A few people are born great artists. And some people work very, very hard to become better artists. Richard Russell has done both. “Painting is,” he says (in humble understatement), “just a part of life for me.”
It is obviously a very large part, and has been since he was a boy. He remembers in his Kindergarten class, in Germany, that his teacher showed the class a picture of a whale and he was dismayed at its size in the book. When he got home he taped enough paper together to cover the basement floor and then used up a lot of blue crayons creating his version of a whale. His mother helped him transport the drawing to his school, where his teacher hung it on a large wall for the remainder of the year. Richard has been trying to recreate the world as he sees it ever since.
Interestingly, there was never any turning point in his life when he thought to himself, “I am good at this.” He always just knew drawing—and later, painting—was something he could do. And from the beginning he has used his gift to bless other’s lives, starting with sketches of friends and relatives. As his fingers translate onto paper what his eyes see, his imagination also often takes flight, as does his subject. Or, in other words, as Richard observed, “Kids always love a little sketch of themselves doing something amazing, like flying.”
Utah born, Richard has done quite a bit of flying himself, having lived in Germany, Japan and New York. A few years ago, he and his family made a month long visit to China. His souvenirs from his trip include some incredible paintings he created that pull the viewer into that time and place.
Many of his paintings are 3D in appearance and most of them have an uncanny quality about them, as though he has captured the spirit of the person or the scene he is painting. He usually uses models and those who know his wife, children, and in-laws may recognize them in his work. For example, many of the extended Brewer family have posed for illustrations commissioned by the Ensign for stories or articles.
His then three-year-old daughter, Katy, posed for one painting, The Little Lark: Cosette. When he asked her if she wanted to be a little orphan with a sad look, she played it up so well that it broke Richard’s heart. “Not quite so sad,” he told her.
“I couldn’t have borne painting her so sad,” he said.
Richard observes that it is hard to paint people he is familiar with, as one has to balance what they are seeing with their eyes with what they know in their head. Still, out of his thousands of paintings, one of his notable successes is a depiction of his wife Josi standing on the canyon rim of Westwater, entitled Juniper Vigil, which was accepted into the Oil Painters of America National Exhibition in 2006 and won the President’s Award of Excellence.
Though he makes it seem effortless, Richard notes that—even for an experienced and talented artist—painting is a lot of work, though not necessarily the brushwork. He says the mental work of figuring out how to translate what he is seeing and feeling onto canvas is the greater challenge.
A recipient of numerous varied and impressive awards, Richard considers himself a plein air (French for “in the open air”) oil painter. He has entered and done very well in plein air and quick draw competitions, timed competitions where artists arrive with a blank canvas and have from about 90 minutes up to four hours to complete their artwork. This is challenging as even for professional artists, some paintings may take months to finish.
Richard prefers to paint “from life.” As he says, “The detail, quality of light, and emotion that you get from a real person will always be superior to what you can pull from memory or imagination.” He also considers himself a narrative painter: “I want to tell a story with my work,” he says.
He has come to the conclusion that, “We are used to just glancing at people and then categorizing them with very little effort. You can’t do that when you are trying to paint people. You have to really see them.
“When I’m painting someone, I’m really looking closely at whom my subject is and what I can convey about that person as an individual. To paint someone well, you have to really look at them and appreciate and accept what is unique, striking, and beautiful about them.
“Advertising has conditioned us to view people through a narrow, limiting vision. Painting is the perfect way to change that, to ask people to look again at the people around them and really see them.”
Because of this remarkable philosophy, Richard’s next “big project” will be a 2015 solo exhibit at the Finch Lane Gallery in Salt Lake City, entitled, 100 Beautiful People, featuring portraits of everyday people. However, one can be sure they won’t be everyday portraits. Richard’s greatest talent may be discovering and then infusing his portraits with the personality of his subjects. In this case, what he finds distinctive and extraordinary about the people he paints.
Richard has painted landscape and figurative pieces, as well as themes such as Shakespearean characters, pioneer scenes, Western art, different cultures, and Biblical stories. A nativity scene of Joseph and Mary with the Christ child, entitled Let Us Adore Him, sold within days of its completion, at Deseret Book. However, prints of the original, as well as in Christmas card form, can be purchased. At some point, he and his English instructor wife hope to do a picture book together with her being the narrator and him doing the illustrations.
To see more of Richard’s amazing work, or to purchase prints or cards, you can go to www.richardrussellart.com/store.