Q: How do you work and approach your subject? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

June 19, 2021
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* # 459

June 16, 2021
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.

Naturally we want freedom, flow and harmony in our work. These are qualities that give it eloquence. But we cannot find this flow by avoiding the obstacles that arise upon starting out. We welcome the resistances and then apply our God given ammunition – our imagination, energy and will – and finally watch the obstacles dissolve. Only then can we enjoy the new-found freedom and flow until the next obstacle appears. And the struggle begins anew. And hence, the paradox: we cultivate resistance in order to free our path of resistance. Real power is the removal of resistance from your path.

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

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Q: What are your favorite subject(s) and media? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”)

June 12, 2021
Barbara’s New York Studio

A: Here’s the short answer. I work exclusively in soft pastel on sandpaper, using self-invented pastel techniques that I have been refining for thirty-five years.  Since 2017, I have depicted authentic Bolivian Carnival masks that I encountered and photographed at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore In La Paz.

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Pearls from artists* # 458

June 9, 2021
"Prophecy," Soft Pastel on Sandpaper, 58" x 38" Image, 70" x 50" Framed
“Prophecy,” Soft 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.

When I have painted a fine picture I have not given expression to a thought! That is what they say. What fools people are! They would strip painting of all its advantages. A writer has to say almost everything in order to make himself understood, but in painting it is as if some mysterious bridge were set up between the spirit of the persons in the picture and the beholder. The beholder sees figures, the external appearance of nature, but inwardly he meditates; the true thinking that is common to all men. Some give substance to it in writing, but in so doing they lose the subtle essence. Hence, grosser minds are more easily moved by writers than by painters or musicians. The art of the painter is all the nearer to man’s heart because it seems to be more material. In painting, as in external nature, proper justice is done to what is finite and to what is infinite, in other words, to what the soul finds inwardly moving in objects that are known through the senses alone.

The Journal of Eugene Delacroix edited by Hubert Wellington

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Travel photo of the month*

June 5, 2021
New Year’s Eve 2014 in Bangalore, India

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

It was New Year’s Eve and I had just arrived in Bangalore from New York (jet lagged, although it doesn’t show here). Too tired to explore the neighborhood, I opted to dine at the hotel restaurant. I seemed to be the only Westerner there and I stood out. Soon the staff began treating me like a celebrity, requesting to take photographs, individually and in groups. Finally, I thought to ask for a photo of my own!

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Pearls from artists* 457

June 2, 2021
Detail (in progress): “Raconteur,” 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.

In Italy on the Prixe de Rome, he [Phillip Guston] traveled, studied Piero and Tiepolo and drew everywhere. His marks bunched up in quavering confederations and eventually left their subject matter behind. The trouble with figurative art, he concluded, was that it “vanishes into recognition.” Remove the recognizable and you can begin to see the push and pull of impulse, recanting, and reconfiguration that constitute painting and, by extension, life itself.

Susan Tallman in Philip Guston’s Discomfort Zone, The New York Review of Books, January 14, 2021

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Q: What’s on the easel today?

May 29, 2021
Pastel painting in progress

A: I’m working on another large (58” x 38”) “Bolivianos” pastel painting based on old Bolivian masks encountered at the Museum of Folklore and Ethnography in La Paz four years ago. The masks were made to be worn in annual Carnival celebrations that happen in the mountain town of Ouroro, about a three-hour drive from La Paz.

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Pearls from artists* # 456

May 26, 2021
“Avenger,” 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.

[Philip] Guston’s biography provides ample proof of his political convictions – his loathing of the Klan, of Richard Nixon, of violence against the powerless. It also leaves no doubt as to his Ozymandian artistic ambitions, which had a drive and a logic of their own. Yoking the ambitions to the convictions was, he found, insipid: “What bores me,” he said in 1974. “is to see an illustration of my thought… I want to make something I never saw before and be changed by it. So that I go into the studio and I see these things up and I think, Jesus, did I do that? What a strange thing.”

Susan Tallman in Phillip Guston’s Discomfort Zone in The New York Review of Books, Jan. 14, 2021

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Q: What is your earliest memory of wanting to be an artist? (Question from “Arts Illustrated”).

May 22, 2021
A charcoal self-portrait circa 1988 when I was a Navy Lieutenant

A: I don’t believe I have any such ‘early memories.’ I came to art late and my journey to becoming an artist was circuitous, to say the least.

In the mid-1980s I was a thirty-something Navy lieutenant. I worked a soul-crushing job as a computer analyst on the midnight shift in a Pentagon basement. We were open 24/7 and supported the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Remembering the joyful Saturdays of my youth in New Jersey, when I had studied with a local painter, I enrolled in a drawing class at the Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia.  I loved it! I took more classes and became a highly motivated, full-time art student who worked nights at the Pentagon. After two years and as my skills improved, I discovered my preferred medium – soft pastel on sandpaper.  

I knew I had found my calling, submitted my resignation, and left active duty. On October 1, 1989 I became a professional artist. However, I remained in the Navy Reserve for another fourteen years, working at the Pentagon one weekend a month. On November 1, 2003, I retired as a Navy Commander. 

Please also see Art Market (barbararachko.art)

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Pearls from artists* # 455

May 19, 2021
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.

You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book (Lady Chatterley, for instance), or you take a trip, or you talk with [someone], and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death.

Some never awaken. They are like the people who go to sleep in the snow and never awaken. But I am not in danger because my home, my garden, my beautiful life do not lull me. I am aware of being in a beautiful prison, from which I can only escape by writing.

Anaïs  Nin in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 3: 1939-1944

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

May 15, 2021
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.

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