers, inherent in a professional artist’s life. 

But I have been at this for thirty years and found no such person!  I think it’s because each artist’s career is highly unique as we chart are own individual paths.  Unlike most professions, there are no firm rules or straight forward career milestones for making your way as an artist.

Besides the countless hours spent in the studio, I have always worked diligently to understand the art business.  Certainly getting work seen, exhibited, reviewed, sold, etc. is as important as making it in the first place.  It’s all part of being a professional artist. 

Early on I developed the habit of relying on my own best judgment, both in creating the work and in getting it seen and collected.  Certainly I have made plenty of mistakes.  As a result though, I know a tremendous amount about the art business.  And I enjoy sharing what I know in the hopes of steering other artists away from making similar missteps.

Comments are welcome!    

Pearls from artists* # 144

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.

Art and design are rule-based.  This flies in the face of everything that most people have been taught before, namely, that art and design are about freedom.  I remember reading a wonderful analogy about this concept many years ago in an out-of-print, early twentieth-century book on design.  The author asked us to imagine a flying kite – the quintessential emblem of unrestricted, spontaneity, soaring in the wind.  Keeping taught the line between you and the kite, however, is the source of that freedom.  Here’s another way of putting it:  “Creativity arises out of the tension between the rules and imagination.”

Leslie Hirst in The Art of Critical Making:  Rhode Island School of Design on Creative Practice, Rosanne Somerson and Mara L. Hermano, editors

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Q: In the “Black Paintings” you create a deep intellectual interaction and communicate a wide variety of states of mind. I admit that certain “Black Paintings” unsettle me a bit. I see in this series an effective mix between anguish and happiness. Rather than simply describing something, these paintings pose a question and force us to contemplation. Can you talk about this aspect of your work?

"The Storyteller," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“The Storyteller,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  I’m sure you and other viewers will see all kinds of states of mind, like anguish, happiness, and everything in between.  I think that’s wonderful because it means my work is communicating a message to you.  Sometimes people have told me that my images are unsettling and that’s fine, too.  I would never presume to tell anyone what to think about my work.  As one reviewer put it, “What you bring to my work you get back in spades!”  

Some of this is intentional, but some is not.  My day-to-day experiences – what I’m thinking about, what I’m feeling, what I’m reading, the music I’m listening to, etc. –  get embedded into the work. I don’t understand exactly how that happens, but I am glad it happens. This work does come from a deep place, much deeper than I am able to explain even to myself. After nearly three decades as an artist, the intricacies of my creative process are still a mystery. Personally, I am very fond of mysteries and don’t need to understand it all.  

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 82

"The Sovereign," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Sovereign,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

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

Art isn’t psychology.  For one thing art deals in images, not language.  Images precede language and are closer to feelings.  They summon feelings before they’re named and categorized, when they’re still fresh and sometimes hard to recognize or identify.

For another thing, to translate his vision an artist uses materials that are, for lack of a better word, alchemical.  Paint, for example, has this wonderful, mysterious quality –  a smell and a sensuous, velvety feel and an ability to hold color and light – that unlocks and speeds up one’s creative metabolism.  And paint captures my every impulse – from my broadest conceptions to the tiniest ticks and tremors of my wrist.

There are literally no words to describe what occurs when an image suddenly and unexpectedly appears on the canvas.  Sometimes it’s serendipity, the result of a fortunate brushstroke.  Sometimes I think it has to do with the inherent qualities of paint, or the slickness of a surface, or the fullness or acuity of a brush.  And sometimes when I’ve got a good rhythm going and everything comes together, I feel as though it produces the purest expression of who I am and what I am and how I perceive the world.   

Eric Fischl and Michael Stone in Bad Boy:  My Life on and off the Canvas

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Pearls from artists* # 37

Self portrait, White Sands, NM

Self portrait, White Sands, NM

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

Certainly the most compelling thing in both personal life and art is to be yourself.  When we engage attentively and honestly, pay attention to the insights that come to us, see our denial and faulty thinking, and engage in uncovering the obstacles and blocks to our expression, we realize that art is a wonderful medium for personal growth.

If we realize all this, we do ourselves justice when we claim to be an artist.  We really mean it, and we own it.  Today, as we start working on whatever it is we’re doing, let’s claim our role as artists, being attentive to process as much as finished results.

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

Comments are welcome!

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