Glowing with heart

Known for her arresting portraits, painter Rachel Coad has released her first graphic novel, featuring two unlikely characters and a legendary New York venue. 

By Ara Jansen

An octopus in jeans and a snake walk into a bar. Actually, it’s more like they slide into the legendary New York music club CBGBs.

Rachel Coad

Strawberry the octopus and Ray the snake are the characters in New York City Glow, the latest project from award-winning portrait painter Rachel Coad. Known for her large, emotional portraits, this is her first graphic novel or as she likes to call it, “a long comic”.

The story is an almost true account of the 1977 New York City blackout. Ray the snake is a sad, lonely, middle aged insurance salesman who wants a better life. Strawberry is a special octopus who can’t control her glow and finds herself in constant trouble. She has a prison record and an FBI file to prove it. 

The unlikely pair embark on a road trip to New York City, where they rub shoulders with rock royalty and things get electric – in more ways than one.

While she wasn’t exhibiting during COVID, the celebrated artist returned to one of her childhood loves – comics. A life-long fan of Mad Magazine, The Far Side’s Gary Larson and an avid comic reader, Rachel remembers drawing her own stories as a child. Even her Year 12 leaving project was a comic.

When she became a full-time painter in 2003, Rachel left behind her graphic design and illustrative work, but 10 years ago decided to get back into illustration with no plans for what would emerge.

“I started playing around with children’s picture books and enjoyed making up stories and characters,” she explains. “I pitched a couple of ideas, but they never went anywhere. The next story was about an octopus, which started as a silent graphic novel.”

She doesn’t quite know why she felt a bit shy about adding dialogue and a story, but when a critique from a trusted comic expert encouraged her to add a narrative in words, she dived in. 

“I was surprised how that helped develop the characters. As soon as I gave them voices and they interacted, things changed again. It was a bit of a process.”

Each panel in the book is hand-inked and lovingly detailed, with the elements put together using Photoshop. Rachel loves the mix of both mediums, which offers a different way to work from her oil on canvas works.

“I love life drawing and painting. I love ink and paper. Using Photoshop for the comic allows me to add another element.”

Like her paintings, New York City Glow has a matte feel, rather than screaming bright day glo colours. Each of the panels are intricately detailed, which demands the reader stop and examine them as closely as reading the words.

The graphic novel also gave Rachel a chance to indulge and explore her love for music. Influential punk band The Ramones make an appearance in the equally notorious bar that closed in 2006 and the comic even comes with a suggested soundtrack. 

“I love all kinds of music and am always playing something when I am in the studio. I love going down rabbit holes and finding obscure bands and I love emotive songs. These characters – a snake and an octopus – take their world quite seriously so I have some full-on songs to go with them. I find that amazing and sweet and a nice way to create a bit of atmosphere.”

In a rare self-portrait which she shared on Instagram, Rachel inserted herself into an old-style advertisement wearing a classic Ramones T-shirt as her nod to the graphic novel. The painting was selected for the Salon des Refusés 2023, the alternative Archibald and Wynne Prize.

“I started with the characters, a place and a time. I didn’t really have an end game. I just love doing it and it works as something creative I can now do in between my painting. I would love this to become a 50/50 thing with painting. That’s the plan because I really loved doing this project.” 

You’ll be able to see Rachel’s work and both her painting and illustration spaces as part of Margaret River Regional Open Studios from September 9. New York City Glow is out now through Upswell Publishing.
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