The Open Eye Gallery may be hosting a retrospective exhibition of her work, but artist Barbara Rae has never been one to look back.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Barbara Rae’s debut solo show. It was at the New 57 Gallery in Rose Street and she, just 24, was a recent graduate of Edinburgh College of Art. But don’t mention any of this to the artist. Sitting in her New Town studio, a bijou mews conversion full of light, she looks horrified at the thought that so much time has passed. She has never been one to look back.

That’s why when she discusses the Open Eye Gallery’s retrospective exhibition of her work she finds it hard to separate the past from the present. Yes, it will include a couple of her student pieces, even one she did at school (she squirms at the idea), but more centrally, it will feature prints and paintings that reflect the particular passions she had at the time – and which at any point may return.

“I find it very difficult to go backwards,” she says. “If I get something that I’m interested in, I’ll take it on and on, then suddenly it stops because I’m too far away from it. I couldn’t say I was going to revisit Arizona and the Indian carvings, for example, because I’m too far away from it, but I could go back to Arizona and do something.”

It’s a working method she struck upon early on. “A big influence was the artist John Busby, who taught us at college,” she says. “Once a week we had to go and draw outside. We were taken all over the place – to the breweries, the coalmines, North Queensferry, to the zoo. I’ve done that ever since.”

Refusing to be called a landscape artist, Rae nonetheless uses the natural world – and human influence on it – as her source material. She’ll spend time in key locations – the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland, the hills of Spain, the docks of Aberdeen and Leith, Mexico during the Day of the Dead – taking note of the history of the land and making impressionistic records in her sketchbooks.

“The history of a location is very important to me,” she says. “If I was doing paintings on the west coast of Scotland, I’d be thinking about the people who had departed and the Celtic influence on the carvings. In Arizona, the petrified forest became the start of a big series working with the landscape and the marks made by the Anasazi Indians.”

Her most dramatic creative work takes place back in the studio where she simplifies the source material in prints which, in turn, influence the bold colours of her abstracted (but never fully abstract) paintings. “The drawing is only the starting point for what happens in the studio,” she says. “I play around with the motif and alter it. With printing, all sorts of unexpected things happen. I couldn’t care less if the grass is green – once it gets back to the studio, it can be any colour it wants.”

Words: Mark Fisher

Barbara Rae: Return Journey, Open Eye Gallery, 1–31 August

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