Organizations* : CAA, NAWA
Known as a “classico-impressionist” oil painter of Southwestern figures, primarily Navajo and Hopi, R. (Ralph) Brownell McGrew was born in Columbus, Ohio. His family later moved to California, and McGrew won a scholarship to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. After studying there for four years with Ralph Holmes, McGrew won recognition for his landscapes and was so proficient technically that he spent his last year at Otis teaching. He then worked as a commercial artist for M.G.M. and Columbia studios, although he also painted society portraits, before he discovered a love for desert painting. He then moved to Palm Springs, California, where he lived for eighteen years.
Sketching trips into the desert with painter Jimmy Swinnerton led to a meeting with Shine Smith, who introduced McGrew to the Navajos and Hopis. After that, McGrew had a “wealth of Indian faces stored in my sketch pads, in photographs, and most importantly, in my experience from trips. Every time I start to do a landscape, I think of an old Indian that I would rather do.”
Of his technique, McGrew once said “I am an Impressionist in the classical sense. Reality comes from the suggested rather than from the detailed or the finished. My paintings are not exact copies of any of the scenes I see. I prefer the natural way of painting, and am fond of working different methods in the same canvas.” His goal was to have a painting look wet after it was completed, and to achieve this effect, he mixed his colors to get a luminosity by mixing oil paint, linseed oil, and turpentine, never using glaze or lacquer.
McGrew became known for his highly realistic Indian portraits with rich skin tones, as well as Southwest and California desert landscape paintings. “When our family lived on the Coachella desert in California, one of my favorite sketching spots was the lovely valley called La Quinta, about 20 miles from home. I made dozens of excursions there. After about ten years, we moved to La Quinta, and of course I never sketched there again.” However, McGrew and his wife and daughters, as well as other artists including Jimmy Swinnerton and Burt Proctor, did take painting/camping trips together from La Quinta out into the desert.