Beginning a new painting has always been exciting for me, full of joy and anticipation. After years of watercolor painting, however, I began to realize that I was approaching every subject on an individual basis—as though starting from scratch each time—and that this often led to poor artistic choices. That’s when I realized that the key to my process is the basic pattern of lights and darks. I try to say as much as I can with a simple value pattern, and then, after that’s clear, I turn to the details of my subject. Approaching all my paintings in this manner has made them much more manageable.
I begin a painting with a fairly detailed graphite pencil drawing, and then I apply white masking fluid to the lightest areas. Once that dries, I wet the entire sheet and run a loose wash over everything, using only transparent pigments and keeping it light in value. Then I identify my second-lightest group of values and mask those if necessary and run a second, darker wash over the painting, dark enough to get as close as I can to the final color in one pass. Getting the color and value down in as few layers as possible preserves transparency.
Once the second wash dries, I remove the masking and I hope to see an exciting pattern of light areas and strong, colorful darks. The drama of light has been established, and the most important elements of the painting are in place. Then comes the time for details, when the painting really comes to life, and here I remind myself of what attracted me to the subject in the first place and try to exaggerate that element. My paintings are characterized by bold color and dramatic contrasts, and by simplifying things in this way I can easily manage the painting process and still give my subjects the intricacy they deserve.
Ross Merrill is chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
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