Rachel Austin brings a childlike sense of joy and wonder to her oils, watercolors and map paintings. Based in Portland, Rachel originally studied woodworking at the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts until she discovered she loved the freedom and uncertainty of painting. She explores organic shapes that depict beauty in nature as well as a sense of life’s journey. Now with a highly successful Etsy shop and thriving relationships with galleries, Rachel is connecting the dots that make her art accessible and engaging.
Orange Lantern II by Rachel Austin
One thing that stands out about your work, whether they’re pieces that are joyful and carefree or more quiet and contemplative, is that each piece feels alive. How are you capturing this, and do you know ahead of time what direction it’s taking?
This is a great question! I often work on multiple paintings at the same time by myself in my studio. Since I’m often quiet and contemplative while creating each painting, that carries through into the finished piece. I also try to create happy, joyful paintings without stepping over the line into cheesy art.
The design processes differ for me as I create new paintings in my different series. My map paintings begin with the map on panel, which influences my background color choice. When those layers are dry, the shapes of the map play an important part of the design, and the paintings come alive as I picture what images will work well with each particular map. For the oil paintings and seed watercolors, I feel a little more carefree because, while I have an image in my head, I don’t know exactly where the final painting will end up or how I will get there. These series feel looser to me as I play primarily with the meeting of color and shape.
Hackensack map painting by Rachel Austin
Poppie on Cream by Rachel Austin
Opportunities for artists to sell their work and interact with people are really wide open now with blogging and with sites like Etsy. What would you say to anyone just entering a career in art and design about taking advantage of this technology?
My website was the first thing I set up, and I think it’s important to have a site that you can have complete control over. There are so many easy ways to publish a website that looks good, where you can include all your work and any other useful information. Beyond that, there are so many opportunities to network and add content online, so I recommend always looking out for new sites/applications, but don’t get caught up trying to do everything. I have a number of networks and sites that I don’t keep up with anymore because they aren’t beneficial unless I spend much more time on them. Learning which things to let go of and not beating myself over it allows me the time to keep the important things current.
It’s also hugely important (for most folks) to maintain a physical relationship in the community. I started out by showing whenever and wherever I could, which helped me meet people and get my name out there. It’s so easy now to throw an Etsy site up and expect people to find you, but it still pays to do shows and meet real people – I think we sometimes forget that ‘social networks’ are also a physical reality, not just online.
Part of Rachel Austin’s home studio and display space
I understand you originally did woodworking and made tables until you realized you liked the surprise factor of painting. How important do you think it is to find a medium that suits your temperament?
I think it is great to experiment with lots of different mediums and get a strong understanding of what you can do with them. Then when you have an idea for a project you can bring in all your knowledge of different materials and use them as tools to create your vision. Zero in on what you love and are good at and strive to keep getting better. When I realized I loved the freedom of painting over woodworking, it was a kind of ‘ah-ha’ moment for me. I was studying workworking at the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts and ended up leaving to pursue painting. Woodworking has still been a great skill for me to have – building frames and panels lets me have control over size and quality.
Out of the three main bodies of your work — the oil paintings, the map paintings, and the watercolor seed paintings — what did you start with? And do you like to bounce between them depending on your mood or interest?
Of those three, I started with the oil paintings and then map paintings soon followed. My series right before these, and my first series I ever painted, I called ‘Aerial Views.’ These were abstractions of aerial views of crop circles and land patterns that I did in thick oil paint. I then moved this series into watercolor and have been doing them up until the last year and a half. I’ve recently been thinking of doing a short run of them in oil paint again. They were pretty.
I spend most of my time now on map paintings, perhaps simply because they are the most popular. I’ll often work strictly on those for two or three months and then have the itch to do some experimenting or play with the shapes and colors of my poppies and lanterns oil series. I love having multiple series going, allowing me to move between them if I need a change.
Fulton map painting by Rachel Austin
Poppies on Red by Rachel Austin
Yellow Backdrop watercolor by Rachel Austin
Looking at your oil paintings specifically, you almost exclusively paint poppies and lanterns. What is it that keeps you so engaged in these forms?
