Formerly The College Watercolor Group - 601-986-5152 -

About Gray's History

First studio, Skillman, New Jersey
First studio, Skillman,
New Jersey

Decades have passed since that day in 1965 when the very first hand painted watercolor print left the 'studio' of what would one day become Gray's Watercolors: the 'studio', the tiny low-ceilinged dining room of an old Dutch Colonial farmhouse; the print, a scene of the Cornell University campus; Gray's Watercolors, at that time called The College Watercolor Group; and the production method, one that would be modified and refined many times in the days and years to follow. The subject matter of this first issue bore no resemblance to the paintings from which the original idea for watercolor reproductions sprang almost a decade earlier - watercolor sketches created with a few bold strokes of the brush, scenes of sand and sea, rolling sugar-white dunes, waving beach grass, billowing clouds, and the sparkling aquamarine of white-capped Gulf surf….which sold as fast in the local galleries as they could be painted.

Founder Paul McConaughy at Cornell, 1953
Paul McConaughy at Cornell, 1953

Such ready market demand started the artist, Paul McConaughy, then - in 1957 - an Air Force lieutenant and pilot stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, to considering the possibilities of reproduction of his paintings. Although he had gained recognition for his work in the past - at Cornell University, and earlier during Adirondack summers studying watercolor painting under Adele Hepbron (American Watercolor Society), and in various juried shows and competitions more recently - he was now making daily discoveries in both the quality and quantity of his work. This prompted a growing interest in art reproduction. He soon discovered, however, the art reproduction processes available at the time were costly indeed, especially for small-run editions.

The ongoing search for some effective, relatively inexpensive way to reproduce limited editions of watercolor prints subsequently led him to Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pittsburgh for a year of graduate studies in printing management and fine art, and for several years thereafter to commuting into New York City as a marketing executive - first in the printing industry, then in the mail order publishing business - before the shipping of that first watercolor print of the Cornell campus in 1965.

Watercolor of Beebe Lake at Cornell, from first series
Beebe Lake at Cornell, from first series

During his daily commutes, a plan had slowly taken shape in his mind. And so it was that on a fine October weekend in 1965, he headed for his old alma mater, where he produced a series of watercolor paintings of campus scenes. When the paintings appeared for sale in the alumni publication a few weeks later, the response was immediate and far beyond expectation. Orders poured in from the Cornell alums…and The College Watercolor Group which would become, in time, Gray's Watercolors, was officially launched. (The 'Group' at this time consisted of two part-timers - the artist, still employed full time, and his wife, a non-artist and full-time homemaker, who assisted with advertising and paperwork.)

Early studio of Gray's Watercolors, Ringoes, New Jersey
Early studio of Gray's Watercolors, Ringoes, New Jersey

With orders in hand, McConaughy was faced with the challenge of the actual reproduction and set about implementing the plan for print production devised in his imagination during the commutes. The plan was essentially that developed by Currier and Ives, 19th century print makers who had created original artwork of scenes and events of their day, then reproduced the artwork as pen lines, then employed copy artists for hand painting the prints. This had allowed for the production of prints in small (or large) editions, affordable to a wide market, and, as it turns out, of a quality to stand the test of time…Currier & Ives prints having now become synonymous with valued Americana.

Following the Currier & Ives model, the first step to producing the Cornell prints was reproducing the original artwork on watercolor paper as black and white lithographs (image size 8" x 10"), signed on plate. This was the only step in the process that would remain constant over the years, all others undergoing continual modification and evolution, ever-arising necessity becoming the mother of frequent invention. In the next step, hand painting, the artist initially sat at a revolving table, a sort of Lazy Susan affair. Arrayed around the circular table were the black and white lithographs to which one color was added to the prints in turn, then another and another. At the end of the process, full-color watercolor reproductions…in limited numbers…at affordable prices!

