Kuala Lumpur-based artist Rachel Gray made history this year as the first British female artist to have a solo exhibition at Malaysia’s National Art Gallery (incidentally also her first solo exhibition) this past October. The exhibition – titled ‘Instinct and Experiences’ – comprised 32 works of abstract oil paintings and digitally painted wildlife portraits.
We had a chat with Rachel about her work and what she thought of having made history.
Photo: Rachel Gray
What inspired you to start painting, and where do you get your inspiration from now?
I actually started painting at the age of 2 (my mum and dad still have my first paintings!). Painting and sketching have always been a part of my life; it’s just who I am. Many things inspire me such as the surroundings, animals, works of other artists, the list goes on. For the past few years, I would say my inspiration has come from Malaysia because of the absolutely beautiful and rare wildlife found here – I adore anything with four legs and a tail, and I live for bright colours, so Malaysia is fantastic for me!
How is digital painting different from traditional forms of painting?
My approach is a little unusual because I create both traditional and digital art works. Normally, an artist selects one and sticks with it. But I can’t do that as I really enjoy working with both mediums and using the techniques from each too much to drop one and only work with the other. There is some crossover though, as my digital skills wouldn’t be at the level they are without my traditional ones.
How long do you take to work on one portrait?
That completely depends on the size. The wildlife portraits that were exhibited for my solo exhibition at the National Art Gallery can take anywhere between 50-100 hours to complete. As for abstract oil paintings, it can take weeks to create the concept, a few days to paint them and then one month to dry.
For pet and wildlife portraits, I don’t use Photoshop or any filters, pattern brushes or any image/colour manipulation, which is why they take so long to produce. I paint from my own wildlife photographs – I go into the jungles here or the zoo and take dozens of photos and sketches of the animals for as long as they allow me to study them. When I return to my studio, I use these as references to paint from.
Photo: Rachel Gray
You are the first British female artist to have a solo show at Malaysia’s National Art Gallery. How does that feel like?
To be completely honest, it’s an unbelievable honour! I was totally blown away by the comments, best wishes and the media coverage of it all. The exhibition’s official opening was on 24 September, which, as it happens, was also my dad’s birthday.
It feels amazing to have had this opportunity, as the National Art Gallery was celebrating their 60th anniversary and I was the only British artist to be selected to exhibit at the celebration. To try and sum it all up with words, the journey has been just phenomenal! It has had its ups and downs, but it’s simply been an unforgettable and fantastic rollercoaster and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
Tell us about the paintings you showed at the exhibition. Was there a certain theme you followed?
All the paintings created for this exhibition were based around the theme ‘Instincts and Experiences’. There was a total of 32 paintings – half abstract oil paintings, half wildlife portraits. The abstract paintings were created instinctively, while the portraits reflected the moments and experiences I had in the company of the animals. The theme is very fluid and open to interpretation; it’s also the link between the digital and traditional works exhibited within the same space. It took over a year to create all the paintings for this exhibition.
Photo: Rachel Gray
What other galleries have you shown at and is your art for sale? Do you do commissions?
I have had the pleasure of exhibiting at a few galleries here in Malaysia and I’m always on the lookout for the next exhibition space. Yes, my works are for sale and I also do commissioned paintings. For pet and wildlife portraits, you can visit www.rgportraits.com; for the oil paintings, the website is rachelgray.carbonmade.com. Alternatively, you can follow me on Instagram for my latest exhibitions or generally what I’m up too.
What are your views on the art scene in Malaysia and do you think there’s enough support for young talent?
In my opinion, the art scene in Malaysia is definitely growing, which is wonderful to see. Being an artist is never easy and it can be quite unstable. You need to be flexible in your working hours, but it’s also important to find the right balance between work and having a life outside the studio because there’s no clocking off when you are trying to be a creative person. However, if you work at it and stick to it, then yes, I do believe artists can be successful. You’ve got to have the determination and grit to believe in yourself even when it’s tough, as consistently working hard does pays off. It can be done. I love what I do, and I am still striving towards that.