Many of you will be
familiar with what a plot is in literature; the story arc of
essential events and character development, rising to a climax,
and resolution at the end. What you might not be familiar with
is that representational painters, such as William Wray, also
plot their paintings, but instead of moving events and
characters, they plot the development of color and light.
Have you ever experienced
an intense boredom when sections in a story are repeated?
You might think "enough already, we heard that before, let's
move on!" Likewise, our
eyes, independent of our consciousness, are in constant movement, comparing and contrasting lights,
darks, and colors. When our eyes see a painting's tones and colors
repeat, they get bored.
Several years ago, over a
pint in a Scottish pub, Andrea Van Doorn, one of the world's
leading vision scientists, mesmerized me with stories of her
research about the nature of our eyes. One particular
fact she related to me was that if our eyes are focused on one point of color,
without the ability to redirect their focus to another point, we
cease to see: our eyes will simply register a gray void.
The opposite of this is
when our eyes can compare and contrast between many tones and
colors, identifying the differences. This experience
is incredibly refreshing to our eyes, especially when our eyes
can detect the build up of contrasting lights and colors,
leading towards a climax of brilliant patches. This is precisely what
William Wray's paintings do.
Crystal Cove was
commissioned for a cancer ward, and William told me that he wanted
"to bring the freshness and soothing beauty of nature to the
patients." In Crystal Cove, notice the bright, peach
lights on the clouds on the horizon, and compare those to the
cool grays of the wave crests, and again compare those to
the darker gray highlights in the clouds above. Wray has
built tone upon tone, until he blasted through the atmosphere,
creating a climax with the clouds' brilliant light.
Suspension of Disbelief
breezy, expressionist style of painting. You can see the
slap dash of thick brush strokes in the lime and violet sky, and
in the green and orange ruts on the side of the road. Wray's
style fits generally into the genre of plein
air painting, which is painting direct from nature or seemingly
The idea of plein air
is to be as faithful as possible to the sun's position and to working
faster than the devil to blast an impression. A desirable
quality in this style of painting is to literally see the brush
marks, and to sense the wild, urgent movements of the artist's
In a way, once you accept
the premise of this plein air style, and if the artist is
consistent, the combination encourages you to "suspend
disbelief." Just as you wouldn't hold a time machine against a
sci-fi writer, powerful brush strokes stoke the blast that
catapults you into the plein air painter's universe.
An interesting thing about Wray's
method is that aside from painting directly from nature, he also
creates and edits in his studio; sometimes using photo
references. Yet, whether outside, or in the studio he maintains a
plein air style of urgency.
Gas is a wonderful
study in contrast of light and dark, exhibited by the
clean, bright gas station and the dark, prominent storage tank
in the foreground. It is not a stretch to see these things as
symbolic of our happy, safe lifestyle in the United States,
contrasted with the horrible events happening in Arabia.
A melancholy spirit
dampens the mood of Jamestown Baptist Church. Stormy
clouds, the teetering cypress, steeple, and telephone poles
further the mood of an out of date era on the verge of collapse.
I asked Wray if this painting reflected his view of religion and
he told me "I have never set foot in a church. I loathe the
church, yet I am interested in it at the same time."
Wray masterfully plays
the mood of color. Notice the stone-cold blues and grays,
and the wet-looking greens. When he combines these colors with
the fading light hitting the side of the church, the total gives
us a chilly effect.
The first time I saw
Wray's paintings, I was haunted by similar moods I experienced in
response to Raymond Chandler's stories. The Corner of Chester
and Green conveys the arid, hot, dusty and lonely atmosphere
of the streets of Pasadena and the surrounding areas of Los Angeles,
especially when one is on foot. I find it surprising that these
light, brilliant colors can convey a kind of bleakness; do you
sense that as well?
has a similarly solitary mood, but it is a radical contrast in light
to the painting above. William told me that he always
tries to approach each painting differently; to work with
different color choices, and different lighting conditions.
These two paintings are literally as different as night and day.
Again Wray engages our eyes by the ebb and flow of light. Here, the
street lamps flicker and dim as they recede, like a drunken bum
staggering down a deserted street.
The plotting of William
Wray has only been
painting as a fine artist for the last couple of years. Though
he has a fine art education, he chose to develop a successful
career as an illustrator and commercial artist. He told me that
in his early years he thought that "fine artists were full of it
and that they were pompous." So what has changed over the years
since then? "When I was younger, I was a follower. When I did
commercial art, I didn't have to face a blank canvas alone. It
took me time to find who I was, to ground my emotions, and gain
my confidence. Fine art reveals who I am inside--it
is personally satisfying."
Now Wray is solidifying
his career by exhibiting in several fine art galleries and he
maintains a studio in California. His future plans include the
ultimate move to alternate between NYC and California.
It is not surprising to
see that some of Wray's subjects are locomotives and trailers.
Seeing them as a reflection of the artist: he is a powerfully
built guy, and, like him, they are poised for the long haul. But movement in painting is not only about what the
subject is doing, it is also about tracking the light and color
through space. Notice the gradation of light on the overpass as
it shoots out from the top of the train. And notice how the
tracks disappear at the other end of the overpass--that violet
cube of light seems miles away.
In Trailer, notice
the red spot directly under the trailer's hitch and see how it
is brighter than other reds in the painting. You can almost make
it a game of trying to find two identical hues of red, orange,
peach, or rust. These color variances encourage our eyes to
bounce all over the painting. A funny thought I have about the
bright red spot that accents the
trailer's hitch, it is as if the trailer is sending the message that
it is ready for a trip.
As an aside, you might be
surprised that I suggest that inanimate objects in paintings
have a will of their own. This comes from the concept that every
painting is, in some manner, a self portrait of the artist.
Though it is not to be taken literally, it is one of the
wonderful ways to approach looking deeper and finding more
meaning in a painting.
In Joshua Tree, we
can discern that the climatic part is the splash of brilliant
blue sky, peppered by the incredibly hot red gashes on the two
Joshua trees. But what is the resolution to this painting?
Simply, it is when the forms of subjects fit into the fore-,
back-, and middle grounds. For example, the two Joshua trees and
the side of the hill combine to naturally fill the painting's
foreground. The hill then slopes back comfortably towards the
middle ground, and the purple mountains and golden desert floor
are reasonably distant. Back in the distance, the sky picks up
its momentum and swings forward towards us. When all those
things are in place, we have a sense of completion; the
painting has taken us on a roundtrip journey, and come about
The setting sun in the
wild west does conjure up feelings of a happy resolution and the
expectation of another dawn. We can imagine that this pair of
Joshua trees and the solitary troupers behind them will be here
again tomorrow, reaching towards the sky, and always catching
The New Individualist 2008
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