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In the Studio: Carlo Russo

by Allison Malafronte

Carlo Russo in his Philadelphia studio

Philadelphia-based artist Carlo Russo is known for his elegant, tasteful still lifes painted in a tightly realistic manner with beautiful color and detail. A collector of fine objects and a maker of his own frames, this forty-one-year-old artist puts careful craftsmanship into each unique piece he presents to the public and his loyal followers. On a lovely spring day in mid-May—prior to a group outing with mutual artist-friends to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the Sargent and Homer watercolor exhibition—I had a chance to visit with Russo in his studio in the Old Kensington district of Philadelphia and learn more about the experiences and education that have lead to this new season in his life and art. 

Requiem, 2014, oil on linen, 27 x 26 in. Private collection AM: Let’s begin with your training. I know the educational approach has evolved quite a bit over the last 10 years or so at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). What was the training like when you were there, and what initially led you to the school?

CR: I went to PAFA from 2000 to 2004, and at that time there was essentially two camps of teachers: those who were dedicated to preserving the traditions of classical drawing and painting and those who were interested in more modern and post-modern aesthetics. It was an interesting place—you were exposed to a lot of different approaches, even if you didn’t necessarily want to be. It was unlike the ateliers that had a more singular method and where the faculty were all on the same page. I remember at the time sort of wishing I had gone to that type of school, but as I got older I realized that the lack of a dominant methodology allowed me to become the artist I am today. Overall, it was a great education. I initially found out about PAFA while I was at the Art Institute of Philadelphia in the late 1990s studying fashion design. I had heard a lot of great things about the school, so I set up a visit, and when I saw the cast hall I was blown away and knew I had to go there. I graduated from the Art Institute, and a week later I was at PAFA.

AM: You are primarily known for your still lifes, but you paint other genres as well. At what point did you start to gravitate toward still life, and what is it about that subject that continues to hold your interest? 

CR: The interest and tendency toward still life started to show in my second year at PAFA. The first year you’re just overwhelmed with drawing and anatomy and getting acclimated, but by year two I was starting to have some success with still life. In between all of the mistakes, frustration and learning I would do a few things right and see that I could actually make a realistic picture. By year three, when I had my own studio, I was primarily painting still lifes, as well a little plein air. Looking at my website now, you wouldn’t know that I’ve done quite a bit of plein air early in my career and a fair amount of figure painting and drawing. For some reason I always come back to still life. It fits my temperament, and in some ways it feels like the genre chose me. It was definitely not my intention to paint still life when I started at PAFA.

Dreams of Ophelia, 2012, oil on linen, 22 x 29 in. Private collection

AM: There was a figure painting you did several years ago of a woman in a brown dress laying on the ground holding flowers. For some reason, that painting and your name were always synonymous in my mind, and I assumed you primarily painted figure. How did that painting come about?  

CR: That painting might be the most well-known figure work I’ve done. It’s titled Dreams of Ophelia, and it ended up winning a prize at the Art Renewal Center Competition and was also purchased for their permanent collection, which was an amazing honor. I guess in a way it sort of overshadowed what I primarily do. People who hadn’t seen my work prior to that may have associated me with painting the figure, not realizing that I was stepping outside of my usual still life subject matter. The idea for the painting was a modern-day take on Ophelia. I’ve long admired the work of John Everett Millais, particularly his famous Ophelia painting at the Tate. I think it’s an incredible masterpiece of Western art, and it took my breath away when I first saw it. We know how the story ends for Ophelia, but Millais painted this scene with such beauty and poetry that you sort of forget she is actually drowning. In my painting the figure is oriented similarly, but rather than having her in the water, she was laid on a giant white fur pelt. I used a palette of mostly whites and off-whites and browns. I think all painters have those works that had a significant impact on them for one reason or another. We find ways to pay homage to those paintings; sometimes it’s deliberate, sometimes not. I do remember feeling that Dreams of Ophelia was a special painting when I was making it, and I suppose some other people felt that way too.

AM: What is your studio/work schedule like? And when you come into the studio on any given day, how do you typically decide what to paint?

