Rachel Gray’s passion for photographing and painting wildlife in their natural habitat is sometimes a risky business, but she persists and produces impressive artworks
She has had close encounters with Komodo dragons, snakes, hyenas, hippos, elephants, warthogs, porcupines and “one really active” water buffalo, but it’s all in a day’s work for Rachel Gray.
“I was taking photos of several impalas grazing and from the corner of my eye, I noticed in the distance a water buffalo, with a flick of his ears, he suddenly came barrelling towards us. We had to run back to the jeep - luckily the water buffalo had lost interest by that point but it was enough to give me a scare!” recalls the digital artist.
She paints using her own photography as a reference and tries to see the animals in the wild as much as possible. This has led to many treks in the jungles of Malaysia, including Taman Negara, Pahang, where she even slept in a cave in hopes to catch a glimpse of the wildlife at sunrise.
“In the dim light of the cave, I saw a rather big snake which was busy gulping down a bat – this was some real Nat Geo stuff! Fair to say I didn’t hang around.”
Despite these close shaves, Rachel, who is from the UK says she would not give up her job for anything.
Even during our cover shoot at Tropicana Golf & Country Resort (“TGCR”) in Petaling Jaya, Rachel was ecstatic upon learning that the resort is home to wildlife such as monitor lizards, storks and otters, an indication that TGCR is well-maintained, and has a healthy and natural environment.
“As we were moving from location to location (at TGCR), I was told they even have otters at the golf course! I’ll have to go back and see if I can photograph them for sure!” Seeing animals in their natural habitat is magical, Rachel notes. “I could happily soak them up all day, just to see how they interact with each other or their surroundings and around water. Most animals change their behaviour around water, whether it's to play, relax or keeping on their toes as they drink,” she explains.
Her parents and family are very supportive of her career choice despite the dangers. “I am unbelievably lucky to have such supportive parents and family, I don’t know what I would do without them. They have been there for the really amazing out-of-this-world moments but have also helped me get back on my feet when the chips are down. I am sure they must worry a bit but it’s absolutely amazing seeing wildlife in their natural habitat, doing what they do best - being wild. It’s just part and parcel of my work.”
Rachel who has been an artist for many years now, says it’s hard to see her life without art in it, when asked why she chose this profession.
“It’s just a part of me … It’s like breathing. I’ve always loved art and animals and I’m extremely lucky to do what I do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of hard work but it’s also wonderful.”
One of her proudest career moments was representing Malaysia at the Dubai World Expo (2021-2022).
“It was truly an honour to represent Malaysia, a once in a lifetime experience to create and deliver the “Below the Canopy” programme for Malaysia at the Dubai World Expo (2021-2022). In brief the programme consisted of 24 portraits of Malaysian wildlife. It was years in the making. The programme was designed to raise awareness of endangered species, support women within the creative sector, and promote sustainability. It was also created to promote Malaysia as a tourist destination via eco-tourism and wildlife. The response was mindblowing. The public were so interested in where to see orangutans, what a proboscis monkey is and of course the beautiful Malayan tapir.”
The 30-something who has a BA in Illustration and Animation, and a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (“PGCE”), specialising in the arts in post-compulsory education enjoys both traditional and digital arts; each with its own advantages and challenges.
To succeed as a digital artist, she notes that it’s essential to have a firm grasp of the basics of traditional art. “It's just not true that a computer or Photoshop can replace your artistic skills. I can spend more than 200 hours on a single portrait and that’s not including the time spent photographing the animals and making rough sketches.”
There are benefits and drawbacks to everything, and Rachel believes that as an artist one needs to figure out what works best for them and accept that it’s all right to experiment. You are not limited to the categories you choose.
“Pros and cons come with everything, I think as an artist you need to find what works for you and learn that it’s okay to explore. You don’t have to put yourself in a box and then that’s it. Relax and give it a go, you never know where it might lead. Being an artist is very challenging regardless of if you’re a sculptor, traditional or digital artist. You’ve really got to put in the work and that’s difficult when you don’t know which the right avenue is to adventure down. There is no career ladder, no set promotions, sick days or holiday pay. No assistants, distributors, social media managers, marketing teams or set work hours. It is a risky career, but I wouldn’t change it for the world!”
When it comes to ideas, she draws inspiration from nature, specifically animals, colours and light, as well as from other artists and her cat, Sushi.
“I adore anything with four legs and a tail so they are always uplifting and inspiring. What keeps me going is my will and determination to make the magic happen, to paint the awe inspiring and epic wildlife that we share this planet with, along with my own goals as an artist.”
Rachel admires and respects a variety of extraordinarily gifted artists. “My all-time favourites have to be Rodin, Michelangelo and Van Gogh with a mixed bag of current favourites such as, Damien Hirst, Loish and Kenji Chai. Art is so much more than painting or creating so it’s always admirable to see how they are handling the game, bringing something new to it and managing the beast that is the creative industry.”
For details, check out her website at www.rgportraits.com
Select topics and stay current with our latest insights