When I was a kid I thought learning to paint would be a piece of cake. Now that I’m getting better at it I find the job to be more complex than I originally thought. What happened in between was that I gained re spect for the activity and fell in love with the work. Like a lot of things in life it turned out to be all in the details — the materials, the minor ploys, things left in, things left out.
Take the popular American cowboy artist Charles Russell. As a kid all he could think of was to get to the Wild West. His early work was casual, haphazardly planned, cursorily executed. As he grew older he began to take his work seriously — while still a good old boy and spinner of yarns for his pals in the bar — he began to see himself as a professional. Those 24 x 36’s and other long formats he produced during his capital period of 1913 to 1923 show his labor of love. Dramatic action aside, these paintings abound in compositional innovation, joy of equine anatomical know ledge, sophisticated color. He knew he was a talented cowpoke, but he dug in his spurs to put his talent to work.
Russell couldn’t walk down the main drag of some art-place like Scottsdale, Arizona and see quality in every window. By and large he had to in vent the genre for himself. He figured out how to gradate the western skies, show Montana distance and dust, honor the American Indian, and turn a horse on its back. Up there in Great Falls he had a job to do. While he was the only game in town he didn’t let that get in the way of his growing love affair.
PS: “After breakfast Charlie went out to the big log cabin studio in the side yard and painted till noon. He did surprisingly little fumbling around waiting for inspiration — he went right to work. About once an hour, he sat back and rolled a cigarette and looked at what he had done. Usually he turned his back on the canvas and sat with one knee over the other, studying his work in a hand mirror that always lay on the shelf under the window.” (Austin Russell, nephew)
Esoterica: As a young man Russell was by all descriptions an ornery character — hard to employ as a ranch-hand. After he married young Nancy Cooper in 1896 he more or less settled down to get good at painting. She thought he was talented. “But talent,” he said, “is like a birthmark — it’s a gift and no credit nor fault to those who wear them.”
The following are selected correspondence relating to this letter. If you find value in any of this please feel free to copy to a friend or fellow artist. We have no other motivation than to give creative people an opportunity to share ideas and possibly broaden their capabilities. Thank you for writing.
by Richard Morales, Tempe, Arizona, USA
No one much in the world of art pays any attention to the considerable number of artists who survive on the avails of the horse. New York doesn’t even recognize the animal. And yet this dry gulch of American culture rides on with its spectacular practitioners. It’s safe to say that there are many living today who have exceeded Remington and Russell. The main drag of Scottsdale is full of them.
(RG note) Definitely not dry yet. Take a look at the Cowboy Artists of America Annual Show and Sale at the Phoenix Art Museum. It’s a major fundraiser for the museum. http://cowboyartistsofamerica.com/
by Jack Teague
Joe Beeler, John Hampton, Charlie Dye and George Phippen founded the Cowboy Artists of America in 1965. Inspired by Russell and Remington, they set a high standard for the association, which insured authentic representation of the life of the West, as it was and is. Beeler said, “We had no idea back then how successful the Cowboy Artists of America would be. Today though, I think art historians would say that the impact of the association has gone far beyond the bounds of Western or Cowboy Art. It’s been a big boost for realism in all American art, no matter what the theme.”
by W P Tait, Los Angeles, CA, USA
America will never outlive its love affair with the Western. When people purchase these cowpoke paintings they think they are somehow preserving a bit of masculine heritage — the good ‘ol days when men were men, free-range hombres who drank hard, spat bakky and said things like “My work’s done here now Mam, I’ll be off to another town that needs me more.”
by Dwight W Haight
Russell got his drawing ability by close observation of animals and men during the time he was a ranch hand. The next generation did the same thing and perfected the game: Frank Tenney Johnson, Frederic Mizen, R Brownell McGrew, William R Leigh, LaVerne Nelson Black, Oscar Berninghaus, and in my opinion the greatest of all — Arnold Friberg.
(RG note) The West and Walter Bimson published by the U niversity of Arizona Museum of Art shows the collection of industrialist and banker Walter Bimson. This coffee table book gives an overview of the collectorship of Cowboy painting and sculpture from the earliest Currier and Ives prints to the late 60’s when he stopped collecting. As well as an index and a catalogue there’s a short biography on every artist in his collection.
by Fred Evans
Any good books on the making of cowboy art?
(RG note) Creating Illusions, by Harold Lloyd Lyon is a good place to start. He’s a Scottsdale cowboy painter with a lot of ideas about what to do and what not to do in the making of the genre. Well illustrated with examples of his work in color and lots and lots of little drawings. The chapters on Color, Move ment, Density, Depth and Composition, while part of his personal style, are useful in understanding some of the processes and procedures.
by Hammond Glass, collector
First of all it’s a love affair with the West and the life-style. Add to that the love affair with quality painting and sculpture that has been generated by the healthy competition among truly talented people who have pushed the art to a unique high. Russell started the ball rolling and now we have a virtual in dustry that makes a lot of current art look like a shallow sham.
by Warren Criswell, Arkansas, USA
That quote about Russell checking his work in a mirror — I do the same thing in my studio. I have a full length mirror against the wall opposite my easel. I consistently find flaws in the mirror images of my compositions which, for some reason, I can’t see when looking directly at the painting. It’s as if the mirror enables me to look at the work through someone else’s eyes.
by Billy Krumenacker
I get disheartened listening to people say that I’m so talented. They are discrediting the long hours of reading and studying, the even longer hours of sketching and erasing, and the most important, the many nights that I lie awake contemplating the little changes that were not planned and the effect they will have on the finished product. Not to mention, the heartache felt over previous failed attempts. Talent is a curse word in my book.
That quote of Russell’s about talent being like a birthmark ought to go into your collection of quotations. (Mary Snell)
(RG note) It will. The Resource of Art Quotations is currently the most visited section of The Painter’s Keys site. Artists of all stripes as well as writers and researchers are getting inspiration from it on a daily basis. If you have quotes you would like to see included please send them along.
You may be interested to know that artists from 75 countries have visited these sites since August 1, 2000.
That includes Joe Henley of Montana who says he often sketches while mounted on his palomino “Wizard.”
And also Jane Capillaro of Taconic CT who paints as she rides and uses her ‘bad old watercolors’ for origami.
And also spiritual healer and poet Phillip Goddard of Exeter, UK who doesn’t ride but walks with his painter friend David Cheepen.