Russo’s cabinets of treasures, collected from around the world

CR: I’m in the studio Monday through Friday, and occasionally on weekends to work on frames. I come in around 9:30 a.m. and work all day. I usually take an hour break for lunch, and that helps break up the tunnel vision that can occur from being cooped up in the studio all day. I have a couple of part-time students in here during the week, and they’ve been with me for quite some time so they are like family. We have a great studio dynamic. I really enjoy having them, but I also enjoy my days alone when I can come in and just completely focus and plug away on what I need to do. As far as deciding what to paint, there’s really no end to what can spark an idea. Sometimes I’ll get an idea just from looking at a group of objects. Other times, something pops into my head, and I’ll go in search of the subjects to match that vision. When I do have an idea, I’ll sometimes sketch out various composition thumbnails in pencil first. The next day in the studio I’ll take those thumbnails, gather up my props, and decide how to set it up. Other times I’ll completely forgo the thumbnails and just compose with the actual objects on the fly. When I’m arranging my still life setup, I’ll add a piece, take something away, move and rearrange until everything looks and feels right. And when I achieve the balance and harmony I’m after, there is a moment where it sort of sings back to me. Sometimes this can happen very quickly. Other times it can take hours, or days or more. 

AM: Your cabinets are full of beautiful, one-of-a-kind objects, all methodically organized and kept. Where did you find all of these special still life items?

CR: Admittedly I am in love with my cabinet full of “things.” I’m like a kid in a candy store when I come into my studio every day and open up these cabinets of treasures. It makes me happy to see all of these special pieces I’ve acquired over the years. As a still life painter, I’m also a collector—a collector of “things.” When I’m traveling abroad or domestically I typically dedicate time for object hunting. I consider it part of my job. In recent years I’ve been fortunate to visit places such as Thailand, Paris and Italy, as well as many destinations throughout America, and during these trips I’ve found some incredible and unique pieces. A few years ago my wife and I went to Paris, and we set aside a day to go to the Saint-Ouen antique market just north of the city. I picked up some great things at the market and also some taxidermy in the Marais. When we were on our honeymoon in Thailand we met a really nice cab driver in Bangkok who spoke good English, and we asked if we could hire him to take us around the city and help us find these out-of-the way shops I wanted to visit. We ended up driving all over the city, through these little back alleys and off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods in Bangkok. It’s a bit of an adventure and ultimately very gratifying when the searching pays off. In addition to purchasing objects on my travels, when I’m not traveling I look for objects through online auctions, vendors and sites such as Etsy and Ebay. I also visit local shops when I have the time.

These unique pieces inspire the setups for many of the artist’s still lifes

AM: I know this is a hard-to-answer question, but I always like to hear artists put it in their own words: how would you define the style that you paint in?

CR: I would have to classify it under realism. I’m basically trying to paint things the way they look in nature, and I employ traditional painting techniques to do so. I work from life under north light and use the sight-size method to measure proportions. I learned the sight-size method from my cast drawing teacher at PAFA, Kevin Lewellen. Some of the students used to call Kevin “Inspector Gadget” because he wore a lab coat to class, and it was equipped with calipers, measuring sticks, a plumb line, various mirrors and every other device you could think of stuffed in his pockets. He was a great instructor and became one of the most important teachers that I’ve crossed paths with. He really taught us the science of drawing with a very organized and disciplined approach. He would bring in these big sheets of matte board and black foam core to block off extra lights in the cast hall, rather than have us struggle with bad lighting. He taught me that a lot of the success in drawing begins before you make a mark on the paper and that having an organized “theatre of operations” or working area is a requirement. He taught me a set of principles that stay with me to this day. Although I use a lot traditional techniques and methods while painting, I adapt them to suit my own individuality, so I wouldn’t classify it as classical in the strictest sense. 

AM: So the way you set up, light and measure seems more academic, but from looking at your finished paintings it seems your color is coming from a different place. Your palette seems more expanded and distinctive in the blues and green especially. Where did you learn color? 

CR: The first teacher who taught me about color was Jack Martin. He is an illustrator and painter who taught a color-theory class at the Art Institute. The school was geared toward commercial art, illustration and animation, but I was studying fashion design at the time. I knew nothing about color when I first starting attending the Art Institute, and it was an eye-opening class in a lot of ways. I learned the rudiments of color theory, and it changed the way I looked at color in practice. We did have color classes at PAFA, but by then I had already had a solid understanding of color theory and color mixing, and I didn’t find those later classes to be as useful. I think whatever I do with color is just part of who I am as a painter and an individual. There was a good saying I heard a while back, something along the lines of, “Seeing value can be trained but seeing color is a gift.” I don’t know if that’s true, but when you really learn to see color it becomes sort of like a logic tree. Warmer or cooler? Lighter or darker? More chroma or more neutral?  

Russo explaining the colors on his palette AM: How many colors are on your palette, and did you decide on the specific types of colors and their arrangement based on any particular experience?

CR: There are fifteen colors on my palette right now. It’s been a long process to find a palette of colors that worked for me. While I was at PAFA there wasn’t a standard palette of colors. Each teacher had a different approach, so I never really knew what colors I should be using or why. Some teachers even forbade the use of black. As a student I tried to research what colors were used by various painters throughout history: Rubens, Velázquez, David, et al. Often I found those palettes too limited for my taste. It’s been a lot of trial and error and borrowing from artists who knew more than I did about color to arrive at what I use now.