I love that shape of an organic circle within a circle – it shows up all the time in my work. It really started with buckeyes that I collect every Fall – I think they are the most beautiful design – a mini sculpture – I keep them in pockets of coats and in little display bowls in the house. After looking at them for so long and seeing similar shapes in poppies and hanging lanterns, depending on the direction, I started the series with lots of overlapping shapes and colors. In the beginning they were looser – more of the under layers visible. Now I play more with bold, opaque colors. I really love creating color.
Five Poppies on Blue by Rachel Austin
Poppies on Brown by Rachel Austin
Poppies on Green by Rachel Austin
For your map paintings, I understand you were first drawn to maps because you like aerial views of things. So are the elements you paint on top of those maps inspired by the location depicted on the map, or is there no conscious connection?
This is one of the most frequent questions I get asked at shows. For me, the images and the maps themselves feel like they could be from anywhere. I want the viewer to notice there is a map – representing all sorts of good things – where you’ve been, are currently, and where you are going. But the connection hinges more on how my painting fits with the design of the map. For example, I like the map to give a subtle horizon line to the painting and will sometimes put the map upside down or sideways to get this effect. At the same time, I know some people want the location to connect to them personally, so I often do commissions for maps of specific places and features that fit with that unique area. The paintings almost all have some image that involves flying – birds, paper airplanes, and clouds. There are usually abstracted or simplified plants and flowers that hopefully give the feeling of familiarity – maybe something you’ve quietly noticed out a window on a long drive. A quick, crisp moment of beauty.
Bellport map painting by Rachel Austin
Kemer map painting by Rachel Austin
Topeka map painting by Rachel Austin
Tell me about your watercolor seed paintings and what inspires them.
Each year I try to do a limited series different from my other work. This keeps me feeling fresh in my work and lets me explore ideas I’ve been musing on. My seed series began by taking walks in the Fall and collecting pretty little seeds that fell from trees. In this series I abstracted found seeds – making them bigger, interacting with other seeds, playing with the design and patterns found in these tiny sculptures. I read a book all about the properties of seeds as I was painting – I enjoy doing research into my subject. I am always drawn to organic shapes found in nature. I love to create abstract work, but I have to base my abstraction on some idea or object. I chose to do these in watercolor because of the beautiful translucence and almost fragile look of watercolor.
Seedlings by Rachel Austin
Slices by Rachel Austin
Split Seed by Rachel Austin
You’re someone who appreciates the value of making art affordable to a wide range of people. What are some of the things you do to make your work accessible?
It is important to me to have original art available at an affordable price. I hope some of my paintings go home with people who wouldn’t normally think to buy an original painting, but seeing that it is affordable are able to enjoy and hopefully go on to collect more art. Prices for my originals start at $65. I do a lot of small paintings, so if someone connects to my work but can’t afford a larger piece, they can still go home with a little one. This past year, I started doing signed limited edition prints of my map series and those too have been well received by fans that don’t have the budget for an original.
Here to There journal in Rachel Austin’s Etsy shop
Are there any lessons you’ve learned about yourself or life through your work?
I love being my own boss. I am pretty ambitious and like to work very hard, and working for myself and family drives me to put even more of myself into my work. I have more confidence in myself because I’ve been successful with my artwork – I’m not afraid to tackle new things and often say yes to new projects. I’ve learned that my story and my art has inspired many people, and I try to go out of my way to encourage budding artists to take that step into creating as their business or side business.
Poppies on Blue by Rachel Austin
As a new mother, your world just got more demanding! So this may not be a good time to ask, but do you have thoughts about where your work is headed next?
I would like to continue to explore with my map painting series and oil series, but would also like to do something new this year. Within my map painting series this year, I am planning to do a couple of very large pieces, 36” x 36” or 36” x 48” using collaged maps to make up the background. I am also planning to do some pieces that fit together in a grid – separate paintings that use the same map and continuous image to make up a single painting. For a new series or direction, I would like to do a limited series reflective on my observations of my young daughter exploring the world around her. I’m not sure exactly what this will look like, but this is what I’ve been musing on.
What are some of your favorite things, whether they impact your work or just make you happy?
My family, my one year old’s jazz hands dance, good food and wine, sewing, the beach, rain, our new little old house – I’m enjoying making things for our home. I really, really like plants and growing our own food and flowers – there is not much that makes me happier than slowly watching a seedling grow into a salad.
Rachel Austin with husband Jon and baby Adelaide, photo by E. Soule
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