David Gray interview

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“I believe art is the sincere and artfully refined expression of an idea, thought, emotion, or narrative which attempts to effectively reach an audience. I know that’s pretty broad but everything I consider art fits into that definition. There may be exceptions. Anything which falls outside of that definition may be some sort of expression and it may speak to an audience but it’s not art.”

 When I think of David Gray, I think of the fine craftsmen of old who took great care and pride in their work…excellence of workmanship being of primary importance. Gray is like the stone mason, who after selecting stones of just the right shape and size, would take great care in placing them just so, resulting in a wall that would stand for centuries. Gray’s work is like that.

In this age of the fast and furious, it’s a real pleasure to experience the work of this remarkable “stone mason”…David Gray. Although he creates paintings of incredible beauty, he like the stone mason, creates works that are beautifully crafted. Each element is carefully and purposefully selected and placed, forming a cohesive, highly refined work with qualities that will endure for generations to come.

I am pleased to bring you this great interview. You will discover that David Gray is first of all honest; he’s also practical, realistic, and down-to-earth. You won’t find him pounding his chest telling us how great he is; he doesn’t need to, his work makes that pretty clear.

Now here’s David Gray, in his own words:

Why are you an artist?   It’s a little like asking a dog why he barks. I’m an artist by design and also, I believe, by destiny.

What is your role or purpose as an artist?   Create beauty and order for the edification of anyone who may come in contact with it.

"Arrangement with Selected Sketches" - 18"x 24" - Oil on panel

“Arrangement with Selected Sketches” – 18″x 24″ – Oil on panel


How much of what you do is natural talent vs. hard work? What does talent look like? What are your views concerning it and how does someone know they have it?   Hard to say. To be sure both “talent” and hard work are involved. I believe I was born with the raw materials but I’ve shed blood, sweat and tears (literally) to refine my craft and I still haven’t reached my prime. I don’t like that word “talent” because it has a conotation of someone being supernaturally gifted somehow without needing to work for it. I prefer the term raw materials, or maybe potential. I think usually “talent” manifests itself though one’s natural interest in or affinity toward a particular thing — but not always. I don’t know how someone may know they have it. I like how Richard Schmid puts it in his book Alla Prima — “just assume you do”. But, I think many give up early and never reach their potential. I think there must be an element of tenacity mixed up in one’s raw materials in order to reach a high level of ability, for we all struggle and fail many times before we reach some semblance of success.

How did you discover your artistic focus?   I have always had a penchant toward realism and figural works. But I once had an important conversation with Mark Kang O’Higgins who teaches at Gage Academy in Seattle. He encouraged me to make a list of my favorite artists and study them. This I did, making lists and editing them until I came up with who I thought were my very favorite painters. These were painters I wanted to emulate. Many of them painted very differently, but I studied them and asked myself what it was in each artist I really admired. What were the qualities of each artist that made them really special for me? The more I could define these qualities and pair them with my own sensibilities and education the more I could effectively refine my pictorial language.

"Muse" - 11"x 14" - Oil on panel

“Muse” – 11″x 14″ – Oil on panel


Your work is beautifully elegant. Did you palette choice and very unique style come about more-or-less naturally or through conscious effort?   Thanks for the compliment. Both. I think the answer to this is largely answered above.

Your paintings are well suited to your last name for you are a master of grays. Explain your color philosophy.   I’ve always been partial to tonalist and monochromatic works. I once studied with Douglas Flynt where I learned a useable and intelligent color theory. This helped me refine my use of quiet color and subtlety. I’m very sensitive to subtle temperature and value shifts, and I like to use that in my pictures. I’m also by nature an introspective and quiet person which I think comes through in my work.

What colors are most often found on your palette?   My normal palette consists of titanium/zinc white, cad yellow, yellow ochre, cad orange, cad red light, terra rosa, transparent red oxide, raw umber, ivory black, quinacridone violet, ultramarine blue, pthalo green. But, as you can see, these generally get mixed into a series of nuanced neutrals. I generally mix on the fly with my brush and/or palette knife.

How do you decide on a concept for your work?   Normally it’s “Well, I have such-and-such deadline coming up. What can I do in that amount of time” — Haha! But I like simplicity, strong shapes, and a minimalist design. These are constants. Other than that I may want to try a particular assemblage of objects or I may simply be inspired by my model. At his time I’m more about the abstract visual statement than any narrative or the like…though that may change with time.

