Like so many of technology's best-known inventors and entrepreneurs, Ian Ross' path to success was an unorthodox one. Though he has served as Facebook's in-house artist and tops the list of artists tapped by high-tech firms to paint in-office murals, he had never planned to be a painter.
If you talked to Ross 20 years ago, he would have told you he planned to be a sculptor. Born in Larkspur, California, to a pair of graphic-designer parents, Ross left home at age 18 to learn to work with clay. He emerged from his time at Orange Coast Community College and Long Beach State University with a BFA in ceramics, a large personal investment in a ceramics studio and seven years into a long-term relationship.
Instead of putting his nose to the grindstone and settling down, Ross decided to hit the road. During his time overseas, away from the clay and kilns that had become so ingrained in his life, Ross discovered a love for painting, while simultaneously becoming disenchanted with the path he had been following.
"When you're traveling you have to live light," Ross says. He couldn't take clay on the road with him, so he started to sketch and paint. He remembered the graffiti and street art, which he had loved so much as a teenager, and it informed his developing style.
While overseas he realized that his relationship was weighing him down, as were his commitments to the ceramics studio. He came home, broke off his relationship and put his pursuit of ceramics on hold. "I haven't touched clay for 12 years," he says.
Ross, who now lives in Mill Valley, says he prefers painting to ceramics, because he likes working in the moment and allowing his creations to guide him. "Ceramics," he explains, "is very tactile, very sensual. You have to be really patient. Painting can be the opposite -- really immediate and fast." It also helps that he isn't bogged down by the fine-art theory that he attained working with ceramics in an academic environment. "I've sort of created a technique on my own," he notes, referring to his painting.
Ross works mainly with spray cans and brushes. His style, with its hard crisp outlines, is clearly informed by street art and graffiti. Growing up in the small and sleepy Larkspur, Ross was enthralled with the graffiti that he saw on trips to San Francisco and other bigger cities. The urban density and the art that was created there were alien and enticing to him.
Yet, the trees and open space of his home town had an impact on him as well. The natural world can clearly be felt in his pieces -- both overtly, as in the large painting of a psychedelically colored buck he painted at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, and in the more abstract murals he creates, with their free-flowing lines, which suggest vines, leaves, branches and rushing water.
"I like to use forms that relate to movement," Ross says, explaining that he has studied the Chinese art of feng shui, a philosophy focused on orienting structures and placing furniture within rooms to maximize the "flow" of a given building or space. When he is painting a mural on a wall within an office -- which he has done for Facebook, LinkedIn and Lyft, among others -- he considers the space he is working in and attempts to respond to it. He aims to create paintings that complement their surroundings.
He seldom approaches any mural or painting with a firm plan in mind. Rather, Ross just begins drawing shapes, which, in turn, help inspire and direct him. "I intentionally try to be working in the moment, without a plan, and let the completion of a piece find its way as I go," he says. "In this way, I learn from each piece."
His process is similar to that of some authors or actors, who engage in a kind of dialogue with the characters they are creating. And, in some ways, it is similar to the process of many of the high-tech firms that commission his work. While software engineers certainly approach projects with a plan, they often encounter unforeseen hurdles and challenges that inform the direction their code must take in order to work around the problems that pop up.
Ross says he draws inspiration from the tech firms he has worked with. "It has opened my eyes to the way the world is changing," he says, explaining that he isn't just referring to the technologies Silicon Valley companies are creating, but also the ways in which the workers interact with one another.
Growing up, Ross remembers visiting the offices of his friends' parents. "It seemed like the most painful place to spend your life," he recalls.
Ross' parents worked out of their home as contract graphic designers, which likely contributed to his dislike of offices. However, he says, while he would never want to work in an office, he does appreciate the work spaces tech companies tend to create for their employees -- with open floor plans and lots of natural light. He sees himself and the work he does as part of that problem-solving process.
"I'm attempting to improve offices for the people who are stuck in them," he says. "I like to think I'm a part of their culture."