William Wray: Plotting Life’s Light

First Published in the New Individualist, Robert Bidinotto editor, 2008

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, engaged me with 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.

Wray, Crystal Cove
Wray, Crystal Cove

Genre and Suspension of Disbelief

Notice Wray’s 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 so.

Wray, Off to the Side
Wray, Off to the Side

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 hand.

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.

Merging Symbolism and Technique

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.

Wray, Gas
Wray, Gas


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 with 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.

Wray, Jamestown Baptist Church
Wray, Jamestown Baptist Church

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?

Wray, Chester and Green Streets
Wray, Chester and Green Streets

Lonely Bus has a similarly solitary mood, but it is a radical contrast in light to the painting aboveWilliam 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.

Wray, Lonely Bus
Wray, Lonely Bus

The Plotting

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.

Wray, Red Train Revised
Wray, Red Train Revised
Wray, Trailer #3
Wray, Trailer #3

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.

Cameo Role

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 full circle.

Wray, Joshua Tree
Wray, Joshua Tree

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 light.

Michael Newberry

3 Replies to “William Wray: Plotting Life’s Light”

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