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