Experienced copy artist applying watercolor over lithographed penline, 1966
Copy artist applying watercolor over penline

The euphoria of success with the method was short-lived, the onset of growing pains, immediate. Additional artists were needed at once for the reproductions. As they were added, the revolving table innovation gave way to rows of prints on a stationary table with chairs that moved. And in short order, the number of prints to be painted and the copy artists to paint them outgrew the dining room of the old refurbished farmhouse, and larger quarters were established in the dance hall of a previously abandoned Civil War-era country store/post office/residence - outfitted with long tables, and an abundance of talented hands and brushes. Settled in the heart of the rolling farm country of Hunterdon County, New Jersey, this (now) band of artists, working almost exclusively with college campuses, had actually become The College Watercolor Group, and, in time, the old 10,000 square-foot building would be restored into the vintage Victorian offices and studios of Gray's Watercolors.

From the strong Cornell beginning, there followed series of Dartmouth, Penn, Yale, Harvard, Rutgers - the Ivy League and its sister schools, expanding westward to Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, California….southward to North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Georgia….in time, more than 400 colleges and universities, private schools and academies, representing every state except Hawaii. The initial Cornell and Rutgers series were signed as the work of Paul McConaughy because of alumni relationships; however, other series were produced under various brush names, including Peter Sawyer, Jack Westridge, David Gilbert, and Wayne Johnson, a tradition that would continue.

The prints were offered to alumni in various ways. The first was for purchase through alumni publications to which camera-ready ads were supplied by College Watercolor, then later through brochures provided to alumni offices for mailings. The prints were available framed or unframed, singly or in sets, and were shipped directly from the Watercolor studios to individuals. Second, and of equal importance, was the use of the prints by alumni and development officers in fund-raising campaigns as gifts of appreciation for various levels of giving, and often in sequence over the several years of the campaigns. In other alumni offices, they were simply kept on hand as traditional VIP gifts as occasions arose, and in many other instances were sold through college bookstores or catalogs.

Concurrently, the market began reaching into financial institutions, initially only in New Jersey, where the hand painted prints of local scenes were used as deposit building premiums. The Princeton Bank and Trust was the first to feature them in a promotion - and promptly won a national award for the campaign. Then followed First National Bank of Passaic County in Totowa, Midland Bank in Paramus, Hardystone National Bank in Hamburg, as well as other banks in New Jersey, New York state, and Virginia.

Sal Asaro (Paul Andrews) painting an original, 1967
Paul Andrews painting an original, 1967

With the continuing expansion into new markets, more changes occurred.a Pratt Institute graduate working under the brush name Paul Andrews, joined McConaughy in creating the originals. Then in late 1967 came a third artist, E.B. Walden, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, who first used the surname "Gray" as a brush name. Walden became Davis Gray, a play on the name of a watercolor hue, "Davy's Gray", a similarity which amused and pleased him. Shortly after a Walden colleague, Allan Hunter, also a Pennsylvania Academy graduate, joined the group under the brush name Allan Gray, College Watercolor Group began trading as Gray's Watercolors. From that time, all new artwork was issued under the surname "Gray", eventually by more than a dozen artists. (See About the Artists.) Of these, Davis Gray remained the most prolific.

E. B. Walden (Davis Gray), 1969
E. B. Walden (Davis Gray), 1969

The last major innovation in the production of the hand painted prints, which over time underwent an evolution of its own, was introduced in the late 1960's. In an attempt to provide a more effective method of color guidance to the staff, McConaughy devised a system of stencils to illustrate the various color overlays. From there, it was but a short stretch to applying stencils to the actual painting process itself, a time-honored technique called pochoir dating back for centuries and enjoying widespread application in the Orient and in Europe at various times, including decorating fine fabrics and art books - and, in the 19th and 20th centuries, employed by such artists as Braque and Utrillo. (See About Pochoir.)

From Gray's rudimentary beginning with pochoir, using only a few stencils per print and little additional handwork, the process underwent continual refining. The number of stencils was increased, providing a much greater range and subtlety of color, and finishing handwork was applied, giving finer detail and variation, particularly in the hand brushed skies. The combination of handwork and the increasingly sophisticated stencil process produced prints with an amazing subtlety of color and detail, clearly distinguishable from the earliest stenciled prints. Much of this refinement process can be attributed to the premier stencil cutter, Mary Elizabeth Johnston, also a Pratt graduate; to Betty Rouse, who oversaw the production of the prints and provided ongoing detailing innovations; to Veronica Chromeck, who became expert at color blending; and to a skilled staff of reproduction artists, primarily women, sometimes numbering as many as thirty.

