ARTIST SPOTLIGHT |  LEAH RAINEY

Leah Rainey preparing for an exhibition

Leah Rainey works within a combined tradition of process painting and direct painting using a broad range of techniques that interconnect through coincidence and the accidental. These paintings explore the elusive ground between the physical presence of the painted surface and latent memories, images and thoughts. Working with a reductive process of editing to explore the visual space around and between things, Rainey observes and reveals that which is often overlooked; what we unconsciously register.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in a small town in Ontario, surrounded by nature, thanks to my parents who built our house in the middle of the woods. Both of my parents are creative people so I was always encouraged to draw and make things. Art became a significant part of my life from a young age.

When I turned 17, our family moved to England for a year, and I had the opportunity to take Art and Design and Art History A-Levels. This experience completely changed my perspective.

After I came back to Canada to finish high school I applied to Loughborough College of Art in Loughborough, England for a one year foundation course. The following year I applied and was accepted at Chelsea College of Art in London where I pursued my Bachelor of Fine Art over four years. I wanted to continue with a Masters, but the cost for overseas students made it impossible. Instead, I eventually moved to Edinburgh Scotland where I shared an art studio with friends from London.

After 12 years of living away, I returned to Canada. I felt lost and out of place initially but was fortunate to find a studio in Toronto which I still occupy today and where I continue my art practice.

What materials do you like to use and why?

I love paint, primarily watercolour and oils. I love the immediacy of watercolour and how delicate it feels to use. I can paint at home and work on paper which doesn’t feel as precious as canvas.

Oil paint allows for such a variety of techniques and applications. I love how sensitive it is to the tools you use, and I enjoy experimenting with a wide range of tools and ways of applying the paint.

Leah Rainey, One Day A Garden (detail)

Studio detail from “One Day a Garden”, 2023

How do you go from taking the seeds of an idea and transforming them into a complete painting?

The seeds of an idea will often be an actual reference or starting point but one that’s unclear or non-specific and holds some intrigue and possibility. Chosen intuitively, it can be extracted fragments from found images, scraps in the studio or parts of previous paintings.

The vagueness of the starting point is what makes me curious about translating whatever I’m looking at into paint. Then there’s a kind of deep looking, absorbing what I’m studying and visualizing it as a painting. I think of the process as a kind of decoding and forming a recipe for the steps I’ll take to start making the work. From there, I’m responding to the materials.

There is a warmth and an otherworldly quality to the colours you choose. What drew you to this palette initially?

When I did my foundation course in England I focused on colour. I was away from home, homesick and I was remembering the colour of a blade of grass under the snow- the freshness of that colour. I decided to try to paint it. That started a whole project on shape and colour association and working from imagined colour.

The colours were strange, but I remember they were clear in my mind. I became immersed in mixing colour and it’s still my favourite part of painting. I enjoy surprising colour relationships but I also mix colour so that most parts of the painting relate to each other and they are made from each other.

Leah Rainey, Tenebrous Carnival #1 oil on canvas, 16

Tenebrous Carnival 1, 2024, oil on canvas, 16″ x 16″

Are the shapes that you create based on source material or imagined? 

The work has evolved in a more iterative way but tracing back there’s usually source material. I’m a scavenger so I tend to sift through a whole range of things for inspiration- snippets from old magazines, accidental shapes that appear in the studio when I’m working or cut up remnants of failed paintings.

There is a layered, collaged look to your paintings, and I wondered how you achieve that effect?

I’m looking for a play between positive and negative space in these compositions which I emphasize through how it’s painted.  Areas of the painting will be painted differently and the surface built up in layers, often separated by clean edges so there’s a feeling of parts that are coming together like a collage, a puzzle or a mosaic.

Leah Rainey, Tenebrous Shift, oil on canvas, 20

Tenebrous Shift, 2024, oil on canvas, 20″ x 16″

Leah Rainey, Tenebrous Light, oil on canvas, 20

Tenebrous Light, 2024, oil on canvas, 20″ x 16″

“tenebrous”:  dark; shadowy; obscure.

How do you arrive at the titles for your paintings?

I really like this question. I find it’s an intriguing part of the process. Occasionally a title will come to me while I’m making the work- from something I’m listening to or an association I think of that relates to the work and the process of making it. I like the titles to be open-ended but suggest something that is within the work.

Other times I have no titles until I’m forced to title the work. At first it’s daunting to think of anything and then a painting suggests a starting point and I start a word hunt. I like straight forward titles and I often look for an obvious element in a painting and just state an observation.

Leah Rainey, in the studio-2

After completing a body of work for an exhibition—do you feel relief or a sense of loss? Do you take a break before embarking on the next idea?

It’s always complicated. I find it’s both relief and loss.  There’s the intimate relationship that develops with making the work- you know where it came from- the stages, the struggles. While there’s an energy propelling you to create the work, once it’s left the studio you feel the absence of making work with a certain kind of intensity.

What remains in the studio is often the leftovers of that journey or beginnings of new paintings but there’s a different energy there.  I find that absence is a powerful force and it can create a longing or a desire to continue making. Then I’m on the cycle of finding my way back to painting and beginning again.

Tenebrous Pink, 2024, oil on canvas, 20″ x 16″

What do you hope people will experience when they look at one of your paintings?

I hope they feel a calmness and a curiosity about the work. There’s a process of making the work in carefully considered layers and subtle details that has a slow time scale built in that I hope translates to the viewer. I hope there’s something in the way it’s made that holds their attention for a little while and that the work can steal some time from the viewer. The experience of pausing and something holding your attention can be powerful when everything else is so fast-paced.

What advice would you give to a young person following in  your footsteps?

Push yourself to make work that surprises you rather than sticking to what you know. I remember an interview with the Australian painter Adam Lee where he talked about making problems for himself in his paintings that he would have to find solutions to, he would cover over parts of the painting that were working to make the process more engaging, more challenging.

Art making shouldn’t be a rinse and repeat process. It should evolve and encompass invention and problem solving. The pursuit should be constantly teaching you something new about materials, your process, and about you and the world you live in. Your work should present the same challenge to your audience.

Leah Rainey, in the studio

Leah Rainey, in the studio

What are you working on now?

The new “Tenebrous” paintings are extracts and reconfigurations from earlier compositions. It’s exciting to return to work and ideas previously abandoned with a new perspective. Of course it’s an obvious thing to be able to revisit past ideas but sometimes we think we can’t. Those are the blocks we create for ourselves and rules we build into our practice without realizing.

The initial paintings in this series combined a lot of ideas and were visually quite busy. It’s been an evolution to a more refined and minimalist conclusion. They’re vividly painted in stained layers, darkened out in sections. In contrast to the textured “One Day A Garden” paintings these paintings tend to sink back and pull the viewer into them. I wanted to create that feeling of fading light when shapes and colours are partially visible and our brains make up for what we can’t see clearly.

Thank you, Leah, for giving us a personal look and insight into your art practice. Thank you too for your time and thoughtful answers to our Artist Spotlight interview.  

The price range for the works featured is $1100 to $2400 CAD.  For more information on these paintings and other works by the artist, please contact: info@cristallgallery.com or call +1 604 730 9611.

Leah Rainey headshot photo