Artist of the Month: Don Gray

California-based artist Don Gray paints large-scale murals and applies his traditional training to the depiction of historical events. He brings to this work a sense of spontaneity and freedom that is fueled by the creation of a new small painting every day.

Gallery Light
2006, oil on canvas,
24 x 30. All artwork
this article
collection the artist.

by Naomi Ekperigin

California-based artist Don Gray paints large-scale murals for public and private collections, applying his traditional training to the depiction of historical events. He brings to this work a sense of spontaneity and freedom, which is fueled by his commitment to the creation of a new small painting every day.

Don Gray has always been inspired by the natural landscape that surrounded him growing up in rural Oregon. Having traveled and worked extensively throughout the Pacific Northwest, it is the rich history and beauty of the region that attracts the artist. After graduating Eastern Oregon University, in La Grande, with a B.F.A in fine art, Gray began his professional art career and developed a large following for his regional landscapes and figures. This soon led to work as a book illustrator, where his first project was on the history of the Oregon Trail. The work on this book led to an assignment from the mural committee of Vale, Oregon, who wanted a mural on the side of a building depicting those who traveled along the trail. “I was intrigued by the idea, and too ignorant to say no,” Gray recalls. “I expected to do one mural and be done with it, but one thing led to another and now, 14 years later, I still find my time is divided between my studio work and mural projects.”

Beach Dog
2004, oil, 58 x 77.

To say his time is divided is an understatement, as Gray’s mural assignments and his studio work require a sharp shifting of gears. The subject matter, medium, time commitment (and in some instances, restraints), as well as the preparation required for a mural force the artist to work carefully and slowly—as well as meet the needs of the mural’s sponsoring group. “The process for creating these historical murals is almost diametrically opposed to the spontaneous way I prefer to work on my studio pieces,” the artists says. “Murals frequently require extensive research to ensure historical accuracy and they usually require a long gestation period to come up with a workable design. It’s a slow, analytical process.” Even once this process is complete, Gray must submit his sketch idea to his client for approval. If it is not, he must begin again. Though this can be difficult (“like pulling teeth,” the artist jests), it the very process that makes mural work so enjoyable. “I love the physicality of working large,” Gray admits. “It’s kind of like working on a giant jigsaw puzzle. It’s fun watching the images emerge.”

The artist works on this giant puzzle in phases, first using his sketch as a reference, then creating a macquette, or painted scale study. When possible, the basic outlines of the forms are projected onto the wall at night, using a transparency projector. “I draw the lines on the wall using the same acrylic paint I use for the mural,” Gray explains. “I always bring rollers and trays, but never use them; most of the painting is done with natural China-bristle house painting brushes made by Purdy or Wooster.”

Shore Breeze
2004, oil, 24 x 36.

Gray’s ability to paint with his brush, especially on such a large scale, is due in part to his training in traditional techniques, which has enabled him to create tight, realistic paintings, regardless of subject matter. He has also cultivated his ability to work intuitively by participating in what is called the daily painters movement, where artists create small paintings on a daily basis and post them on their websites or weblogs for viewing and purchase. “I thought it would become some kind of chore,” the artist recalls. But after a few weeks, he found that regularly creating these pieces—usually 5”-x-7” or 6”-x-6” in size—had a positive influence on his artistic process. “I must like extremes,” he says. “The dailies have helped me re-acquaint myself with oils—I’ve grown more fluent in the medium. In addition, the pressure to produce eliminates a lot of excuses I often used for not beginning a painting, such as not feeling ‘inspired.’ Now, I choose a subject quickly and I’ve learned to see that virtually anything around me has beautiful potential.”

Night at the Movies
2007, oil, 30 x 40.

Working quickly allows Gray to alter the confines of mural work to fit the process he often applies to his studio creations. “I usually try to lobby for permission to work from pencil sketches, so that there is still room for invention of color and refinement of forms.” He also encourages other artists interested in working on a large scale to apply the same techniques used for smaller works. “Try to think of a mural as a small painting writ large,” Gray suggests. “When you look closely at an easel-sized work—even one that appears quite detailed—you realize there is a lot suggested. When I create mural work, I try to work as broadly and rapidly as possible, focusing on what the effect will be from a distance, just like pulling your nose a few feet back from a small painting.”

For more information on Gray, visit his website,; his daily painting blog,; or contact him directly at

Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.

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