As a youngster growing up in Springfield, Ohio, Don Ray spent time hiking through the ancient hardwoods, rolling terrain and peaceful creeks. Summer mornings would find Ray and his grandfather fishing Honey or Donald Creeks, regularly pulling in small mouth bass. Those fish became some of the Vero Beach artist's earliest subjects.
A resident of Indian River County since 1992, Ray is regarded as one of the country's premier game fish artists who photographs, interacts and paints many species in their natural environment. He and his wife Lorraine live on a secluded four-acre property that comprises a cottage home with an artist studio out back, a lovely gazebo, and landscape waterfall along with a half-acre aquifer-fed pond with floating plants that sports a surprising collection of fish.
Ray's detailed images of popular game fish are enjoyed and collected by fishermen around the world and have appeared on scores of publication covers including Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Marlin and Saltwater Sportsman Magazine. An airborne shark doing its thing busting a school of bluefish (Leap of Faith), the stop-action shot of a single sailfish moving in and striking the bait (Set Sail), or swimming among a school of big tarpon (The Gathering). These are the scenes Ray recreates with oil and canvas.
A self-taught artist, early on he studied the works of masters from "The Golden Age of Illustration" who produced some of the strongest examples of narrative figurative work in the history of American painting. As a struggling artist in the mid-1980s Ray received a phone from esteemed underwater marine artist Stanley Meltzoff. It was a pivotal moment in his life. Meltzoff shared his knowledge and time, and would later become a mentor. Recognized as the founder and father of the genre of painting game fish in their habitat, Meltzoff elevated sporting art to the level of fine art.
"He was a master at capturing how the fish moved, how the water and light played off their scales," observes Ray, 59. "He didn't paint fish, he painted light. No one has ever done it better."
Ray also nails that motion and the marvelous interplay of light and shadow in his underwater scenes. He renders a ray of sunlight as it darts through the ocean's surface, as it shimmers, exposes or reflects the mysterious undersea world, giving folks a glimpse of the deep. Oils are his chosen medium.
"Oils tend to have the most range and luminosity for me," he says. "They also have a tried and true permanence, having lasted for hundreds of years."
More than thirty years ago Ray began zigzagging between Ohio and Florida where he discovered a whole new world beneath the ocean's depths.
"I met some very passionate fishermen in my early travels to Florida," Ray recalls. "I knew right away that Florida was the place for me. With so many species of fish and their habitats, I loved the idea of spending a lifetime exploring, diving and fishing these waters."
An avid free diver and skilled underwater photographer, his paintings emerge from first-hand experience and interactions. So much has to go right to accurately capture one of these big, powerful fish.
"Composing your picture underwater is really controlled chaos," explains Ray, sitting under a palm and oak canopy overlooking his pond. "You're dealing with spaces with an overload of action, but you need open areas as well. Objects disappear much quicker through space in water versus above it. As light is displaced so too is color through the spectrum. Red is the first to go."
Portraying the atmosphere of water is very different than what most artists are taught about depicting the atmosphere of air.
"Fish are masters of camouflage, they blend in rather than stand out in their underwater environment," Ray observes. "When painting fish you save your lightest values for last and remember that water filters color more intensely than air."
He has created a fresh way to reinterpret the undersea world, combining his love for diving, fish and their native habitat with his skill as an artist.
"His fish swim off the canvas," says Vero Beach's Dr. Grant Gilmore, a world renowned biologist who has appeared on several "Discovery" television series. "But it's not just these imposing sport fish. He puts in the small creatures and accurately depicts their habitat. He's got a saragassum seaweed line where pipe fish, tripletail and other game fish spend their early stages of life with a shark very subtly fading off in the background. I do a lot of work underwater. I've never seen any artist depict that world the way Don does. He's one of a kind."
The artist has gone to great lengths to construct his pictures. Two years ago a pal brought over a fresh catch 65-pound yellowfin tuna and the duo suspended it on a series of crab trap floats in the family's chlorinated swimming pool via interwoven fishing lines, hooks and wooden dowels.
