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.