Artist Taffy French-Gray Brings Her Seaside Portraits to Valley Art Gallery

Rebecca Rose

Artist Taffy French-Gray Brings Her Seaside Portraits to Valley Art Gallery

Taffy French-Gray is ready for her close-up.

After some hesitation and few quick adjustments, the artist proudly poses next to her work, a series of deceptively charming seaside portraits. She is bubbly and happy to chat about her new exhibit, which runs through June at the Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt.

French-Gray is the featured artist of the month at the gallery, a noteworthy accomplishment for an artist who spent much of her life drawing and only recently embraced art as a career.

When she was young, she kept a sketchbook with her at all times, sometimes sketching people she saw or knew. She also had a strong affinity for fashion, meticulously copying the figures of dresses and outfits she would find in pattern books.

“All of my friends would be riding bikes, and I would be in the bedroom,” she said. “My parents thought I was studying but I was just drawing, all the time. But I never took it seriously.”

A nurse by profession, French-Gray spent some time in Somalia with International Christian Aid. After that, she started work at French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo.

“I got married and was working part-time,” she said. “I would take classes on my days off. I had sold some of my art and that felt so good to me. My dad said to me I could do art or be a nurse, but I probably didn’t have the energy to do both. So I chose art.”

Twelve years later, French-Gray doesn’t regret her decision. She sells her work steadily and still enjoys the habitual practice of life as artist, dutifully seeking out subjects or inspiration for her work in her everyday life.

“I love color and light,” she said. “I love the way light shows off color. Talk to any artist, and that’s what gets us.”

She said one of the biggest challenges was incorporating paint into her lifetime of sketch work. Learning how to put color into her work and thinking about the way light changes color was an important step in her evolution.

“I have learned that people are naturally good with drawing or good with color,” French-Gray said. “Of course there are geniuses that are good with both. I tend towards the drawing, so color is harder for me. I have to really work at what colors to put together. But it’s a fun thing to work at.”

She said she gets inspiration from some of her critiques. When an art instructor at Allan Hancock College told her she could work on some of her color values, she immediately took note.

Something Deeper Appears

“Color is so seductive. You can get going on the color and can’t really make out what the lights and darks are,” French-Gray explained. “But it’s the light and dark that makes the composition. It’s how you can read it easily from a distance. It simplifies it.”

Heidi Gruetzemacher, vice president of the Valley Art Gallery organization, sees hints of famed artist David Hockney, a famous British pop artist of the 1960s, in French-Gray’s work. As she scrolls through images of Hockney’s seated portraits, it seems that she may be onto something. It’s easy to look past the expressions (or lack thereof in some case) on the faces of the subjects in French-Gray’s work and mistake them for breezy seaside landscapes. But it’s when one hovers over the faces that something deeper appears.

The women and young children in French-Gray’s paintings, taken from trips to local beaches to observe visitors, are telling their own narrative, albeit one the artist is explicitly reticent to share. She allows the viewers to make up their own stories, wondering if a woman pictured with two children is their mother, ecstatic or exhausted, or perhaps an unrelated party altogether. A young girl in a beach blanket gazes into the horizon, blankly contemplating the effortlessly vibrant world she inhabits.

But French-Gray, humble and sincerely endearing, shies away from too much haughty introspection. She calls her work “simplified impressionistic,” an apt descriptor for the paintings now hanging in Valley Art Gallery.

“It’s fun, quirky, colorful,” she said. “I want people to feel good when they see it. I want to make them smile or laugh. I’m not an edgy person, I’m not trying to say anything deep. I just want people to enjoy it.”

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is pretty sketchy. Contact her at

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