Ross Miller, known for his emotive and bold take on portraiture, kindly took the time to tell us more about his practice and show us the inner workings of his studio. Read our Q&A below and learn all about his creative process, inspirations, and of course how Covid-19 has impacted his work.
When did you become interested in the arts?
I’ve been interested in art for as long as I can remember! I was always drawing from a young age, or so I’m told. An early memory was winning the “Clarence the Lion” competition in primary school, to do with road safety, where my drawing of “Clarence” was used for a poster/advertisement. My gran who sadly passed away last year always encouraged me to pursue my art, she was no doubt my biggest fan. She would always push me to participate in the annual art competition at the Museum in Edinburgh, where I was often a runner up, and won a few times too. I’ve never pictured myself doing much else other than my artwork to be honest. It’s kind of a need thing, I feel weird when I go too long without putting pencil to paper. It’s definitely therapeutic for me.
I was a bit of an outcast in School and remember in my final year skipping most classes to spend time in the art department drawing away. Nothing else really appealed to me. I got an A1 for my advanced higher, and my work was picked out to be shown at a little exhibition of final year students’ work at Dollar Academy. That was a proud moment. The highlight of High School for me was being awarded the “Rector’s Quaich” for a portrait I drew of the headmaster directly onto his office wall, in graphite. I guess at that point I knew I should go to Uni to do my art degree. Several years later I graduated, with a 1st class BA(Hons) in Fine Art from DJCAD and have been pursuing my art since. I’ve been involved in several group shows including RSA New Contemporaries, in addition to two Solo Shows.
Can you talk us through your creative process?
My creative process begins with loose, speedy mark-making, working from a reference, and I’ll typically listen to music, interpreting the tempo almost with my initial marks. There’s no gridding up or anything like that, just eyeballing it as the portrait slowly reveals itself. I like to use a range of media and different tools to create different marks. For me it’s all about creating varied marks and striking some sort of balance of wild lines with more controlled areas that I look to give a sense of realism to. Chaos and calm. It’s a very intuitive approach and I keep going until something just feels finished – when I can look at it and my eyes sort of dart around the canvas, observing the wild marks, over to that eye that’s been more heavily worked… and I feel as though I can’t take that piece any further confidently, without losing that thing that it has, the balance.
I used to do a lot of woodcuts, something I plan to get back to doing soon. I like making woodcuts because it adds another layer/dimension to a drawing, it’s like a levelling up… you transform it into a reproducible image with very precise lines that have been carved out from something a lot more chaotic. And it’s that thing of when is something really finished? For me that meant taking a drawing and making it into a woodcut. Although now I’m considering the endless possibilities of combining painting, drawing and printmaking all together.
Portraits dominate your practice – have you ever experimented with other subject matter? What is it about portraiture that is so appealing to you?
I have experimented with different subject matter – following my trip to Rome in 2019 which formed the basis of my solo show “Reflections” at Upright Gallery, I worked from references of sculptures seen at the Vatican Museum. As I typically work from references of real people, this was a much more imaginative approach that I adopted, with the end result not being your standard representation of classical sculpture, but an expressive, intuitive response to what I was seeing, and feeling, reflecting on my trip to Italy. I depicted full statues, sometimes these were of horses. This was much different to my usual portraits, but it aimed to bring the same energy; it was all about frenzied emotion, frantic mark-making, but also gathering that together to form something meticulous.
The reason I keep returning to portraiture is well, people. People are so intriguing, and we all look different. I really enjoy navigating the proportions of the face in charcoal and in paint, and slowly bringing out that persons’ likeness. You instantly recognise someone by their face – sometimes only seeing the eyes is enough to tell who that person is, and that fascinates me.
Your use of colour varies quite a lot across your collection. In your opinion, what does it contribute to your work? And are you drawn to any colours in particular?
I’m all about experimentation and seeing what I think works and what doesn’t, which is why the use of colour varies a lot. It’s a very intuitive thing and I don’t really have a preconceived idea of how a piece will look by the end, or what colours I will look to introduce. I tend to stick to primary colours, big and bold, particularly red. Sometimes I just go wild with red, I love how it transforms a piece, livens it up and changes the narrative, I guess? It’s such a harsh, I suppose angry colour, but I think that goes hand in hand with my way of working and that’s why I think it works.
Were there any artists that inspired you as you were developing your own style?
I’m a total Renaissance guy, so the big names, Rembrandt, Durer, Da Vinci… the list goes on. I’ve always had a lot of appreciation for that sort of work and the patience it must have required. It has always interested me how artists of old would spend years on the same painting, which is in complete contrast to the way that I work, very spur of the moment, much looser.
I look up to artists like Durer in terms of pushing details – it will always amaze me how he managed to achieve such ridiculous fine line work in his woodcuts and engravings. An artist whose work inspires me stylistically is the German artist, Kathe Kollwitz. Her heart-wrenching drawings and woodcuts produced during the war are so powerful, and I really look to bring a similar sense of feeling and raw emotion into my own work.
How has Covid-19 impacted your practice?
Covid-19 hasn’t really directly impacted my art practice. I live a bit of a secluded life, where I’m usually only ever going to work, or painting in my studio… neither of which was affected by restrictions! But in normal times, I love to travel. Visiting new places is a big source of inspiration for me and my artwork. A trip to Spain last September had inspired some different portraits to my usual, but the ideas I’d returned with sort of fizzled out along with hopes of travelling abroad anytime soon. So, I’ve had to look elsewhere for inspiration lately. If anything, I’ve been putting in more hours in the studio to block out the whole Covid situation, which has obviously put a downer on most things. At least when I’m drawing, I’m quite content being somewhere else in my mind.
Big thanks to Ross for taking the time to talk to with Sylvie and for providing us with a deeper understanding of his practice. You can check out all of Ross’ work here.