Interesting Rick! I have never drawn a drawing the same size as my reference photo. I do very light, limited gridding to help lay out my sketch and simply figure out the proportion difference. Once I have the basic sketch, it's a non issue, from there it's just shading. In fact I think almost every reference drawing I've printed out as 8.5 x 11 and all of my drawings have been larger. I too convert my reference photos to b & w and tinker with contrast.
Funny, my wife & I are also recent empty nesters and live in a 3500 sq ft house. Most the time at night we're doing our own thing on opposite ends of the house! I make a point to go down (I'm up stairs) and love on her for a little while (generally speaking, might just involve talking with her for a few minutes) most nights, otherwise it just seems weird!