Crooke began his career as an artist at a Melbourne advertising agency while taking courses as Swinburne Technical College. After 1939-45 war service, he taught, painted and worked as a textile designer. His first solo show was held in 1959 and he became well-regarded for his evocations of Australia's tropical north. He had considerable success locally and internationally, later settling in Cairns.
Ray Crooke is one of that generation of Australian artists who was only able to complete their art education after serving in the armed forces during World War II. As with fellow post-war artists Guy Warren and Tony Tuckson that war time experience shaped both his sensibility and his approach to art. Crooke was the second son of Gordon Crooke, an art loving accountant, and his wife Euphemia a nurse who had experienced a childhood on Aboriginal missions. After leaving school at the standard age of 15 he worked in an advertising agency while taking classes at Swinburne Technical College. In 1940 he enlisted in the Australian Army, first serving in the Victorian Scottish Regiment before being transferred to Western Australia. His unit was then transferred to northern Queensland coastal bases, a move that gave him a lifelong love of the tropics. After the War the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme enabled Crook to complete his art studies at Swinburne, where he was taught by Sir William Dargie, Rodger James and Alan Jordan among others. In 1951 he married June Bethell and in pursuit of the strong clear colours of the north, Crooke moved north, first to Cairns, then Thursday Island and later to Yorkey’s Knob. The tropics gave him his subject matter and coloured his approach to art, but there was little chance of becoming a professional artist so far away from the city, so in about 1955 the family returned to Melbourne. After a string of successful exhibitions in commercial galleries throughout the 1960s and after his portrait of George Johnston was awarded the 1969 Archibald Prize, he felt confident enough to permanently leave the city and return to north Queensland, eventually settling in Cairns.