Each of Rachel Gregor’s portraits is a soft, warm breath. They are light to the touch and delicate in nature. Her palette reminds you of a childhood story, her use of paint brings to mind the sensation of blushing, her rendering of light like sun through a scattering of fall leaves. Gregor’s paintings bring on a rush of sensations all at once through subtle and painterly beauty. In this intimate interview, the artist and I discuss the different versions of herself in her work, the color of nostalgia, and how “time finishes all work.”
Rachel Gregor is a fine artist living and working in Kansas City, MO. She graduated from Kansas City Art Institute in 2012 and has studied abroad at Studio Art Centers International in Florence, Italy. She was born and raised in Minnesota.
Working in traditional mediums such as oil paint, gouache, and chalk pastel, Gregor seeks to create psychological portraits of young girls that tip-toe between the line of realism and artificiality. The figures are caught in a single moment between the mundane and the melodramatic; wide-eyed and wistful, the girls become frozen in a state somewhere between boredom and shock. The figures are surrounded by mid century floral patterns and crocheted blankets, suggesting a domestic setting much like a doll house or diorama.
Accompanying her figurative work, landscape scenes and still life compositions cross the boundaries between the extravagant, overly composed, and the mundane. Images of garden cultivars and native wildflowers are common themes throughout Gregor’s work.
When did you begin painting? Do you paint from life or mostly reference photos?
I’ve always had an interest in drawing and art from childhood, but I began painting in earnest in high school and was first introduced to oil paint my senior year. When I went to Kansas City Art Institute for undergrad, I went into the painting department and began to understand what painting meant for me. When constructing my compositions, I paint mostly from life and create figures from memory. I will use reference photos when doing drawings in my sketchbooks or little studies; it’s useful for building up a catalog in my memory of different faces or poses, but when I work on larger or more complicated pieces I reference myself using a mirror and manipulate the face or figure from there.
Whether you are painting figures or landscapes, your soft color palette is absolutely gorgeous. What inspires this element of your work?
My color palette used to be very vibrant and over-saturated, but over time I learned just how diverse a four-color palette—like Anders Zorn’s palette or Lucian Freud’s palette—can be. I mostly use a very limited palette with very warm earth tones, this I believe unifies my work across the different genres I might work within. I like to use a lot of different yellow ochres; there’s a lot of depth with the different color shifts you can get with different pigment sources. I think the color yellow ochre is seared into my visual memory, growing up my childhood bedroom had yellow ochre shag carpet and vinyl pull down shades that had become yellowed over time, so the light in that room was always very warm and heavy feeling. It’s the color of nostalgia for me.
Let’s talk a bit about your figurative work. Do you paint people you know, or do you see your subjects as characters in a larger narrative?
Sometimes I have a friend pose for me, but working from a model other than myself can sometimes feel a little too academic. My work is very auto-biographical and the narrative centers around my own coming-of-age experiences, so it feels dishonest to insert a body that is vastly different from my own. It feels like I’m speaking on the behalf of someone else. My figures are me in a sense, but I wouldn’t consider them self-portraits by any means either. They are versions of myself, they are kind of like a xerox copy of a xerox copy. They start to take on their own narratives that might be separate from my own or what I had originally intended, but they still are a direct extension of myself.
As far as process goes, do you do much planning when working on a new piece? What’s a typical day in the studio like for you?
I actually stopped doing a lot of pre-planning when I begin a new piece. I found that if I already know exactly what a painting will look like before I start, I lose all interest because it feels like the image is already made, so what’s the point of trying to realize it on a large piece of linen? When I do make studies for a painting, they are usually made half-way through because I’ve run into a compositional problem or an anatomical problem that I want to first solve on paper, then use that as a sort of reference for the larger work, but I still don’t solely rely on copying my study exactly. I have pieces that I’ve resolved in just a few sessions of working on it, and others that have been tucked away for years only to reemerge later when I’m able to solve what it needs. There’s a wonderful Ingres quote about how “time finishes all work” and I think that’s very true in the sense that, yes, over time oil paint settles into itself and unifies, but also you forget what your initial frustrations with the work may have been and you’re able to see the work more objectively, and it really needs nothing more.
A typical day in the studio is usually putting on an audiobook from Librivox or a silly DnD podcast, and then looking around me and figuring out what problem is sticking out the most, what is annoying me the most in the room, and work on that. I also take a lot of pride in preparing my surfaces myself using traditional methods, which can take days and lots of curing and drying time in between, so I always have something to work on if painting doesn’t feel right that day. I try to leave my studio in a place where I feel pleased but a little unsatisfied that I didn’t do more, so I’m eager to get back the next day. I would rather cut my work time a little short and be excited to get back than to leave my studio feeling frustrated and feeling like I worked too long and made little progress. Burn out, depression, and guilt can make you resent painting and being in your studio and it’s taken me a lot of work to figure that out.
What experience in your life has had the most profound impact on your artistic practice?
Growing up with a parent who was an artist helped a lot. My mother went to school for graphic design and illustration, so she was always encouraging and never once made me question if art was a viable career. I was always able to feel confident that when I grew up I was going to be an artist. My parent’s own and operate a nursery where they grow all of the plant products, so growing up in that environment, playing and wandering around in the greenhouses surrounded by flowers, had a strong impact on my visual language. Being business owners operating a farm also meant my parents were very, very busy and the best way to entertain myself was to draw.
You have so many cute products in your Etsy account! What things do artists need to consider before marketing their work in this way?
I knew a lot of my followers on Instagram are my age and younger, and that buying original art isn’t really a practical or affordable option for everyone. At the same time I have a difficult relationship with prints; I’m always dissatisfied with the way my work is represented through documentation and then is reduced to a small, flat compressed little image. I wanted to have a more consistent and independent income though, so I thought instead of selling sad reproductions of my art that I’m not happy with, I could sell merchandise of my art, the idea of my art, through objects like pins. I think there’s the same sense of preciousness and nostalgia with say, my little drawing of a strawberry that I made into an enamel pin, that you may find with some of the background props or floral prints that find their way into my compositions. I think artists need to consider what feels appropriate with their work and what still represents the idea of their work, even if it’s translated into an object like a pin or a cup.