William Wray Workshop Recap - A New Approach

"Easton Gas Station" | 12" x 9" | Oil on panel | NFS

In early November I had the opportunity to be a student once again. I've been teaching painting for a few years now and haven't taken a class or workshop in a long time. I was lucky enough to be on FaceBook just as artist William Wray posted the announcement for his workshop. Knowing it was a rare opportunity to study with him and figuring the class would fill up in minutes, which it did, I quickly signed up.

Sadly, when I signed up for the workshop it was advertised as a studio class and limited to only 12 students. A few days before the start of the workshop Wray emailed to say that it wasn't a studio class after all, it was going to be a Plein air class for the first two days instead. On top of that when I arrived there were 20 students in the class, not 12. Had I known I wouldn't have signed up.

I first heard about Wray in 2007 when I was in the very early stages of learning how to paint. He was slated to demo. at a local art organization I belonged to at the time. He had also just released a book full of his paintings titled Dirty Beauty. His focus back then was gritty urban scenes. I became an immediate fan as soon as I saw his work.

Not everyone understands why a painting of a shopping cart in a parking lot or an old mobile home would be wall worthy art but, what many painters know, is how challenging it is to create something beautiful out of a mundane and humble subject. Wray handles the mundane with aplomb, elevating the ordinary into something with grandeur.

Over the years his work has evolved, which has been fascinating to watch because he's pushing the limits of his representational painting, loosing details, painting fewer "things," focusing on shape and value, loosing edges and taking his work into the realm of abstraction.

In the last year I've been doing a lot of thinking about my own work. Asking questions about the direction I would like to go. I've always viewed Plein Air landscape painting as a necessary part of my personal learning process but never a means to an end. Now that I have a lot of time behind my field easel and I've put a few miles on my paintbrush I'd like to explore territory beyond what I know how to do.

I hoped William Wray would teach a different approach in his workshop and he did. Here's a recap.

Day 1
Wray painted a quick demo. explaining what he wanted us to focus on that day while we were out in the field. Unfortunately, we were painting Plein Air. I was really hoping to work in the studio because I thought I'd be able to push the limits in my work more in the studio and that I'd have more one on one time with Wray, but, I paint a lot en Plein Air so it wasn't totally out of my comfort zone. He told us he wanted us to work small, like 3" x 4 1/2" or so. He also said we could only use 3 values in our studies and that we needed to think carefully about color harmony. He said that most of us wouldn't grasp what he was talking about right away and it did take me some time to figure it out.

Here are my first four for the day before his edits -

What I misunderstood was the local color lesson and the color harmony thing was also pretty tricky. I struggled to find compositions that worked in 3 values. Below are Wray's edits -

You can see he lost a lot of the edges in the first three and changed the colors by intermixing them creating a better harmony. He caught me off guard by telling me he didn't want to "mess up" the last one with the figure and that he was hesitant to edit my work because he felt I was more advanced. I've felt that way myself with my more advanced students when I teach but I really wanted him to show me firsthand where I was going wrong so, I pushed him and let him know I wanted him to rework the studies.

Here are my next four. I was playing around with going totally abstract. Not that he told us to do that, I decided to break the rules (there is always one in every workshop, right) and play for a while.

Wray only edited the bottom left. The others weren't worth the time and it was noon so, we all headed off to lunch.

Sadly, he rushed through my crits because it was close to lunch time and he'd already spent half the day with other students. I was hoping that would change in the afternoon but the workshop was so overbooked and he was so scattered that I never did get a lot of his time or feedback.

Here are my last four from day 1 - 

I felt like I was beginning to figure out what type of subject this approach works well on. Below are Wray's edits.

He killed more edges and created more color harmony.

He stopped at my easel 2 times on day 1, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

Day 2 was more of the same. We went to downtown Pasadena with it's wonderful architecture and plentiful shade. I spent a ton of time wiping off my little studies trying to get something to work. A couple of these are sideways. Sorry, they are all iPhone photos.

Wray made a few edits here and there to these by changing a few shapes. I felt like I was grasping the lesson and I could see the potential for creating future paintings using this approach. I looked forward to day 3 when I could apply this lesson to a larger, more finished painting.

Wray seemed at a loss when I asked him to explain why he was making the edits he made to my work. It was almost as though he was such an inexperienced teacher that he was incapable of verbalizing his creative process. Understandable, but frustrating from a student's point of view.

On day 2, he came to my easel only once at the end of the day. He was tired and didn't give me a lot of feedback.

Day 3 was in the studio. Wray finished the demo. he'd begun on the first day, showing us how to take our studies to more of a finish before turning us loose to work from our own photo reference.

Honestly, I was hoping he would demo more or at least demo a subject out in the field instead of using a photo that he took that wasn't from the area we were painting at. Many of my artist friends asked me about his process and how he gets some of the effects he gets in his paintings but he didn't show the class any of that. It was as if he didn't want to share the information with us. Disappointing to say the least.

The finished Wray demo. painting -

Below is my photo reference. This is an old gas station in Easton, Maryland that I shot during a painting event.

Here is my finished painting.

You can see it's very different from my reference and that was what I took away from the whole experience. Now I know a way of working that frees me from simply rendering what the subject is and allows me to be more expressive and make decisions about what I want to say in a painting. It's really opened up a whole new world for me. I've created a number of paintings since the workshop. Some have been complete failures, while others are more successful and a couple are downright exciting (to me anyway).

On day 3 I did get a lot more help from Wray. It seemed to finally dawn on him that there were a few students in class he wasn't spending any time with. 

Ultimately, I did get a lot out of the workshop in spite of Wray's inexperience as a teacher.

In case you are wondering the "Easton Gas Station" painting is not for sale because it's going into my own personal collection. I need hold onto it to remember what I learned when creating this painting, plus, I really couldn't sell is as my own work because even though I painted most of it, Wray made a number of critical edits.


Brenda Boylan said…
Wow Kim! What a great recap of a really interesting and rare opportunity to work with one of my superheroes. I see some interesting things that make my mind swirl with excitement! Also, I'd agree with the "keeping of the lesson" with the Easton gas station. It's a great piece to cherish as I do the same with some of my own breakthroughs. :) Oh, so where in Easton is that gas station?

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