It is my pleasure to interview Rachel Gregor, painter and fine artist from Kansas City, Missouri. Make sure to check out her Etsy shop and her artist website as well!
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your journey with art?
My name is Rachel Gregor and I’m a fine artist living and working in Kansas City, Missouri. I grew up about 30 minutes west of Minneapolis, Minnesota where my parents own and operate their own retail greenhouse and nursery. My mom was a freelance illustrator and graphic designer before getting involved with the greenhouse with my dad and grandfather, so that’s where a lot of my interest in art came from. I remember as a child while she worked at her seeding bench she would place me at a table nearby with blank pieces of paper and crayons. I was always drawing at a young age and she rarely bought me coloring books, so I had to invent scenes and stories to draw. That’s how it always was throughout grade school, I was the kid with the sketchbook drawing Pokemon and trying to sell the drawings for 25 cents. Eventually that led me to applying to an arts high school in Minnesota called Perpich Center For the Arts Education, I always knew I wanted to be an “artist” but that’s when I started to learn what that meant and then it became real. I then went on to receive my BFA in painting from the Kansas City Art Institute, gained a lot of great mentorships, and now here I am.
What are you inspired by? What are the stories behind some of your portrait paintings?
A lot of my work is inspired by nostalgia. When I was in college my grandparents started the process of moving out of their home and into a nursing home, and I started to become really homesick for their old house. Even if the setting in a portrait is vague, I’m usually thinking back to their house and trying to get the idea or sensation of what it was like there. I’m a huge fan of mid century patterns and household kitsch so oddly enough just surfing Etsy for weird ceramic knick knacks and table cloths gets me excited for painting. In my larger compositions I usually try to hide away objects that I remember from my childhood. I want my portraits to feel very still and mundane, but underneath the cheer and kitsch there is some darkness. Even if they’re surrounded by flowers and cute prints, my figures are typically alone and isolated.
What does the process look like for creating your portrait paintings? What are some of your favorite paint, paintbrush, and canvas brands?
I like to get pretty nerdy over my material process, but I think to be a painter you have to be very familiar with your medium. When I’m doing a larger piece I work on stretched linen, typically a finer weave, always raw and never pre-primed. I stretch and size my linen myself with rabbit skin glue, and once it’s prepped with an oil ground and has had time to cure, I can get to work. I use rounds and filberts for my brushes, typically hogs hair, from various brands, it doesn’t really matter too much which brand as long as the brushes are the size I want and bristles aren’t shedding. Rarely do I need fine sable brushes but I sometimes use these when working on really slick surfaces and for details, like with my still lives. For my figurative work I like to work in a really direct method, wet into wet, and then switch to more indirect methods and using a dry brush. Lately I’ve been really enjoying doing a grisaille, which is painting with a single pigment like burnt sienna or an umber, and white, letting that dry, and then doing layers of scumbling on top of that, which is essentially glazing but with little to no added oil medium.
When in comes to smaller pieces or studies, I really enjoy painting on toned paper prepared with acrylic gesso and ground pumice stone. I prepare this myself but ColourFix makes great toning gessos with grit in them and ready to use pre-toned paper. The nice thing about prepping it yourself is you can tint the paper tone to any color you like and because I’m using acrylic, the paper is sealed so I can use the surface for dry media, wet, or oil. The pumice stone adds a really nice grip as well, so it has a nice tooth for both pastels and for painting, the brush can grab the surface and it doesn’t feel like you’re just smearing paint. I also like to keep a roll of Grafix’s Dura-lar acrylic film around for the same reason, if I want to do a quick, small painting or study I simply cut a piece from the roll and no prep work is required. One side of the film is foggy and has a bit of a grip, it’s not totally smooth, so again your brush has something to grab to and it doesn’t feel like you’re just smearing paint.
