When Graves was two years old, his family moved to Seattle. The spiritual bond to the culture and the terrain of the Pacific Northwest that Graves forged as a child had a profound and lasting influence on his art. Graves received his first formal art training while in high school in Beaumont, Texas. Returning to Seattle, he began to paint full time and received regional recognition in the annual exhibitions of Northwest artists at the Seattle Art Museum. He had his first national exposure in 1942 when thirty of his paintings were included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
Graves art does not fit easily into accepted categories, his style was affected by both regional and international influences. After being labeled a surrealist early in his career, Graves quickly abandoned most stylistic elements associated with surrealism. He did, however, remain committed to the surrealist credo that art should reveal the creator's subconscious and serve as a means of psychic exploration.