"I jumped in and starting taking underwater photos from all kinds of angles," recalls Ray. "You can really get a sense of the fish's muscularity and how the light angles off around it. It was spectacular. I've had everything in that pool except a blue marlin.
"I try to give a stronger appreciation for all these species living beneath the sea that are so far removed from most people's day-to-day lives. Oceans cover 70 percent of our planet's surface, yet are still its least known. I want to portray the beauty of this world and let folks know oceans are a valuable resource that need to be conserved."
Ray counts as primary influences Claude Monet and other Impressionist painters like Daniel Garber and other artists from Bucks County's ( Pa.) New Hope School of Art during the first half of the twentieth century. Another who shaped Ray's style was legendary illustrator and painter N. C. Wyeth (1882- 1945) who mastered art making's most powerful qualities: solid drawing techniques, engaging subject topics, storytelling, a natural ability to convey a sense of time and place, and exceptional paint handling and brushwork. Anchored in the Brandywine School style of illustration founded by artist Howard Pyle, Wyeth often painted wearing period costumes.
"Pyle would tell his students 'throw your heart into a picture and then jump in after it,'" Ray relates. "The number one rule for an artist is to get out there and see it for yourself. That's never truer than in the undersea world where it's quite difficult to capture the light and its complex extractions ."
Though Ray had no formal art training, he has a marine scientist's eye for detail. He considers the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) magazine covers some of his best work. His first one was of a small mouth bass in 1985. IGFA selected Ray as the featured artist for 2017. He was awarded first place in the Florida State Lobster Stamp competition for three consecutive years, and took home the Florida Snook Stamp competition grand prize twice. He points to being presented with the Award of Excellence by the Society of Animal Artists as his greatest honor.
Ray's property puts one in mind of the misty forests of Middle Earth, the setting of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Trunks of knotty trees, a small grove of honeybell orange trees and that aquifer-fed pond brimming with bass, bluegill, bull redfish, tarpon, mangrove snapper, striped mullet and more. Most intriguing are a school of snook with their little duck mouths that rise to the surface making a popping noise. It's a perfect spot for sitting comfortably and thinking about great adventures, just like a hobbit should.
On the backside of Ray's studio is a hutch where a gang of nine rabbits scurry between the two former turkey coops. He leans inside and scoops up a favorite, an American Chinchilla. Ray cuddles the super cute and fluffy rabbit to his chest, softly stroking its forehead, back and behind the ears.
"Norbert is a great stress reliever," he says with a grin.
Ray paints in a modest studio, a former small apartment built of wood. In an aquarium against a back wall he preserves threatened, endangered species-- a big mouth sleeper and a river goby. Clusters of brushes, partly squeezed tubes of oil colors and drawing materials are scattered across a wooden worktable. A single easel holds a work in progress, a sailfish that the artist admits needs some inspiration. None of his works adorn the wall. He saves that space for his mentor Meltzoff. A limited number of Ray's pieces reside in the family house where canvasses, some of size, others small, rest on the floor.
After a short break, Ray returns from the house toting a recent work "Ibis Beach," a piece showcasing a dozen or so of the shorebirds on the ocean's edge. Framed in the soft wood-grain of basswood, the artist is exhibiting it along with "Mullet Run" at the Under the Oaks Art Festival at Riverside Park in March. Ray enjoys watching and painting sea birds, such as depicted in the exquisite "Roseate Moon," a pair of roseate spoonbills flying across the blue sky with clouds and a faint moon. For more than three decades Ray has been translating what he sees in nature into stunning works of art.
"I start with a plan but I don't know where it will take me," Ray relates. "When I'm painting I need to see something that sparks me, and that happens throughout the time I spend painting. I'll take a break and the painting will talk to me, 'what you really need to do is this.' That is how it all comes together."