In a rough pen sketch dated March 26, 1958, you can just make out a figure standing at the side of a boat, hauling a lobster pot. The sketch appears to be three-dimensional, with a series of knot-like shapes along the top. A note next to the shapes reads, “hands in sky.”

A second sketch, dated March 27, 1958, shows a clearer image of the man with the lobster pot and boat, and the hands in the sky are clearer here against a backdrop of cliff and sea. The artist has added color, but the sketch is simple in content.

In a third sketch, dated April 2, 1958, the artist returns to the scene, with more vibrant colors and curious characters. The cliffs have been replaced with a grassy hill and a far-off forest. A garden of flowers has sprung up on top of the boat, and a giant blue owl is visible in the background.

These sketches were the early inspirations for the late Stanley Murphy’s 1958 painting, The Biography of Ernest Mayhew, and represent the process through which the artist came to make a masterpiece. The drawings are part of a collection of several hundred studies and sketches drawn by Mr. Murphy over the course of his career, donated two years ago to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum by the artist’s family. The sketches will be displayed alongside the final paintings, on loan for the exhibition From Concept to Canvas: Selected Works of Stanley Murphy.

The museum walls that will house the display through Columbus Day weekend were still bare on Tuesday afternoon, the sketches and paintings resting along the floor, waiting to be hung. Museum staff have studied the sketches for months, but assistant curator Anna Carringer still marveled at each illustration in a tour of the room. “Sometimes things change, things get switched a little bit, things in the background move,” said Ms. Carringer of the progression of the sketches. “Stan was such a meticulous and careful artist, he was constantly updating and constantly bettering the piece as he went along.”

Mr. Murphy spent a short time in art school but felt more inspired by classic painting than the abstract work popular at the time. He moved with his wife, Polly, to West Tisbury in 1948, and raised four children on the Island. In the beginning, he worked a number of odd jobs to support his family as he pursued a career as an artist.

“What you see here is a result of his teaching himself how to paint,” said Ms. Carringer. “[The work] speaks to what comes out of extreme hard work and experimentation, patience, passion, drive . . . I think it’s really important to remember that this is a nearly self-taught artist and it makes his work even more incredible.”

And from the story captured in every sketch and every painting unfolds the story of the man behind the artwork. “The subjects of his paintings, he just had a tremendous amount of respect and love for them,” said Ms. Carringer. “He had an admiration, not only for them as people but for this way of life; the simple, hardworking way of life that existed on the Island.”

One painting in the exhibit is a portrait of the late David Flanders, a lifelong Chilmark resident and farmer, leaning against his favorite cow, Sunshine. The painting is accompanied by a pencil sketch of the subject’s face.

Where many painters might rely on a photograph to capture a person’s likeness for a portrait, Mr. Murphy insisted on live poses. “People didn’t have time to sit around and just pose for him [but] he would find whatever time they could afford and he would sit down with them and he would do these wonderful sketches of their hands, of their faces, to really get a sense of who they were,” said Ms. Carringer. “A photograph can only give you so much. He really wanted to get more, to get a little deeper, almost to get their essence.”

He also paid keen attention to detail. The David Flanders portrait comes with several smaller sketches outlining elements of the final product, even down to a cowpat in the background pasture. What might seem a small, even unnecessary element was indeed worthy of its own study, and careful planning. “It’s part of the painting,” said Ms. Carringer. “So you really have to understand the texture, you have to understand the color to really make a good painting.”

In another corner of the room The Biography of Ernest Mayhew stands out for its intense color and whimsical nature. Each element that unfolded in the series of sketches now has a rightful place in the painting, from the hands in the sky, positioned to form the word “work” in American sign language, to the subject himself, still clinging to his lobster pot, to the giant blue owl presiding over the scene. The image of a woman has taken shape beneath the boat, blending in with the sea as she embraces the vessel. The final product gives some context to the images in the three sketches, and a look back on the drafts reveals the origins of each of the painting’s mysterious elements.

Just as the three sketches tell a story of the artist’s progress from concept to canvas, so too does the progression from that early work to his more recent portraits tell the story of the artist Stan Murphy became. “It’s so interesting to see the evolution that he had as an artist, just going from this sort of free-form, magical, fantastical imagery to the very refined, very careful, beautifully rendered portraiture,” said Ms. Carringer.

And the collection does more for Stan Murphy’s legacy than reveal his development as an artist, Ms. Carringer said. It also explores the many faces of the artist apart from his work. “Each person is their own little onion. They all have these multiple layers,” she said. “Stan was exactly that too. He was a painter, but he was also a fisherman, he was also a carpenter.I think, still, people don’t define him as an artist; they define him as a friend, as a family member. This was just one of the things he was passionate about, and it’s really, I think, his driving force, but he was so many other things.”


The opening reception for the exhibition is tomorrow, Saturday, Feb. 6, at the Pease House Galleries of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, at 59 School Street in Edgartown, from 3 to 5 p.m.