Ian Ross is a San Francisco-based artist whose graffiti-inspired murals fill the offices of high-tech firms such as Facebook, Google, Vendini and Alphaboost. And his popular exterior murals include a 110-foot painting featured in the Wall Street Journal and a 60-foot mural looking out on the Bay Bridge.
Ross was a surfer long before he was a painter, and this sport shines through in the energy and flow of his murals. “Ocean waves are just energy moving through water,” he says. “And waves have inspired me to create an energetic force in my work.”
I caught up with Ross at Serenbe, a new urbanism community near Atlanta, where he was spending time as an artist in resident. He took a break from painting a vibrant-blue mural on the side of the Blue Eyed Daisy bake shop (a winner of Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars”!) to talk about large-scale painting, artistic process and other creativity topics.
Q: Let’s start by talking about your process for painting a mural. How do you decide where to start?
Ross: I’ll look for something that feels right — a certain color or the way light hits the wall. Or maybe I’ll detect something competing with me, like a door or window. Or I’ll consider foot traffic that will pass by the wall. Once I have any type of distinction, I have a place to start.
With this mural for the Blue Eyed Daisy, a natural place to begin was with blue paints to complement the bake shop’s name.
Also, the exterior wall I’m painting has a slight gap between the top section of paneling and the lower one, creating a thin horizontal line. So rather than fight this gap, I decided to accent it.
Q: Once you have a starting point, do you prepare sketches?
Ross: No — I like to work without the burden of intention. So I really don’t worry about what I’m painting or how it’s going to look. I react to the composition as it develops. I try to be purely in the moment and let the work tell me which way to go.
Q: But you seem to have a definite style?
Ross: Yes, it’s a style that has developed over the last 10 years. And I actually sketched in a similar style a decade before picking up a paintbrush. I would draw a quick line, then instantly react to that line with another line and let the shapes build without worrying where they were heading.
Those early sketches showed me how satisfying it is to respond to a composition while it’s developing. This lets me surprise myself.
Q: Is that why you say on your website that you “paint energy”?
Ross: Exactly. I work with colors and shapes to lead the eye from one place to another. I try not to let viewers get stuck too long in one particular place or on one specific shape. I want their eyes to be continuously moving as they look at the mural.
Q: When painting murals in front of people, what’s going through your mind?
Ross: Since I like to work spontaneously, live painting is a good fit. But it can also be daunting. If I hit a snag, I have to stay focused and figure out a way to draw on my experience and process.
And crowd noise is an interesting addition. Because sound bounces off the surface in front of me like a drum, I can actually pick up little comments made by people standing 15 feet behind me. I’ll sometimes surprise folks by turning around and saying something like, “Oh, you think I need a little blue over there, huh?” And they’re like, “How in the world did you hear that?”
Q: How does the pressure of working in front of people affect your creativity and art?
Ross: This pressure is priceless. It has helped me progress in a way I don’t think would have been possible in the vacuum of a studio.
I want my work to be interesting and dynamic to those taking the time to watch. So I think pressure adds some of the energy we were discussing earlier.
Q: How did you build your mural business?
Ross: About 10 years ago, a venue where I was about to exhibit several canvas works persuaded me to do a live painting for opening night. This first experience was nerve-racking, but I got a strong response and met lots of people.
So I decided to paint live at various places several times a week. I worked for free, just to get exposure. And it paid off. That’s how Facebook became interested in me. They saw my work and asked me to create a mural in their offices. I painted during business hours so employees could watch the process and interact with me. I went on to do many more murals for Facebook and last year was a resident artist at their Palo Alto headquarters.
This exposure with Facebook quickly led to murals for Google and lots of other creative companies.
Q: Who inspires your creativity and work?
Ross: Graffiti artists fascinate me. They’re able to quickly put so much quality in their work and they take lots of risks to exhibit their art before peers and public. I’m inspired by so many artists out of the graffiti genre — Twist, Kows, Shepard Fairey, David Choe, En Masse — really too many to name.
Q: What’s next for you?
Ross: I’m so fortunate to do what I love without sacrificing my personal style. I envision creating murals on larger and larger walls, plus painting other interesting surfaces, like maybe an America’s Cup yacht.
But I also want to encourage young artists going through some of the early struggles I went through. I’m hoping the studio space we’re opening in San Francisco will give exposure to deserving artists. I also want to encourage everybody to be creative and expressive. I know people who spend lots of time talking about how they wish they could be artists — but they don’t seem to spend any time making art.
A book I’ve read multiple times, “The War of Art,” talks about overcoming forces that stop us from grabbing the paint brush, picking up the pen, sitting down at the computer. If we just get past that first hurdle, creativity usually flows.
So I want to provide workshops in our new space that will help people start the process of making art. I want to help others pursue their artistic dreams.
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