The new Barbara Rae sketchbooks edition (Royal Academy 2011) is a revelation and I believe will help all those who struggle to maintain the freshness and spontaneity of their sketchbooks in their final work. Barbara Rae defies definition in the contemporary art scene, but has a solid and consistent voice that has been unwavering in its direction for many years. Running counter to the favoured art of the late 20th and early 21st century, perhaps it is of no surprise that she has not yet had an art show at the Tate or Royal Academy, but given her stature and the popularity of her painting it is a gap that needs filling, and soon. The first book on Barbara Rae came out in 2008, published by Lund Humphries, filled with her lush paintings, dancing with free mark making and bright vigorous colour, with extraordinary juxtaposition of hues. However, for me, the most astonishing thing is to see her sketchbooks and to realise to what extent she thinks through what will become final paintings in them. The sketches stand alone and are complete consolidations of ideas, and even though done on the spot, in all weathers, often in wild and rugged locations they contain acrylics, watercolour, charcoal, chalk, pastel, and even paint mixed with wine instead of water! What differentiates her from being just an excellent artist into one of the most significant contemporary artists working today, is her ability to take these delightful sketches, so beautifully constructed and composed, so full of ideas and life, and translate them into large scale paintings on paper and canvas.
I was lucky enough to meet Barbara Rae a few years ago, a gracious, kind woman, she showed me round her stunning tailor made studio in central Edinburgh, geared to be able to import and export very large canvases. She talked me through her working processes. The floor was covered in torn up bits of discarded prints, that she reuses in collaged elements of her painting. She uses two A4 Moleskine sketchbooks when out sketching so that she can be working on one image while another dries. Her sketchbooks are treasured possessions, no surprise when you see the gem like contents. If you can’t afford the new book based on her sketches (its £17.47) do take a look at her website (by clicking the link on her highlighted name above) since there is a great array of examples of prints, sketches and paintings on it.