Interview with Painter Mona Ray

Painted by San Diego Artist Mona Ray

Painted by San Diego Artist Mona Ray

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FINE Magazine interviews painter Mona Ray.

When did you start painting? How has your upbringing influenced your work?
I was always a creative kid—loved drawing and painting and making things in general. A bookworm and daydreamer, I grew up on the high prairie of Wyoming, 10 miles from the nearest town. Without many planned activities or other kids around, I had to make my own fun. I spent hours wandering through the sagebrush, looking for agates and arrowheads, catching lizards and watching the clouds roll in with afternoon thunderstorms. 

Creativity was valued in our family. My dad channeled his into black-and-white photography, and I watched him develop prints in the darkroom. My mom created elaborate sewing projects and an unbelievable garden. There was always music in the house… Several guitars (both my folks play), banjo, keyboard, recorders, bongo drums, tambourine, harmonica, autoharp. 

We were encouraged to follow our curiosity and explore our passions. I loved to paint and started private lessons with a local watercolor artist when I was fourteen. She taught in her studio, and I learned the basics of landscape painting from her, including composition, color theory and watercolor techniques. She was a fabulous teacher, and I studied with her for several years. 

I continued painting in watercolor for the next decade or so, until I started showing my work professionally, in my early 30s. At that point, I switched to acrylics.

While watercolors required extensive planning of composition, value patterns, color palette, [while] acrylics offered bold freedom. I could start with a vague idea, or only a feeling for the subject, and continue to layer and build color and texture as the painting evolved. The pressure to execute every stroke perfectly was lifted, and I was hooked.

Mona Ray painting

What inspires your paintings? How would you describe them?
I describe my paintings as "abstract landscapes." Many things inspire my work, most of all the world around me—the light in the sky, the color of the sea, the pattern on a cliff face. Travel, museums, reading, writing, thinking...these are all ways I find fresh ideas. Landscape artists who have influenced my work include Joaquin Sorolla, George Innes, J.M.W. Turner, and Richard Diebenkorn. 

You paint a lot of landscapes, though some are more abstract than others. How do you begin designing a piece on a fresh canvas?
Yes, some of my landscapes are more abstract than others, although in all of them my aim is always to create a distillation of the landscape while amplifying mood … I communicate with paint and embrace many of the abstract expressionist philosophies and practices. The landscape is my starting point, but what hangs on a collector's wall is a painting, and as I see it, all the marks and drips and blobs and smears and scratches have to come together as a work of art in their own right, and not read as a transcription of reality.

I am constantly seeking new ways of painting and new ways of seeing. I see my studio as a paint "laboratory" and my paintings as "experiments." Not every one is successful, but the process is a joyful exploration, and each new piece builds upon the discoveries made in the last work.

Unless I'm working on a specific commission, my approach to painting is spontaneous and minimally planned. I may have an idea in mind, or else browse through my sketchbooks or photos of recent paintings until I find a place to begin.

I generally start by sketching loosely and gesturally with a large brush or chunk of charcoal, establishing some main divisions of space and breaking up the monotony of the rectangle. The most important spatial division in a landscape is the horizon line, so that is usually the first descriptive line I place.