In Print - Shining his light

By CK Wolfson - December 27, 2007

"By the Light of the Moon, The paintings of Ray Ellis." Compass Publishing (2007), 107 pages, $40.

Ray Ellis's moon peeks out between dark branches, flirts with masts, sails, and lighthouses, draws rippley silver designs on water, floats on clouds, adds drama to marshland, and lends an aura of magic to what might otherwise seem ordinary.

Anyone familiar with the artist and his representational paintings of sea and landscapes can appreciate how well suited he is to the subject. Just as he maintains an optimistic, best-of-all-worlds attitude, so does his work generally express an affirming regard for his subjects. His is a sensitive, evocative look at nocturnal scenes on the Vineyard, the South Carolina Low Country, and France. With the addition of the cool light of the moon, they become magical.

"By the Light of the Moon, The paintings of Ray Ellis" is a large, glossy coffee table book containing 92 beautifully reproduced moonlit scenes, painted between the 1980s and the present. Each one offers something new, showing how the moon plays on the water, how the trees become silhouetted, how the reflecting light effects the setting.

By the Light of the Moon
Click photo for larger version.

In introductory comments, art historian Valerie Ann Leeds chronicles Mr. Ellis's artistic influences: Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and western painters Frank Tenny Johnson and Donald Teague, among others.

From his Edgartown home, the artist adds to that list. Saying, "Several things inspired me," he cites Johnny Mercer's song, "Moon River," along with his own romantic response. "I think everybody has had the experience of looking at the moon with a loved one. I've always been a romantic."

The impact of a particular location is subtle, with specific details - a heron on the edge of sea grass, the distant lights on Chappy, fly casting fishermen - defining the location. For atmosphere there is the painted moon, its cool palette, the shapes and contrasts it brings forth, and the luminosity that bounces off the water or creates high drama against dunes or marshes.

In "Moonlight on the Seine," Mr. Ellis's horizontal composition becomes abstract, the soft clouds and trees on the horizon serve as line and shape. It is the distant moon, partially hidden behind the clouds, that anchors the scene and infuses it with nostalgia and mood.

While the effect is similar in "Menemsha Creek," the painting is more literal: a fisherman in a yellow slicker in the foreground, the glow of lights from the windows of the shacks and houses. But again, it is the reflection of the moonlight skipping across the water that establishes the feeling of well-being.

Mr. Ellis's moon is never used ornamentally. Often small in proportion to the canvas, it is a depicted as an integral part of the whole - part of the night sky, rather than simply placed on it. In "Dusk - Isle of Hope," only the effect of the moon is shown glistening on the water.

The artist explains: "In each case, I start at the top of the canvas, give shape to the sky, and place the moon. Sometimes things are put together from my imagination, as well as from research and from the setting itself. The final step in the paintings is what I call tweaking, putting in the details and just firming it up."

Mr. Ellis says, "I have studied the moon my whole life, especially from the three years I spent in the Coast Guard traveling to the Pacific. I studied the reflection on the clouds, studied its effect, the play of light on the water, the highlights in the trees."

The book includes a quote from Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldren, commenting on Mr. Ellis's work, further testimony of the skill with which the artist captured his subject.