Sunday, August 30, 2009

Payne's Gray

Payne’s Gray is a perfectly wonderful colour.

If you have ever visited one of those seaside art galleries hung with watercolours of stormy days over local landmarks you have almost surely seen Payne’s Grey as it is almost prescribed for the execution of storm clouds and troubled seas.

It is best used as a watercolour or oil wash.

When attempted in acrylic or gouache it becomes heavy and cloddish losing all its glorious subtlety when applied with opacity.

I had a wonderful art teacher early in my life-I don’t even know how it happened actually.

My Mother, as I have mentioned in other posts, was an artist and designer, she attended the Ringling Art Institute in Sarasota, Florida and wanted to be a fashion or costume designer.

The 2nd World War squelched her plans and she became a nurse, then a wife then a mother then a widow…she married my Stepdad and had my sister but she was always creative and encouraged both of us to express ourselves artistically as well.

She liked to spring surprises on us and one day she announced we would be going for watercolour lessons in Whittier.

I have no idea to this day how she met Rachel Ulrey or knew about her but off we went and the relationship lasted for the next 20 years or so.

Had she been a different kind of person Rachel would have been a noted, famous artist.

Her work was ethereal, hugely affected by Japanese and Chinese schools of watercolour technique, soft and almost mystical.

She had made a name for herself locally and taught from her apartment which was more studio than home.

Having known her for so many years, I knew little about her.

She had a sister and she shared the duplex on Greenleaf with her father,
Her Mother had passed and must have been a huge influence in their family as it seemed the void where she had been never healed.

I remember her Father coming in one day during our art lesson and insisting that Rachel come and look at the way the sunlight through lace curtains was hitting her mother’s picture in his living room-she didn’t question him, she excused herself and went.

Subtleties, the play of light and shadow, warm and cool colours, Payne’s Gray and Alizarin Crimson are just a few of the things that I learned about from Rachel Ulrey.

She taught me to start slowly and build up transparent washes adding the barest hints of this or than colour as they reflected from other surfaces, painting an apple could be several weeks of work and she often would let me use a sheet from one of her expensive watercolour blocks instead of my student grade watercolour paper.

Several times my Mother packed a picnic and we went off to paint outside from nature.
On those magical days she would paint her own composition and worried less about teaching.

While I filled my pages with youthful exuberant splashes of orange and purple she carefully, almost reverently applied her principals of form, colour and texture and slowly from a blank white page a dreamy vision of the world before her would emerge.

We attended lessons off and on through the years depending on finances at home and how our school work and other activities affected our schedules.

Rachel would occasionally travel or go off on some retreat or another; some of them artistic, some spiritual, some both.

When I went to college it happened that Mrs. Ulrey was teaching at the college I attended so I was able to take her class and she continued to teach me now more and more in language that was more comfortable to her halting, shy, almost stilted manner…as I became an adult she found it easier to allow me into her world but at the same time I was threatening to her as I became a man.

Somewhere in her life she had been badly hurt, deeply damaged and the damage rendered her incapable of feeling anything more than a friendship at arm’s length from any man.

I learned too that she had a wonderful dry sense of humor that could snap out like a bullwhip leaving you feeling as if you didn’t understand whether or not you were expected to laugh despite the fact that you seriously found whatever she had quipped enormously funny.

You shared a joke with her in a quiet, subtle way, both parties cognoscente that humor can be shared without laughing just the restrained twinkle of an eye and slight upturn of a lip was enough to know that the joke had been shared.

It was the intellectual version of a belly laugh.

The last time I saw Rachel Ulrey was somewhere in my thirties, I had invited her for Christmas and she came with a suitcase to stay several days at my Mother’s home in Burbank.

We drove to Whittier and picked her up and later took her home to a tiny place she had taken after her father died and when finances had become tough; young ladies and gentlemen no longer came to her apartment for watercolour lessons this was the age of soccer games and ballet classes.

I remember she enjoyed her visit and it was almost as if she were in a foreign country which in many ways it was for her, our family of jokers and holiday revelers must have been very foreign to her indeed, she who dwelled in the quiet safety of the rarified aire she surrounded herself with.

We sat, she and I, on that Christmas day in my Sister’s country Kitchen bedecked with ducks and blue gingham, devoid of subtleties or anything vaguely oriental and we talked, we talked for a long time as peers for I was a successful artist and was know from my work being used for needlework kits and other products, being “licensed” was a concept she could not quite assimilate.

As I waxed on about my career and my various triumphs I never thought how my sharing my success with her might affect her, I actually spent some amount of time talking to her about her contributions and influences on my work.

She watched me intently in her teacherly way and with all her restraint at the end of my discourse she smiled, thanked me and then said “I don’t know what to say to you.”

I remember being just a little taken aback by that, worried almost, but the day went on and it was forgotten in all that it takes to stuff Christmas into a single day.

We didn’t hear from or about Rachel for a long while after we took her back to her home after the Holidays.

I actually became concerned.

We had received a note of Thanks written in her tight matronly formal script on one of the watercolour art cards she used for such things. It mentioned that she was traveling north to the Gold Country to spend some time with her sister.

Later we got another card that said she was well, shared a few anecdotes of her stay…nothing more.

She had stopped painting in the last few years, she felt she had said in her work all she had to say about her current state of SEEING and she needed a new slant and a new direction to go back to painting again.

That’s what she told people anyway.

Rachel Ulrey died peacefully at her sister’s home of the terminal cancer that had been eating her liver that Christmas day some months before when she didn’t know what to say to me.

I understood then that what she didn’t know how to say was GOOD BYE or even farewell in the circumstances in which she found herself surrounded by family which was not her own and friends whose relationship to her would not allow the intimacy of such a deep and painful revelation in the midst of a celebration.

I didn’t mourn her, it would have been insulting to her, she didn’t want to be the victim of a fatal disease or the center of messy, tearful expressions of parting.

She died as she lived, cool elegant and restrained, somewhat detached from the rest of the world in a room where the light of the sun fell through lace curtains on the picture of her Mother and Father on the bedside table, where the frames were a softly patinaed sienna and the shadows a perfectly executed wash of Payne’s Gray.


  1. Hi I just found this amazing info about Rachel Ulrey. Thak you for taking you time and write about her.
    Today at an Estate Sale in Irvine,Ca I bought one of her work.
    The Estate Sale was in a house that belong to an artist dealer that just passed away.She had several pieces but Rachel's watercolor was the one that called my attention.
    I tried to get info about her work on google but could not find anything, no pics, no work, no paints.
    Do you know where i could find more information about her?
    thank you again,


  2. In the 1950's my own mother rented a rear house on north Greenleaf from a Mrs.Lindsey. I always thought that she was Rachel's mother. We lived there for several years and my mother became friends with Rachel. One day Rachel presented a water color to my mother and today I still have it proudly hanging in my living room. It's just a very simple scene from the hills above the house on Greenleaf of a tree in the hills.

  3. I am sending you an e.mail with her water color and signature. It is in my house in Palm Springs. I think is late 50's early 60's. What do you think? Please let me know. thanks a lot.


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