As far as specifics go with mediums and brands, I like M. Graham & Co. walnut oil for a painting medium and walnut alkyd if I’m working with dark earth tones. Walnut oil has a slower dry time than linseed and is clearer and a bit more glossy. Alkyds will start to form a skin within a few hours so be ready! I only use alkyds in the final layers. If you want your paint to have that varnished look, sun dry your walnut oil by placing it in a shallow bowl and let it sit out for a few days. It will become thick like honey and give your paints a beautiful gloss, much like an alkyd but I find it’s a bit more forgiving and workable. I don’t like relying on varnish to give my paintings that final polish, it can become a crutch. If a painting is built up with the proper mediums, it shouldn’t need an immediate coat of varnish as soon as it’s dried.
At this moment I probably have around 10 or more different brands of paint tubes, from Old Holland, Michael Harding, Winsor & Newton, to store brands like Utrecht. I’m not really loyal to any particular brand. Brands specialize in different products and mediums and I think it can be foolish to swear by one brand for all of your mediums and pigments. When I’m at the art store shopping for paint, I look at the individual pigment, let’s say burnt sienna. I like my burnt sienna to be very hot and orange, which goes against what a lot of people say burnt sienna should be-that it should have purple undertones. So I go through each brand and sample the paint on a piece of paper and look for one that has the right temperature and undertones that I like. I also look for how much medium they add to the paint, if it’s separated, if it feels dry, ect. Even if I have a go to brand for one type of pigment, I always check because there can be variances between the batches. Look for what you want in your pigment, just because Winsor & Newton makes a beautiful hot burnt sienna doesn’t mean that their yellow ochre is any good, it might be too green or too orange for what you want in that specific color. Also never judge a brand by it’s price tag, more expensive brands at the store like Old Holland might make some beautiful tubed paint, but that doesn’t mean that the formulas or the pigments are right for your specific purpose. Of all things, I actually like the student grade Winton cadmium red light a lot. They add a wax filler to the paint to extend it, and if you are aware that it’s there that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I really like the added wax for painting flushed cheeks and ears.
Can you tell me about your Flowers from Home zine?
My zine, ‘Flowers from Home’ came about after my partner and I moved into our new house and I finally had the space to start gardening on my own. I started thinking a lot about native plants and researching plants native to the midwest. My studio work was consisting of a lot of still lifes based on Dutch Golden Age masters like Rachel Ruysch, and I started working on my own still life compositions based on dutch paintings but using native flowers. Once I got a lot of sketches built up I decided to draw them out on a larger scale and reproduce them in a zine.
I decided to focus on native flowers from both Minnesota and Missouri since those are the two places I’ve so far considered ‘home’, so my native areas, and group the flowers based on blooming seasons or growing locations like prairies and woodlands. It’s supposed to be semi-educational, since I did quite a bit of research going into the project I wanted the viewer to have to do some research as well. Each drawing is accompanied by a list of all the flora featured, but it’s in alphabetical order by it’s scientific name, so if you want to identify a specific plant you’ll have to look up the names to try to ID it.
I like the idea of appropriating Dutch Still Life and using midwestern native flowers in place of the exotic and cultivated plants the Dutch loved. Often times art scholars brush aside Dutch Still Life as a genre that’s purely aesthetic, but I find it extremely philosophical. Many gardeners as well tend to ignore the possibility of using native plants because they aren’t showy enough or they think they can get weedy, without realizing that actually a lot of cultivars you find in nurseries are bred from US native wildflowers, or that there are many possibilities and ways to include native plants in your landscape along with cultivated plant species. Both seem to be kind of mundane and humble in their own right, and I like the idea of combining them and using them to elevate each other.
Do you listen to music while you create? If so, what are some of your favorite music artists or bands?
While I’m working sometimes music can become too distracting and I find myself wasting time at the computer trying to find something or I realize I’ve been sitting there for several minutes just hitting the “skip” button. If I’m listening to something, it has to be familiar so I can use it to fill the silence but I can also just ignore it, but I usually don’t mind silence, a lot of the time I prefer it. If I need some sort of background noise though, I typically open up Pandora and put it on the Mirah station. I also like Pinback, Death Cab for Cutie, and Wilco for working music. A lot of the same indie music I’ve listened to since high school. Very often though, I will listen to Brontë Sister novels via Librivox. I’ve read them enough where I can tune in and out of listening, and I won’t ever get bored or frustrated and feel the need to skip the track.
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