"Addie" - 9"x 12" - Oil on panel

“Addie” – 9″x 12″ – Oil on panel

"Arrangement in White" - 16"x 20" - Oil on panel

“Arrangement in White” – 16″x 20″ – Oil on panel


How much of your work is done from life, and when you do work from photos, what things must be considered to enable you make the adjustment?   Generally I do all my still life work from life and my human subjects from photo reference. While working from either source it’s important to know that I am always interpreting the information in front of me. I’m constantly editing and interpreting what I see. Over the years I’ve developed a pictorial dialect that is personal to me. So in this way the source material isn’t as important as my personal vision for what I want to express and how I want to express it.

How much preliminary work do you do before beginning a painting, and how thorough is your initial drawing?   I don’t do a lot of prelimiary work. Sometimes I will do one or more color studies to help me refine my vision if I feel it’s necessary. I generally do a rough drawing with vine charcoal in order to establish proper proportions and the overall design of the piece, but I avoid detail. Then I do some dry brushing and a little line work in oil to further establish the drawing. This process doesn’t take long — a few minutes for a small painting and up to 2 or 3 hours for a large full figure piece.

Describe your typical block-in technique.   Mostly answered above, I think. The block in described above is followed by an underpainting, which further refines the drawing as well as begins to establish both value and color. The underpainting is fairly thin and not very rich in color. It’s just an intermediate step between blank canvas and the real business of the painting.

How do you decide on a color scheme for each painting?   It’s mostly determined by the subject matter. I generally like an earthy/neutral color world with a spot or two of higher chroma color. Also, I have various colored papers and fabrics I use as background color, but I vary this quite often. I try to find a background color that supports the subject. I want the viewer to walk away from the painting not remembering at all what the background color was – but just the main subject.

"Forest" - 29"x 21" - Oil on canvas

“Forest” – 29″x 21″ – Oil on canvas


Place in order of importance the following words: value, technique, drawing, concept, color, composition, edges, framing.   Concept, composition, drawing, value, technique, color, edges, framing.

Do you have basic rules of composition you adhere to?   Yes, but they can be and are often overridden by intuition.

What’s the most difficult part of painting for you?   Not having the time to really paint what I want. Cultural and commercial constraints, not to mention responsibility to my family, many times dilutes the purity of my expression. I have to paint pictures that I think will sell and that the galleries want. I’m blessed to be able to paint every day, but compromises and sacrifices are a daily part of being an artist needing to make a living.

If you could improve one thing about your work, what would it be?   I wish I had more time to develop more complex and larger pictures. I also wish I could afford painting my figural work exclusively from life.

"Farewell" - 10"x 20" - Oil on panel

“Farewell” – 10″x 20″ – Oil on panel


What do you hope to communicate through your work?   Beauty and order. A sense of design in the universe. Quietness. Peace.

Do you pretty much know what the finished painting will look like before beginning, or do you just paint until you have something you like?   I have a general sense of the final vision but I also largely trust my ability to paint where minor nuances are concerned. I definitely have a plan and a method. I don’t just jump in and “find it” as I go.

What’s it mean to paint with honesty?   I’m not sure I know that one. For me it has meant to consider my strengths as well as my weaknesses where technique is concerned; In other words, paint like David Gray, not like someone else. It also means trusting my instincts in terms of subject matter and composition. But I confess I have many ideas I would like to expolre and I have not yet got the courage to do it.

Does your work reflect your personality? In what way?   I think my best work is quiet and contemplative. There is sometimes an unassuming strength in it. My work is devoid of tricky technique and superfluous flash. I guess that’s kind of like me.

Where does creativity come from? Can it be taught, and if so, how?   I think we’re all born with it. Some more than others. We’ve all seen young kids be creative without trying to impress anyone. I think the more creative of us had it fostered somehow. We either fostered and developed it ouselves and/or were encouraged by parents, teachers, friends, or the like. I don’t know if it can be taught but it can certainly be developed and set free by the right influences.

