C. Ford Riley’s paintings, rich in detail and dramatic in color, reflect a deeply personal relationship with nature. One of the premiere southern habitat painters of his generation, he is also an ardent sportsman and conservationist who rallies on behalf of Florida wildlife and habitat threatened by excessive development.
Praised as the “Audubon of the 1980’s”, Ford’s paintings work because he paints what he knows. As a native of Jacksonville, Florida, he has spent much of his life studying birds and their environment, documenting the birds’ habits and unique habitats. This collection of field notes and sketches serves as an extensive source of ongoing material for his paintings. “I’ve been walking amongst these woods, these scenes, all my life. I grew up near the marsh, studying birds. I still love to watch them, to paint them. I know trees, and I know the landscape, and I believe that everything in art should look like its truest form. I understand the natural order of things here; I paint realistically because I understand the land.”
“I paint what I’m familiar with. If I can’t smell it or feel it, I can’t conceivably paint it. I paint my area – the South. I was born and raised in Florida, and I spent most of my life studying the patterns of the seasons and the wildlife here. 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.”
Each painting begins as a series of drawings and studies which he develops into works that combine realism with the artist’s impressions of the natural setting. “I create illusion. Once I actually start painting, the composition evolves through a series of washes, layers of color to achieve the look I want. At first glance, my work gives the appearance of realism. Upon closer scrutiny, you’ll see that I employ a multitude of brush strokes which are probably more commonly associated with impressionism.”
Riley’s paintings evoke an unmatched sense of place; you can almost smell the pine needles on the forest floor and hear the call of… Award winning novelist Padgett Powell, writing for Garden & Gun Magazine, wrote:
On the [easel] is a painting of a sand-bottomed black water creek in a southeastern river bottom. It is … perfect. It is the kind of image that makes you want to be there, now, or to say that you have been there, many times, or to own the creek, or to say that you own the creek — or all of the above.
Riley’s late mother Maureen, also an accomplished painter, encouraged him to forego a business career and pursue his passion for art, based on the promise of his early work. His early works were primarily of vignettes of North American birds and botanicals until he began including their habitats in his work which prompted the beginning of his interest in painting landscapes.
“In the mid 80’s, I realized that no one was portraying the South the way the masters had painted other parts of the country; there was no southern Winslow Homer. I spent years studying artists that painted scenes I could relate to, looking at the way they layered colors and used their palette. I took what I could from their techniques and applied them to the natural habitats that I grew up in. My early influences included the Hudson River School masters and artists like Edward Hopper, Willard Metcalf, and Herman Herzog. From these artists, I learned techniques of light and shadow composition, values, and developed my own technique. “I choose scenes to paint from my local surroundings and then make them more interesting through composition and storytelling.”
In 1990, Riley was the Featured Artist at the Southeastern Wildlife Expo in Charleston, South Carolina. This invitation only venue presents mostly works of wildlife artist and draws audiences of collectors, gallery owners, other artists, and attendants of 35,000 annually. It was at this exhibition that viewers realized Riley’s gift as a landscape artist which began to influence other artists as well.
There were other people who had an influence in his career. “There were folks who made a huge difference in my life; people who gave me advice and helped me learn to see the world as I walked through it. I’m forever thankful to my early mentors, Dr. and Mrs. James Cranford, for taking me on walks through the woods and helping me to learn so much about fauna and flora at a very young age. That was how my early love of painting birds developed. There was also encouragement from the likes of ornithologist and photographer, Sam Grimes, Dr. Dekle Taylor, who fostered and challenged me into constantly changing and searching for my own art style, and Fred Wetzel and Lee Adams who influenced my early beginnings as an artist.
“I don’t rely on photographs to recreate the images I paint. I bring them to life in my mind and paint them from memory. Painting, like storytelling, is authentic when the artist brings together his life experience and his surroundings, and I have the luxury of painting from my own. You don’t need to understand art and technique to sense that authenticity; I think that’s what people respond to in my art.”
“My style has changed over the years; I’m very interested now in how light and shadow and composition affect my work. Harmony and edges make paintings interesting; I love the way that one color from a distance develops into many colors up close. I work with a mirror in the studio; I use it to get a sense of how my composition is developing. It helps because art is meant to be viewed from a distance. You really get a feel for what people will see when you put some distance between you and the canvas.”
“The reality is that as you gain years and experience, you see things differently. The joy of being an artist is that I can share that new vision through my paintings. I think people buy art not just to be able to see something they have not seen, but also to be able to see it through the artist’s eyes.”
“In the beginning I spent a lot of time reading, painting and making mistakes. I always tried to be a little better than I was the week before. I still abide by that theory.”
AWARDS AND HONORS
C. Ford Riley’s paintings meet the demanding standards of scientific accuracy and detail, and also appeal to discriminating collectors of fine art, as well. His work has been recognized from the White House to The Florida State Capital. He has been featured in national and international art competitions, including Ducks Unlimited Art Auction, the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, the Federal Duck Stamp Competition, the Southern Watercolor Society Exhibition and the Thomasville Plantation Wildlife Arts Festival.
In 1983, his painting of “Cooper’s Hawk and Fall Leaves” was selected by the Leigh Yawkey Woodeson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin.
His original paintings can be found in private collections across the country, art galleries, institutions, and the homes of prominent civic leaders, corporate executives, and members of Congress. In 2009, he was commissioned by members of Congress, to paint the Laura Bush Rose, which was presented to her at the end of her husband’s term.
In April 2011, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission honored Riley with a special award for “fostering an appreciation of Florida’s natural wildlife resources and sensitive environmental places through his numerous paintings and on-site field study.”