Ralph Johnson was reared on his family’s farm near Vancouver, Washington. He served in the Navy during World War II, and following the war, began to pursue a pre-engineering degree at Chaffey College in Ontario, California. His growing interest in art, however, prompted him to apply to UC Berkeley, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art and later taught drawing courses. Ralph joined the newly founded art department at UC Davis in 1957. Until the late 1960s, Johnson was known primarily for his paintings, which ranged from geometric abstractions based on natural forms to more recognizable subjects enveloped within almost hallucinatory qualities of mood and color. In 1959, he received the first place award in painting at the California State Fair, sparking controversy in local newspapers.