"Journey" - 18"x 24" - Oil on panel

“Journey” – 18″x 24″ – Oil on panel

"Half Full" - 12"x 16" - Oil on canvas

“Half Full” – 12″x 16″ – Oil on canvas


What causes someone to be strongly attracted to a particular painting? What needs to be present in both the art and the viewer for that to happen?   Who knows? I think when that occurs the artist has hit upon some shared aesthetic sense and possibly other commonalities with the viewer. We could talk about history, education, culture, upbringing and the like but I don’t have the energy or interest in such.

When you teach a workshop, what is your major emphasis?   It is my goal to share the general principles of my technique and thought processes with my students. I want to share with them the tools I use to make a picture.

If someone came to you declaring that they wanted to be an artist, what would you tell them?   I would tell them to forget about it and do something else. It’s too difficult. Or I might tell them to marry a wealthy and generous person so they wouldn’t have to worry about money. Other than that I would tell them to stay single, to not have any children, to get some formal training, and to move to an art rich region where they could meet other artists and see good work in museums and galleries on a regular basis.

How do you go about teaching someone to “see” as an artist?   I try the best I know how. Other than the usual stuff, one thing I do is to tell people to look at a lot of good paintings. Study them. In this way their aesthetic sensibilities will be trained so that they will be able to translate subjects pictorially in an effective manner.

What distinguishes an artist from a very good painter?   What I call “genius”. You either have it or you don’t. One can learn to paint to a very high level and make very good pictures. But I think you have to have that certain quality in order to truly make art. I’m sure there are exceptions but that’s my general notion.

"Portrait of a Young Lady" - 11"x 14" - Oil on panel (alla prima)

“Portrait of a Young Lady” – 11″x 14″ – Oil on panel (Alla prima)


When you become discouraged and feel the well is dry, so to speak, what do you do?   Keep painting. Contemplate. Journal. Hang out with artist friends. Go to a museum if I have the opportunity. Perhaps experiment with a different medium. Above all, keep painting. One has to be in motion in order to get anywhere. Eventually I will come out of my dry spell.

If you could spend the day with any three artists, past or present, whom would they be?   That’s a tough one. My answer may be different next week. Today it would be Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Bouguereau. Hard to carve it down to three.

If you were stranded on an island, which three books would you want with you?   See, I start thinking “Why am I stranded? Will I ever be rescued?, etc.” which might affect my answer. To keep it simple I would say the Bible, a good survival manual, and maybe a really good novel.

What’s your typical workday like?   After my morning ritual I generally get to work by 10am and paint until 6pm. The time can vary depending upon deadlines and other factors. Work mostly consists of painting, but it can also involve stretching canvas, framing, shipping, emails, social media, blogging, and other necessary mundane tasks. Then I usually spend the evening doing family stuff.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you like to do for a living?   Eliminating everything outside the arts and crafts including music and literature, today my answer is:  I would be a doctor, or a bush pilot.

What are your artistic goals for 2014?   Do the best work I’ve ever done.

When teaching a workshop, what are the three primary things you hope to impart to your students?   I guess the first thing is my technique and thought processes involved in picture making. The second is to work hard and that there’s no magic to this painting thing. I don’t know if there is a third.

"Self Portrait" 12"x 9" - Oil on canvas (Alla prima looking at a mirror)

“Self Portrait” 12″x 9″ – Oil on canvas (Alla prima looking at a mirror)


What methods do you use to impart these principles to each individual student?   I demonstrate the principles on my own demo piece. The students watch me and then practice on their own painting. My classes involve a back and forth observing the demo then application. During application I will go around to each student and give suggestions/encouragement. Sometimes I will paint on the student’s piece to help them see how to resolve certain issues. Throughout the class I try to encourage everyone with little quips about working hard, not giving up early, not putting too much pressure on themselves too soon, etc. I expect a lot out of my students but I do act as a bit of a cheerleader at times to inspire them to go after it. I have said I’m a quiet and contemplative person but many of my students would never know it for in my classes I am generally outgoing and outspoken. I like to work hard but I also like to joke and have a good time. Sometimes I get downright goofy. I’m very at home in the studio environment.

David, thanks for sharing your talent and knowledge with us. It is greatly appreciated.


David Gray Painting the Portrait (A video demonstration)

David Gray website

David Gray teaching blog

John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE



Scheduled Workshops for 2014

 22-24 May  –  Dahlonega, GA

20-22 June  –  Lowell, MI

18-20 September  –  Jackson, MS

1-3 October  –  Portland, ME

(For details on each of these workshops, please click HERE)


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