August 10, 2012

Charlie Russell: It’s in the Details

By Tom Ferris
Archival Photographer

The staff of the MHS Museum and Photograph Archives has been busy over the last few months photographing our complete Charles M. Russell collection in high resolution digital format. The work is being done for a coffee table book to be published by the
Montana Historical Society Press, and for the museum’s image archive.When the Land Belonged to God by Charles M. Russell
MHS Staff are digitally photographing every item in the Society's Charles M. Russell collection, including one of Russell's most famous works, "When the Land Belonged To God." 

One benefit of doing this work is that we get to spend a considerable amount of time with each painting, both while we are shooting, and after the fact — as we check detail images, and zoom in on very small areas of each piece. We’ve become bigger fans of Russell’s work and have become aware of how much attention he paid to details. In some of his watercolors, a fully realized facial expression can be rendered with just a few brush strokes, on a person’s head that is about the size of a pea. That requires a serious skill set.

There are many good western painters, but few who had/have Russell’s sense of color or nerve to use it. This detail from the painting shows how Russell used pink, purple, and orange as highlights to paint a branch that surrounds a grouse — a detail that often goes unnoticed.
Detail from When the Land Belonged to God
Detail of grouse from "When the Land Belonged to God." 


In another detail, you will see splashes of turquoise, indigo, and fiery red used to depict a bison skull. A lesser painter would have settled for a palette consisting of grays, browns, and various shades of beige for the branches or the skull.
Detail from When the Land Belonged to God
Detail of bison skull from "When the Land Belonged to God." 


Charlie Russell’s work is known and loved the world over and we believe that one of the reasons for that is the details.

6 comments:

  1. Charlie was a wonderful colorist, and his cool palette was very strong. That's why it bothers me so that the walls of the Mackay Gallery of Russell paintings at the Montana Historical Society in Helena are painted that awful teal/turquoise color. Gallery walls should be about the paintings, not about the gallery walls. The wall color steals Charlie's cool colors right out of this paintings, and that's a sin.

    Paint the damn walls dark maroon or dark brown, already, and let Charlie's palette shine!

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    1. Thank you for your feedback. We are always looking for ways to improve our galleries. Your suggestion about the Mackay Gallery will receive full consideration. Interestingly enough, we have received numerous comments on how the teal compliments Russell’s artworks. Thank you again for your post.

      --Jennifer Bottomly-O'looney, Senior Curator, Montana's Museum

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  2. These close-up images are absolutely fantastic. As a life-long Charlie Russell admirer, I have visited the Great Falls Museum three times. I've also seen his work in other museums, but there's many more that I still have to get to. One of the most wonderful things about his work, is that no book can possibly allow you to see the incredible subtleties. You have to stand in front of the real paintings, and lean in close. But now that high resolution digital imaging is available, these photos are the next best thing. Personally I know you could do an entire book of close-ups like this, his work is just so rich. (Then there's the sculptures, which are just as amazing!) Wow, please put more of these extreme closeups on your site. Russell's color sense is exquisite and totally natural, yet at the same time completely unique. The vast majority of modern western/wildlife painters are far too reliant on color photographs. They should carefully study Charlie Russell's work, because he painted before there was color photography. I much prefer his approach, which allows so much more room for individual expression, yet at the same time is based totally in the beautiful singing colors of nature. There aren't words enough to describe my appreciation and never-ending fascination for this extraordinary artistic genius. Thanks for doing this.

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  3. Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm for the works of Charlie Russell! We agree that digital imaging offers exciting new ways to share and appreciate artworks like these. You may be interested to know that the Society is digitally photographing every Russell painting and sculpture in our collections. The images will appear in a Russell catalog to be published by the Montana Historical Society Press in 2014.

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  4. In the article it states that the work was being done for a coffee table book to be published by the Montana Historical Society Press, is this book avaiable yet?

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    1. Thanks for asking. "Montana’s Charlie Russell: Art in the Collection of the Montana Historical Society" is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2014.

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