Artist C. Ford Riley: 'I paint what I see and feel'

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  • | 12:00 p.m. September 24, 2010
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Artist C. Ford Riley is a Jacksonville native whose paintings can be found in galleries, private homes, businesses, organizations and the halls of government power.

The oldest of six children, he grew up in Ortega, attended Robert E. Lee High School and then Shorter College in Rome, Ga., for two years before returning to Jacksonville.

An interesting local fact is that former Bolles School and Wake Forest University quarterback Riley Skinner is his nephew.

Riley’s brother, Scott, established Stellers Gallery in 1985 to promote C. Ford Riley paintings. One of Riley’s first paintings was a Stellers Blue Jay, which is how the gallery’s name was chosen.

Stellers’ website says that Riley works in watercolor, oil and acrylic. “His paintings, rich in detail and dramatic in color, reflect a deeply personal relationship with the world of nature,” the Stellers biography says.

The paintings on the website are listed from $2,500 to $45,000. Riley also paints commissioned works.

Daily Record reporters visited Riley Wednesday at his Mandarin studio next to his home, which he shares with his wife, Elizabeth, on about 5 acres of heavily wooded property along the St. Johns River.

Tell us about the painting in front of you.

It’s about 20 percent done.

I work in my frames. It drives my brother absolutely crazy because I ruin more frames. Look there (in a mirror facing the painting), it’ll give you an idea of what it’ll look like. It’ll change drastically by the time I’m through with it. I’ll put stuff in, I’ll take stuff out. I’m just drawing stuff in with my brushes. The fun part is pushing things back and pulling things out. I can show you what I’m talking about. (He mixes paints and applies brush strokes to the painting.)

How long have you had this studio?

I built this studio probably 15 years ago. I built the house about 25 years ago, maybe 30 years ago. My old studio used to be right on the water. It was an old Jim Walter home.

When did you start this particular painting?

Probably three weeks ago, but you know, all these paintings in here are all in different stages. Within the last month, everything in here has been started.

This is the typical way I work here. Like this week, I was in Brays Island, and that’s all I need, just to make a thumbnail sketch. And then I come back and start working on it at that point. I don’t use a camera. I rely on sketching. I always tell people that you’ve got to be able to draw, and you’ve got to be able to create in your mind. That’s what art’s about. Today it’s amazing that 90 percent of the art out there is all produced by photographs, slides, (it’s) computer-generated. I don’t understand it. It kind of seems like that’s the way everything is nowadays. Everybody wants to do something fast.

If you’ve created that painting in just a few weeks, that’s amazing.

Well, those few weeks are really more like 40 of my 58 years, it’s more like 30 years of painting. You’re always learning. That’s the key to everything. You’ve got to keep on learning. As soon as you think you know it all, then you get left behind.

What I’m doing now (on the painting), I’m converting this over to oil. It’s amazing how you take a muted area, what comes out once you start.

How old were you when you began creating and painting?

I’ve been drawing and doing things since I was just a kid.

I wasn’t very good in school. It wasn’t that I wasn’t smart, I just was one of those kids that was petrified to go to school. I think drawing got me through a lot of stuff. I could be playing like I was listening to the teacher, but I was really sitting down there drawing. I think it’s always been my way of communicating. I think a lot of kids are like that now. I mean, a lot of people, not just kids, you find something that helps you get through certain things. Usually it’s a talent of some sort, and it’s your way of expressing yourself. That’s how I found that I could express myself, through music or art. It paid off.

It is your entire life, isn’t it?

I’ll be doing it all my life. That’s the one good thing about being an artist, or a writer or a musician. No matter how hard the economy is, or how old you get, there’s no one to tell you to quit working. I’ll always be working.

You’re inspired all the time?

All the time.

How do you convert that inspiration into a painting? Do you immediately do it? Do you wait? Do you draw it out? How do you decide?

Sometimes I jump right in, but a lot of times I’ll see fragments of different things, and I compile them together as a painting. The river, and this property, there are so many angles and so many things, I could spend a lifetime, just painting on this property. It changes so drastically. And then I moved to the beach in the summertime. It’s a whole different world at the beach. And then in the wintertime, I’m over in Thomasville, and it’s a whole different world over there. I’ve got an abundance of places and ideas to work from, so I’m never at a loss for subject matter.

Where will this painting go when you’re finished?

I think it’s going to a certain person, but I’m not sure about that. I just paint. My brother Scott does the business side. We work together in that, but he basically takes care of everything on that side. We’ve worked very well together for a good while now.

Where would we find your paintings?

They’re all over the place. They’re from the White House to the finest bathrooms in the South.

Do you have specific hours? Do you just create when it’s time?

