39th Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, Wednesday, June 1, “The Watercolors Of Charles Russell: An Examination Of The Artists’ Materials And Techniques On The Montana Frontier,” Jodie Utter, Conservator of Works on Paper, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

In preparation for a 2012 exhibition of Charles M. Russell’s watercolor paintings, Jodie Utter, Conservator of Works on Paper at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art , undertook an investigation of the artist’s techniques and materials. I really enjoyed this presentation; I knew nothing about Russell or his work prior to the talk and Utter was successful in sharing her excitement about the artist by putting together an interesting narrative of his life, process, and development as a painter.

Russell was born in St. Louis in 1864, and moved to Montana as a young man to work on a sheep ranch and then as a night wrangler on a cattle ranch.A self-taught artist who began drawing and painting in his spare time on the ranch, he began painting full-time in 1893. A turning point in Russell’s career was a trip to New York in 1903-04, where he met and was influenced by the work of other painters and shifted from working in transparent watercolor to opaque watercolor. He produced over 1400 watercolors in his lifetime

Utter visited Russell’s still-intact studio to take samples of his paints, which she analyzed using polarizing light microscopy and x-ray fluorescence; as a point of comparison, she also analyzed samples of contemporaneous paints from unopened tubes.  Materials found in his studio reveal that Russell used the highest quality brushes, paints, and papers available to artists in the American West in the mid-19th century. He used red sable brushes, the handles of which he cut and whittled to points in order to shape paint layers (he also chewed on his brushes, as evidenced by all the teeth marks!). The most common paint found in Russell’s studio was Chinese White watercolor, introduced in 1834 as the first reliable opaque white. Utter also found many paint tubes in Russell’s studio; she highlighted how revolutionary paint tubes were for artists at that time (introduced in 1840), allowing them to purchase high quality paints in large quantities. Also, since tube paints have more body than pan paints, they could achieve different results.

Infrared examination of Russell’s paintings revealed that the underdrawings of his earliest paintings were “overdrawn” – he was drawing figures over and over again, including lots of details, trying to “get things right,” without erasing much. Later underdrawings were much more minimalist – confident sketches with little detail. His color palette evolved from very basic to more developed – in a 1897 painting, there were 17 different colors of transparent watercolor in use –  to a sophisticated use of complementary colors. Russell was introduced to color theory during his visit to New York; afterwards, he began using less black in the dark areas of his paintings – shadows were created with combinations of blues and greys. Russell used traditional watercolor techniques, like layered washes and  scrapping away paint layers to achieve highlights, but he incorporated many unconventional techniques as well. Russell was also an oil painter and a sculptor and he adapted techniques  – most notably, impasto – for his watercolor paintings.