From the Photo to the Painting

By Ross Merrill

I paint directly on my 4 x 6 reference photos: this step is my equivalent to a thumbnail sketch. It’s one thing to think yourself through the painting, but you can’t understand what’s required until you go through the process. I tape the print to the surface of my work table. With gouache (which is opaque and covers the original), I paint in some areas and wash out others. The process usually takes two or three days. When I’m done, you can’t tell I’ve painted on the print unless you hold it to the light. Next I find where the painting is in the photo by moving strips of paper laterally and horizontally until the painting is in focus.

At this point, the essential work is done. From now on, I have to trust what’s there. The task, at this point, is to transpose what is a one-to-two-inch image to a 20 x 40 or 18 x 36 format. I don’t want to say it’s a mechanical process, but I plot it—transposing what’s small to what’s large. I lay the big, heavy, thick (1,100-lb.) sheet of cold-pressed paper down and squeeze the paints onto my palette. I paint with the tip and typically use up a brush a painting. My favorite is a Utrecht red sable kolinsky round, #6. For the skies, I use a round wash brush, #36. For the tree trunks I use a #16 or #26, but for the details I like a #6. I like Winsor & Newton and Holbein artist’s watercolors but Grumbacher has a wonderful color, magnesium green, which I love.

Living with the Painting
Of course, when you transpose a one-inch image to a 20 x 40 piece of paper, there’s a lot of open space. You have elements but not the field. That’s where the grace and the mystery enter. At this point, everything, including color, becomes intuitive. I don’t feel at all that I have to be faithful to the painted print. I respond to what’s there—to what I’m working on –and just know this is what this section needs and then I do it.

I sit down, leaning over a table. I work with a very limited (maybe five or six colors) palette. As a consequence, I’m always mixing colors; mixing colors is an essential part of the process. For the time I’m working on a painting, I live within it. I know some artists like to have a number of “starts” in their studios, but I work on one painting until I get it done. I start wherever the painting says to start. From there I move back and forth across the painting in two-inch passages—like an ink jet printer. I paint pattern and color rather than object. I may only complete six square inches a day, but this way of working lets the creative process flow through.

Ross Merrill is chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Bonus article! Photo to Painting: How to Use a Photo Reference in Your Art (6 Reference Photography Tips and Tricks to Create Lifelike Artwork

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