I paint only from life (sometimes alla prima, rather than from photographs) because I believe artists become too involved in the moment of copying rather than with capturing the subject’s personality. When you work from nature, it’s a good idea to look at your subject for a while and to imagine it painted. Learning this process can save you a lot of time. When you visualize your painting, you know it will come together because you already have the image in your mind. You just have to execute it, which takes drawing skills and knowledge of your materials.
For most complicated pieces I sit and meditate on the subject, sometimes for half an hour. Other times I can see the finished painting immediately. It’s like making a film: First you visualize the whole film and then you start to shoot the details.
Every material has its own possibilities, and it’s important to me to select subject relating to the medium I want to paint. That’s why when I’m ready to go paint watercolor, I’m not looking for areas of the city or still lifes with darker areas where it’s better to paint oil. Watercolor cannot pool darker areas as oils and acrylics can do because they are opaque paints.
I consider everything a still life. A cityscape is a still life. A portrait is a still life. It doesn’t really matter. Everything is universal. You don’t have to concentrate on a portrait or a cityscape or a still life. It has the same principles. You have the same principles of contrast, the same principles of expression of your feelings, contrast and mood. When I was in school, teachers never separated one subject from another. In Russia, there are no masters of portraits or landscape or still life.
Don’t be afraid to spoil your paintings?and you will spoil many. This will bring you closer to your own style. For example, a lot of people start in watercolor and then drop it or they become very fearful because watercolor controls them. It has water?one color runs into another one. I see beauty in that. That’s what oil doesn’t have, that’s what acrylic doesn’t have.
Besides knowing my pigments, my secret to brilliant watercolors is that I use handmade watercolor. My father purchased them in a village near Moscow when I was about 15. On one of the trips he came across a father and son who made watercolors. He bought strips of paper that looked like they had candy on them, but they were watercolors. The colors are very saturated?very brilliant, very transparent. And because they’re so saturated with pigment, they’ve lasted 40 years and I paint with them every day.
Ross Merrill is chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.