Jacksonville artist C. Ford Riley paints what he knows best — the area’s wildlife and habitats.
A native of Northeast Florida, Riley grew up in Ortega. The oldest of six children, he attended Robert E. Lee High School and then Shorter College in Rome, Ga., but returned to Jacksonville after two years.
Self-taught, Riley works in watercolor, oil and acrylic. His work can be found in private collections, galleries, institutions and private homes around the country.
He has been featured in national and international art competitions and in 2015, he was honored by the Florida House in Washington, D.C., as the state’s distinguished artist.
Riley, 63, lives in Mandarin with his wife, Elizabeth, and works in the studio he built next door surrounded by woods and the St. Johns River.
When did you know you were an artist?
When I was young, I always drew and my mother was an artist. I grew up around smelling the paints and watching her work, and I guess that instilled (it) in me at a very young age.
There was a group of women that were all artists and I remember going to watch all of them paint. It was a festive affair, being around all of these people painting and enjoying life.
I thought, “hey, I’d like to do something like this.” But the last thing I thought I would ever be was an artist.
You drew when you were in school? How did that happen?
When I was a kid, I had a lot of health problems. I found that when I was in class it was much easier for me to sit in the very back and draw, basically cartoon characters.
That’s how I got through school. School was not very easy for me, I should say.
How did you settle on wildlife?
I studied birds all my life and I was just inclined to be in the woods at a young age.
I grew up in an area of Ortega before it was developed and it was a kid’s kingdom.
We had places called the Lost World and the Snake Hole. I absolutely enjoyed it, learning about everything.
I had great mentors with my parents’ friends who took us on camping trips and gave us the ability to learn about our surroundings. That’s kind of how I evolved into studying fauna and flora.
I can remember at a young age picking up what was a Cedar Waxwing, which is probably one of the most beautiful birds around, and just studying that and having it in my hands.
That right there, just being able to draw it and looking at the colors, created an interest at a very young age.
How did you decide this is what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
It really wasn’t anything I decided at an early age. I had always drawn and I can remember having my sketch pad and someone seeing it and saying, “you know, you should show these things. And we should give you a show.”
I had my first show probably when I was 18 years old. We sold the whole thing out and I’m like, “are you kidding me?”
All the paintings were probably $150-$200. I’m thinking, that’s a lot of money.
Here are 10 paintings I just sold and that’s a lot of beer money.
That’s a lot of everything. So I went on from there.
How did you decide that you wanted to do wildlife and the environment?
The important thing is to be able to paint what it is that you know. I could go up North and paint a snow scene, but it has no meaning to me.
I paint what I know and I try to be true to what I see. It’s just years of taking in the knowledge of my subject matter. That’s what keeps me going.
What about the process?
My day starts very early, always has. I get up at two or three o’clock in the morning every day. I enjoy it. You own the world. It’s the silence.
My mind works better at that time of day. I’m free to listen to music and to think about where I’m going to go in a painting. It’s been a habit and 40 some years later, here I am still doing it.
But I also work all day long. The greatest part about what I do is if there’s something going on that day, I can plan my day around what I want to do later, but I always come back and finish out the day. I always put 12-14 hours a day into my work. Always.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Inspiration is everywhere. I could look out anywhere on my property and see something I want to paint. Even when I’m driving down the road, I’m always looking. There’s a constant amount of subject matter out there. It’s never-ending.
You grew up in Jacksonville in a large family.
Growing up in my family was just probably some of the most fun times I’ve ever had. We’re a very close, tightknit family. Every one of us is totally different.
My parents gave all of us in my family the greatest childhood upbringing you could imagine. Always spurred us on whatever it was that we wanted to do, giving us goals in life.
What else would you like to share?
If there’s anything that I would say it’s follow your heart.
My uncle told me at a very early age when I started on the path I’m on now, ‘Ford, don’t worry about money. Don’t worry about anything. Just do what you want to do and enjoy it and give it everything you’ve got and success will find you.’
That’s very true. If you end up going through life with something that you’re not really happy with, you’ve missed out on an awful lot.
Places of inspiration
Homes along rivers in Mandarin, in Hammock Beach and in Thomasville, Ga. “I’ve always loved the water. Something about the beach is just mind-settling.”
His work is found in galleries, public places and in private collections.
He has worked with his brother Scott for about 30 years to handle distribution of his work. “I just paint and let other people figure out the logistics of everything else.”
Scott Riley distributes through Stellers Gallery.
Florida House award in D.C.
Riley was honored along with Florida author Randy Wayne White.
“I love his books. We sat up and talked for a pretty good minute. It was just really, really a fun time and I will say that Grace Nelson (wife of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson) and Gov. (Rick) Scott’s wife were just absolute treasures. They showed us around the whole city.”
In the 1980s, he visited Washington, D.C., and saw a painting by Frederic Edwin Church of the Hudson River School of the American landscape painters. Riley realized artists weren’t fully portraying the South’s habitats, the coastal areas, the marshes.
“So I came back and I started working in that area, painting what I knew. That changed my course in my work because nobody was doing that and all of a sudden I brought these paintings to the public and just everything popped. Everything just turned around.”
People ask him to paint a scene or area that has meaning to them.
“Not only are you trying to please them, but you’re always trying to please yourself. The main thing is I always have to please myself first. And you’re just adding a little extra component in there on a commission piece.”
The work can give customers a scene to reflect on that pleases and comforts them.
“Or they’re sitting in their office working on a big case and they’re bored and they look straight up and think I wish I was there instead of here.”
Clayton Riley, 90, founder of the Riley-Kirby Vacuum Co. “Everybody knows my father. He’s the greatest.” Clayton and the late Maureen Riley had six children. Ford is the oldest.
His brothers are Scott, Paul and Jim. His sisters are Martha Love Rotella and Jenifer Skinner.
The cfordriley.com site provides a look at his life and his work, including newest releases listed from $1,000 to $45,000.
First Coast Success: C. Ford Riley
The Daily Record interviewed Riley for “First Coast Success,” a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross. These are edited excerpts from the interview.
The interview is scheduled for broadcast this morning and will replay at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or at wjct.org/ondemand.