I work constantly. Most people think I play a lot, and I do. But I get up usually 2 to 3 every morning and I come out here and work. Almost every day. And then if the waves are good – I’m still a kid – I can go surfing. Or I can go fishing, or I can go hunting or whatever. I make time to do what I like to do. But even when I’m doing that, I’m still mentally working. I don’t know if that’s a gift or if it’s a curse, because I’m always working, in my head. I’m always seeing something. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I used to think it was good, but I’m not sure anymore.

Why wouldn’t it be good?

Sometimes you’ve just got to leave stuff behind and think about things other than work. I don’t want to sound like I’m working constantly, but I do work a lot.

But this isn’t your typical job. This is your life.

Well, that’s true. You’re right.

You also have keyboards, electric guitars and an acoustic guitar in your studio.

Got ‘em all. That’s what I thought I would be doing. Honestly. And I still think that’s what I want to do. I’ve always loved music, but you know what? It’s changed. The whole industry’s changed. Which is probably good. I should probably quit that dream. But I still love to play. It’s a great release.

What sort of music do you play?

Everything. I love blues. I just love good music. There’s so much. Ever since satellite radio came out, sometimes I’ll like listening to blue grass, and actually, I’ve really started liking the music I hated when I was a kid.

What music didn’t you like as a child?

You know, that old country music. Now I listen to Hank Williams Jr., Hank III and XM (Radio) country. It’s just real American. I love it.

Are you self-taught as a painter?

Yep. I read a lot and studied a lot about the ways that artists paint and their techniques and applied that to what I like to paint, and then through the years I’ve evolved with certain techniques and mediums that through experimenting, I’ve come to find my own way. I’m always learning. That’s what I was saying earlier.

Do you learn something new every time you finish a painting?

I want to go into different things. The stuff that I’ve always loved painting, honestly, I see so much of it now. I don’t know if I have a problem with it, but people tell me, you should be grateful that people copy your work. I see my work everywhere.

I used to paint birds, and I still paint birds. Because I study birds, and I love birding. Once a birder, always a birder. That’s what got me into what I’m doing now. I quit that 20-something years ago, and people think that’s all I paint, still. Because I think they see prints of my birds that are all over the place.

When I started this, it was just like for 15 years, and all of a sudden, ‘Hey Ford. How do you do this certain thing?’ and ‘would you mind if I come out and ... ‘

I don’t mind showing people, but it’s kind of like Paula Deen. I’m giving you a recipe, but I’m not giving you the total recipe. Get it on your own.

I can’t imagine that anybody would watch you and be able to recreate what you do, because isn’t it in your mind’s eye?

That’s the key, and that’s what I tell people. I say you’ve got to learn how to draw first, and don’t use that camera, throw it up on the canvas and then trace it and try to paint it.

In order to paint sky or living water, you’ve got to understand it and know it and feel it, like it’s your best friend. Sleep with it and everything else. If you know all that stuff, then you go right to it and you paint it.

If you look at a photograph or worse yet, try to trace it, and then paint it, it doesn’t work that way.

Do you do a lot of commissioned work?

I do. I’ve been real fortunate. This has been a real good year. I’ve been real surprised, but you know, they’ve all been good years. It hasn’t slowed down on my end of it. Now, I can’t speak for my brother’s side. That’s a whole different realm there.

Does the recession affect creativity?

It does. Most definitely. But it’s been a pretty good year.

What do you say when people ask you to describe your paintings?

I paint what I see and feel. I’m thankful every night. I thank the Lord for being able to put down what I see and that’s what I do. And it’s not like I’m real religious, but that part, I get and I understand.

When did you start painting as a career? Did you ever have another job?

I had a whole bunch of jobs. I was a bartender at Annie Tique’s when it started up. When Annie Tique’s came to Jacksonville, there were three of us, we were out of college for the summer. I think I was 19 or 20 years old. I said, sure, I can do that.

And so we went out there, and we were making so much money on tips as waiters. Then I moved up to bartending, not long, but just long enough. That was a fun time. Three of us had a house on the ocean in Atlantic Beach, probably paying $300 a month.

We were making $500 a week at Annie Tique’s. On tips! That was unheard of. I don’t think attorneys back in those days made that much money.

What other jobs did you have?

I worked at my dad’s company. He had the distributorship for Kirby vacuum cleaners. It’s just part of my makeup, I would sit in that back room and repair those things. I loved it. I’d turn my music up, repair ‘em, I had the whole place to myself. I was a bag boy at Winn-Dixie when I was 13. I liked working.

When did you decide you were a full-time painter?

I painted birds for my own pleasure and studies. Somehow or another, I had someone who wanted to give me a show, and I said OK. I sold that show out.

I sold the paintings back then for $250, framed, but that was a lot of money back in those days, I’m thinking, God, I just made $4,000. Then I had another show and did the same thing.

Any advice for folks?

Anybody can do anything they want to. Just pick up some paint and start painting. You’d be surprised what you come up with.

Then you learn from it, and then you enjoy it, and then you get real serious about it, and next thing you know, you’re an artist.



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