Keeping pace with the growing sophistication of the prints was the sophistication and attention to every detail of presentation for financial institutions. Gone were the days of delivering a few hundred prints to a bank or savings & loan, with only marginal support. Now there was close coordination with marketing directors and ad agencies, the design and set-up of custom lobby displays, complete collateral material for record keeping, staff briefings for instruction and motivation - every detail for making the programs trouble-free, exciting, and highly successful public relations/image vehicles for building deposits, for anniversary celebrations, for branch openings, for bank mergers - or simply to express appreciation to customers.

In that era of pervasive housewares giveaways, Gray's nostalgic prints of familiar landmarks quickly gained momentum as a refreshing alternative to the standard premiums.

The evolving process of Gray's pochoir, begun in 1968

The evolving process of Gray's pochoir, begun in 1968
The evolving process of Gray's pochoir, begun in 1968

During the period of the 70's, the production of pochoir prints reached its zenith. Thousands of pochoirs were being produced weekly for institutions across the country, each print with sufficient subtle variation to be a sort of 'original' in its own right. With the American Revolution Bicentennial nostalgia at its peak, many of the paintings were carefully researched 'yesteryear' scenes, depicting communities as they were in the past, and sometimes prompting the restoration of endangered or neglected historic landmarks. So successful were these programs that many institutions commissioned one after another over a period of years to celebrate a variety of events, sometimes kicking off with invitation-only galas, sometimes with more modest but still much-anticipated openings. No community was too small - sometimes a stretch to find four scenes. Nor was any city too large - downtown Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Providence, with dozens of scenes and thousands of prints. By the early '80's, banking regulations were undergoing sweeping changes - and the premium era was coming to a close. The Gray's organization was downsized to meet the steady lower-key demand, primarily for the same kind of wholesale programs that evolved during the '70's, minus the premium aspects.

Major exhibition of Gray's Watercolors at Port of History Museum, Philadelphia, 1991-92

Then in the 1990's, another dimension began to emerge - one of historical interest: The prints, many of which had been limited editions with no further reproduction after the original commissioning, were aging. Exhibits began to appear in various galleries and museums, among them, the Port of History Museum in Philadelphia, chronicling the evolution of the process and featuring a number of original Gray's paintings of the greater Philadelphia area; Swain Galleries in Plainfield, New Jersey, featuring only pochoirs of scenes around the country; the Green Gallery in Michigan, featuring pochoirs of central Michigan; The Golden Acorn, Ark II, and Ink River Galleries in Flemington, New Jersey featuring pochoirs; and The Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd., featuring the original artwork from which the pochoirs were produced. (See Gray's as Collectibles.)

McConaughy reviewing some of the more than one thousand scenes on display at Swain's Gallery, Plainfield, New Jersey, 1993-2000

With the close of the 20th century, it was decided that no further pochoirs would be produced by Gray's. The process had served well: more than 4,000 different scenes and some million pochoir prints (most 8" x 10" image size, some 11" x 14") had gone out from the studios, many of them in editions of as few as one hundred prints.

With the coming of the new millennium, Gray's has embarked on yet another phase. The new technologies, not previously available, have now opened even greater possibilities for Gray's hallmark services of custom programs of local scenes - still in full color…still in limited numbers…and still at affordable prices (see Bank Programs and College Programs).Of the more than 4,000 different scenes produced by the pochoir process, Gray's has archived not only much of the original artwork from which the prints were reproduced, but also many of the pochoir prints. All of these are now available as art-quality laser prints - and still, in some cases, as open edition pochoir prints (see Gray's as Collectibles).

'Two if by Sea' - 1775, Boston
'Two if by Sea' - 1775, Boston

'Attack on Hessian Barracks' - 1777, Trenton
'Attack on Hessian Barracks' -1777,Trenton

'Beginning of the Battle of Princeton' - 1777
'Beginning of the Battle of Princeton' -1777

For further information concerning Gray's Watercolors, you may call (610) 867-5087- or email the company at