Process Points: Lehi
Give a Farmer a Brush
The Rural Landscape According to Ron Russon
Give a farmer academic art training and watch what happens. Color theory, composition, drawing, and all the principles and elements of design are learned and practiced until they are intuitive. Then, just as the farmer responds to the environment each and every day, the farmer-turned-artist responds, wash-by-wash, stroke-by-stroke, to the way the paint behaves on the canvas.
Ron Russonís abstracted, expressive landscapes may be a little bit ďout thereĒ for those who want to see in a painting exactly what they see in nature. But look a little longer and youíll feel the textures of the land; youíll see patterns of fields and fence posts; and youíll recognize the animals that inhabit farm and prairie.
Over the past 10 years, Russon has developed his signature style, characterized by his use of texture and contrast. As he prepared for his July 2 opening at Gallery MAR in Park City, he took time out to talk about his creative process.
Russon paints on canvas or masonite. He starts most paintings by building up the surface texture with thick gesso. Sometimes he applies it with a thick bristle brush that leaves tracks in the surface; at other times, he carves into the wet gesso to create random patterns. At this stage, he has no idea what the subject of the painting will be.
When the gesso is dry, Russon starts his underpainting. Working at an easel, he allows gravity to partner with him as he applies a wash of oil paint thinned with turpentine so that it runs through the crevices in the gesso-coated surface. Sometimes he paints horizontal bands of color through which the turpentine can run and form patterns.
Leaving the underpainting to dry overnight, he returns the next morning to see what kinds of colors and patterns have developed. Often he will turn the painting 90 degrees so that the vertical patterns coaxed by gravity are now horizontal. This is when he begins to imagine what this painting wants to be.
From reference photos and sketches, Russon may select a tractor, bison, bull, or horse. These are images of rural life that are authentic and appealing to Russon, who grew up on a dairy farm near Lehi. ďWith animals, what you see is what you get,Ē he says. ďA cow canít fake being a chicken. With people, sometimes they have shells they hide under. Thatís why Iím drawn to animals.Ē
He might sketch in the subject with paint and a brush, but most of his painting is done with a palette knife. Dragging the paint over the textured underpainting creates more texture. He covers some parts of the underpainting and allows other parts to remain visible.
Russonís paintings are filled with contrasts: thin, lacy patterns created by the turpentine-thinned paint, next to thick, opaque passages; strong vertical blocks of paint balanced by horizontal bands; warm sienna colors next to cool blues. Russon says all of this is intuitive, rather than planned, but his BYU degree in fine art no doubt fueled this sophisticated intuitive response. ďWhen I get logical and plan, the painting dies,Ē he says. ďWhen I get out of my own way, better stuff happens.Ē
Unlike some artists who work on multiple paintings at the same time, Russon works one at a time, start to finish. The hardest part, he says, is knowing when itís finished. Unlike a highly realistic painter who glazes many layers to create the illusion of reality, Russon doesnít like to over-work. Instead, he juxtaposes areas of more paint and detail with areas that are sketchy. The complete process may take several hours or several days as he feels his way through to a satisfying vision.
Some unexpected events helped Russon start his journey from illustrator-designer to fine artist. When the development of digital technology drastically reduced what a designer could charge for previously lucrative work, Russon knew it was time to switch to fine art. Then, after 9/11, when the art market took a dive, Russon decided he might as well spend his time exploring what he wanted to do. He turned toward abstraction and his own expression of reality, and he hasnít looked back.
Hints 'n' Tips
Preparing to Paint in the Field
Preparation for a painting excursion in the field is essential to having a successful experience. The list of things to remember includes painting gear as well as personal items like clothing and water. Different seasons will dictate a different set of items for the latter. Probably the best thing to do, and something that has saved my bacon out in the field on more than one occasion, is a good check list that you can mark off before leaving the studio. Believe me, this information is coming to you via my own plein air disasters in the past. The old saying that ďnecessity is the mother of invention" is so true here; the check list is the result of much mental anguish over leaving something important behind. Letís face it, weíre artists, not always the most organized folks. We get excited at the possibility of finding the perfect spot to paint and, due to the adrenalin rush and excitement of the moment, often leave something vital back in the studio. I can hear it now- ďCome on, letís get out there while the light is good. Stuff that backpack, hop in the 4 runner, head 'em up, move 'em out!Ē Sound familiar? Well, maybe Iím a little over the top, but you get the idea! Over the years, I have left everything from brushes, palette, white paint and even a canvas back in the studio in my zeal to get out and paint. Itís really bad too -- you get all set up, the scene is great and duh, no palette knives! I once had to paint on the back of the palette because my panels didnít make their way into my back pack. Itís always a disaster when it happens to you, but an amusing situation when it happens to a painting buddy! One time I was painting up in a canyon with a friend, who has a thick European accent; we were hiking up a large hill with granite ledges. My buddy went on up ahead and set up near a rock face that took a while to reach. About ten minutes into my painting I heard, ďMaestro Hughes, I hate to bother you, but I forgot my paint.Ē We both started cracking up! I shared with him the necessary paint and then we were back at it again until later, when he ran out of cobalt blue!
Might I suggest an easier route for those who would rather paint than develop plein air war stories. First of all, sit down for a brainstorming session with yourself and think of all the gear you will need, both painting and personal. You might even divide these into seasons for the personal items. The list should contain necessary items for painting and also items that are specific for your own situation, like medications or a particular hat you like or your favorite walking stick. A typical list could go something like this: white paint, colors, brushes, thinner, extra thinner bottle, panels, palette box, tripod shoes (when working in sand or snow), tissues or paper towels, back pack, hiking stick, bear mace, hat, jacket, poncho, first aid kit, flashlight (if Iím hiking in the mountains and might get stuck on the trail after dark), water bottle, water purifier, sun screen, bug dope, camera, sketch book, palette knives, medium, pencil, fly rod (thatís what Iím talkin' about!), wind breaker, fleece, snacks, cash, snake bite kit, map, compass, GPS device, etc. You can see the list can get quite long.
After you have done all the brainstorming and gotten your list put into some sort of meaningful order then you can get on your word processor and lay down a grid that has everything listed on the left hand column and a series of boxes across the sheet that are set up into vertical rows which represent a particular date out in the field. From then on itís just a matter of dating it at the top of the page and checking off each item you need on that particular day. Now that you are ready to venture out, soon I will cover how to choose a subject to paint. Until then, enjoy those trips into the field. Until next time, John