Artist Ray Ellis at 90
Photo by Lynn Christoffers
Now that he's turned 90, Ray Ellis might be considered the resident patriarch of Martha's Vineyard landscapes and seascapes. "Ninety was a big milestone," Mr. Ellis says, and happily notes that his April 24 birthday celebration this year "went on for days and days."
Chipper and as sharp as ever, Mr. Ellis, a full-time resident of Edgartown, pledges to keep painting "for as long as I can hold a brush and have a sound mind."
Fans of his quintessential Vineyard scenes — sailboats, stone walls, flowers, fields, lighthouses, moonlit seas, and simple cottages should be pleased to know that if the artist has his way, the word "retirement" will never be uttered.
"It's not like retiring from banking or insurance," he explains. "They want to play golf. I have no desire to just rest. I have no infirmities. My biggest thrill is to start a new painting."
While he had his first show on the Island 41 years ago, Mr. Ellis has described himself as a painter on all seven continents. Yet in 1991, when it came time to settle down, he and his wife Teddie gave up their Savannah, Georgia, residence to make Martha's Vineyard their year-round home.
"There's no place as beautiful as here," he says. "Harbors, beaches, farmland, and light — I never run out of ideas. I see compositions every time I go out." He has made sketches and taken photos of so many compositions for future paintings, he admits he just might not have the time to finish them all — an idea he characterizes as "frustrating."
Recognized for decades for his watercolor prowess, Mr. Ellis shifted to oils later in his career. While 80 percent of his paintings were once watercolors, today about 65 percent are oils.
"Watercolors are such a demanding medium," he explains. "I can start an oil then rub out an entire area. And you can use white to such an advantage."
Comfortable in a variety of mediums, he also works in pencil and pastels.
He attributes his prolific nature to a dedicated work ethic. Over the 70-plus years that he's been painting, Mr. Ellis estimates that he's completed more than 6,000 works, including many that have been published in his 15 books.
His routine varies little: up at 6 am, a half-mile walk with the family dog, read the paper, paint until lunch, resume painting until 3 pm, another dog walk, a nap, dinner, and 5 to 10 games of backgammon with his wife. "We keep score," he says, with a chuckle.
Two days a week he attends physical therapy sessions to help maintain strength and endurance. While he once was an avid tennis player and golfer, he says he recently gave them up.
"You have to make some sacrifices to be self-disciplined," he says. "You have to have a pattern and a work habit. You don't turn on the TV or read."
When he needs a boost, he reaches for an art book from among the roughly 600 on his shelves. "I turn to Homer or Sargent," he says. "They inspire me."
Mr. Ellis maintains his own fine art gallery in Savannah as well as Compass Prints, a print business which reproduces his work for sale with impressive success. In addition, the New York Graphic Society has sold more than 150,000 of his prints worldwide. He still travels to Savannah twice a year to meet with his staff and to gather new reference material for his Low Country paintings.
While he has shown his work in galleries across the country, it became too difficult to create enough paintings to satisfy the demand — a happy problem for any artist.
Three years ago, feeling the need for a change, he shifted his work from Edgartown Art Gallery to North Water Gallery in Edgartown and The Granary Gallery in West Tisbury. Happy with the move, he plans to show approximately 20 new paintings at North Water Gallery and five or six at The Granary Gallery this summer, in addition to another 65 new works during the course of the year in his gallery in Savannah.
Becoming a successful artist has been the result of more than beautiful brushstrokes. After interrupting his studies at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art to serve in the Coast Guard during World War II, Mr. Ellis became a salesman, and then built a thriving advertising agency in New Jersey and New York. In 1968 he left the business and became a full-time painter. He has embraced contemporary marketing tools including the Internet and credits both technology and his devoted staff in Savannah for developing his worldwide reputation.
And, although his work is in the permanent collections of museums nationwide and the White House, Mr. Ellis is still planning for the future. "I'll keep painting as best I can," he says. "My goal now is to get my work into more museums. I guess every artist would like to leave a legacy."