David Gray | Tone Poems

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

When David Gray needs a model for his figurative art, he doesn’t have to look farther than his own living room in Tacoma, WA. His family is always ready to respond to his casting calls. For example, his daughter Lauren is the star of the show in a recent painting titled BLUE TURBAN. “She’s a very good model, very patient,” Gray says. “She has universal western features, a beautiful round face, and a certain presence.”

David Gray Portrait Artist

Blue Turban, oil, 12 x 16.

Gray admits that he isn’t always a good planner in terms of lining up outside models to pose. So having gracious, in-house talent like his daughter, his son Forest, and his wife Jessica is a big plus. In BLUE TURBAN, part of a recent series exploring the headdress, Gray captures an image that some observers say is reminiscent of Johannes Vermeer’s well-known painting, GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING. In fact, when he posted the painting on Facebook, Gray says, he was surprised at how many people commented on the similarities. However, that was not his intent, nor was Vermeer’s painting his inspiration. Over the years the artist has discovered that viewers bring their own narratives to his pieces, often when he has none in mind.

But BLUE TURBAN is a quintessential Gray work in that it displays his affection for monochromatic color palettes set off by a splash of color. In his current series incorporating turbans, Gray says, he is exploring another artistic passion by painting draped and folded fabric. At 40, the accomplished figurative artist is just as well known for his still-life works. As this story was going to press, Gray had just finished paintings in both genres for two significant group shows—the American Art Invitational at Saks Galleries in Denver and the Champions of Realism show at Wendt Gallery in Laguna Beach, CA.

Whether he is painting still lifes or figures, Gray brings a deep knowledge of and respect for the masters that translates into an elegant minimalism on canvas or panel. His tonalist portraits usually focus solely on the head and shoulders, while his still lifes feature timeless objects such as copper pots and china teacups surrounded by generous doses of negative space.

Gray has studied many of the old masters in depth, but he singles out French Neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres [1780-1867] as his greatest influence. Ingres is known for cool, meticulously drawn figurative works that focus on line as an important stylistic element. “There’s also an abstract quality to his work. If you look at a painting you can see a strong underlying abstract design to it,” Gray says. “I try to do that in my work no matter what the subject.”

Unlike many painters, Gray says he didn’t grow up aspiring to be an artist. As a youngster he wanted to be a concert pianist. Then when he was ten, he saw the movie The Right Stuff and decided he wanted to be a jet fighter pilot. But alongside piano lessons and other high-flying dreams, he always drew. Active in sports in high school, Gray eventually settled on physical therapy as a major and began studying anatomy at Pacific Lutheran College in Parkland, WA. But he soon switched his allegiances to art and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1992. Since graduating, he has studied painting with Terry Furchgott at the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle and with Douglas Flynt at Grand Central Academy of Art in New York City, a school founded by respected painter Jacob Collins and a cadre of like-minded fellow artists.

Over the years his style has slowly evolved. Early in his fine art career, Gray says, he wanted to paint strictly in the realist tradition. “At first, I was just intent on being sort of a human camera,” he explains. “Although galleries liked what I was doing, I eventually began to feel that my work was dead and lifeless. That’s when I decided to take a class at Gage. I learned some fundamentals there that I had ignored, and it breathed a lot of life back into my works.”
These days he prefers that his works be what he calls “an effective translation.” “I’m looking for poignancy and subtlety. That happens with color temperature, values, and shifts in little tiny things most viewers aren’t even aware of,” he says. “The two most important things I want to convey now are beauty and order.”

October Shapes, oil, 14 x 28.

And today he finds inspiration everywhere, whether in the folds of a fabric or on an excursion with his family. The still life titled OCTOBER SHAPES was the result of a road trip with his kids to a local farm in search of pumpkins for Halloween. “The farm had huge boxes filled with gourds and pumpkins, and I wanted to buy and paint everything,” Gray recalls. He settled on some large white pumpkins and a few small orange ones.

As in many of his works, the palette in OCTOBER SHAPES is muted. “There’s no high-intensity orange in the piece, except for the reflected light on top of the breadboard and onto a smaller orange pumpkin,” he explains. “I have always been attracted to limited palettes and tonalism because they convey a certain peacefulness. What I am trying for is a kind of poignant tone poem, like a haiku.”

OCTOBER SHAPES is also a good example of how Gray likes to create a distinctive rhythm in his paintings—leading the eye around a piece in a linear fashion. “I like to create a place where there is a relatively active amount of things going on, and as you get away from the central part of the composition, there is less and less, and then nothing,” he says.

While Gray works from photographs as reference material, he is quick to point out that his paintings are always hand drawn. He either draws directly onto the canvas or panel, or he transfers a drawing created on paper. In ARRANGEMENT WITH SELECTED SKETCHES, which appeared in the recent realism show at Wendt Gallery, Gray hints at his love of drawing along with a possible new direction in his work. In the still life, he includes several drawings alongside brass vessels and oranges. In the future, Gray says, he would like to create more figurative works based on his sketches. “I love to just sit in front of a piece of white paper and draw faces and figures from my imagination,” he says. “Someday I am going to do paintings that are based on these sketches—imaginary figures with emotions and expressions created out of my head. They will have a stylized, gothic feel.”

Gray isn’t sure where his interest in figurative work comes from, but he suspects it may stretch back to his childhood, when his mother gave his father, a high school art teacher, a book about Charles M. Russell [1864-1926]. “I remember looking through that book many times,” Gray says. “There’s a lot of human drama in his work. Sometimes I think my interest in figurative work is not necessarily a conscious choice. I’ve just always had an affinity for the figure.”

These days, with a young family, he doesn’t always get to paint exactly what he wants and when he wants. He devotes about 20 hours a week to painting in his studio and, in addition to selling his artwork, waits tables to support his family. In his spare time Gray is also taking classes to become a radiology technician—a back-up plan to ensure a livelihood after a tough year in the art business, he says. But he knows that art is his true calling. “I like the idea that I can touch someone. That is my wish or hope—to make a difference in people’s lives,” Gray says. “I am dedicated and true to my craft, and I always try to do my job as excellently as I can, knowing that if I do, I can touch someone. Sometimes I’m not always crazy about a painting, but a collector will be really moved. Wow, I think. They really like it. And then comes the realization that I’m really meant to do this.”


Scottsdale Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ; Eisenhauer Gallery, Edgartown, MA; Sage Creek Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; www.davidgrayart.com.

Featured in March 2011.