AM: Who are your collectors? Have you always had supporters of your work?

CR: Yes, I’m grateful that people have responded positively to my work over the course of my career. F.A.N. Gallery gave me my first solo show in 2006 and since then I’ve worked hard to maintain a busy exhibition schedule every year. Several of the galleries I’ve worked with have done a great job of building up a client base and consistently selling my work. There was definitely a period during my first two years out of school when money was really tight and sales were sporadic. The quality of my work just wasn’t there yet and my prices were fairly low, so I was working odd jobs to make ends meet.  I remember looking at my bank statement one day and getting really worried that I was going to run out of money. I thought that if something didn’t happen soon I was going to need to find another job and paint less. Out of the blue I got a call from Anderson Gallery, who I had recently started working with. She had just sold two large paintings, and I was so relieved I literally jumped in the air and started pumping my fist. It felt like a sign I was supposed to keep going. By 2006, things really started to pick up when I had my first solo show in Philly. I ended up doing five solo show my first five years with him, which is crazy when I think about it now. Fred [the owner of F.A.N. Gallery] has always done a great job of selling my work. Last year I completed my eighth solo show with him, and he ended up selling nine or ten paintings. 

Pegasus, 2015, oil on linen, 20 x 19 in. Collection the artist

AM: Why do you think you’ve been able to consistently sell your paintings for the last 10-plus years?

CR: I think it helps that I’m working in the genre that I genuinely love and that collectors seem to respond well to. I also work really, really hard at perfecting my craft, and I’ve dedicated the last fifteen-plus years of my life to my art. I’m very committed to making something the best I can make it before it leaves the studio. It doesn’t mean that every painting I create is a masterpiece, but each piece does receive that level of commitment. I care about making paintings that are well crafted and beautiful, but also unique and distinct. 

I think another part of the answer is framing. I make almost all of my own frames by hand. I like to think it adds a certain quality of presentation that collectors appreciate. I learned framing from a Philadelphia painter named Paul Dusold. I bought frames from him early in my career, but I couldn’t afford to buy a show’s worth so I asked him if there was anything he could teach me. He was very generous with his knowledge, and took the time to tell me where to get the materials and how to get started. After learning from him I spoke to some other artists/framers, including Giovanni Casedei and Troy Stafford, who is one of the best out there. So it’s been an ongoing process over the last fifteen years or so. Frames have always been an important part of the presentation of my work. I think of the frame and the painting as a single unit, and something special happens when the perfect frame is used to complement the painting. 

One side of the Russo’s studio features the station where he makes his own frames

AM: How much time and effort is involved in making your own frames, and can you summarize the process for us?

CR: It can require a lot of work, but I’ve been hesitant to pass that work onto other framers because I’m a bit of a control freak. The fact that they’re getting a solid-wood, hand-finished, closed-corner frame, made from scratch by the artist specifically for that painting, adds value. It’s something that I think is fairly unique these days. The amount of time it takes to make a frame depends on some degree on the finish (painted, stained or leaf), but typically each one takes at least a day for smaller frames and several days for larger frames. I buy the woods already milled from a guy in the Philadelphia area. I cut the lengths with a miter saw and then calm and glue them together. After the glue sets I screw them together and sand the raw wood. At that point I decide what type of finish I want. One of my standard finishes is a black-clay finish. I’ll gesso the raw wood frame, paint several layers of red or yellow clay, and then sand smooth. Next I’ll paint on three to five layers of black clay and sand again. I’ll finish with some antiquing and wax. The time I spend making frames is of course time I’m not painting, but at this point I’m reluctant to give it up. 

The painting currently on the easel

AM: What galleries are you currently showing with, and are you satisfied with your relationships with them?

CR: I’ve been showing with F.A.N. since 2005, and he’s always done really well for me. I’ve also been working with Sloane Merrill Gallery in Boston for a number of years, and she’s done a great job for me as well. I just had my first solo show there in December of 2016. I just started working with Arcadia Gallery in Los Angeles and Susan Powell Fine Art in Connecticut. When it comes to working with galleries, the most important thing is whether they sell your work on a consistent basis. In addition to sales, I also value honesty and trustworthiness. I want to know that they are genuinely interested in me as a painter, and that I’m not one of fifty artists on their roster, but maybe one of twelve to fifteen artists they really care about. Those are the people I want to show with, someone who thinks what I’m doing is special.

<em>The Major</em>, 2014, oil on linen, 19 x 20 in. Private collection AM: I noticed on your website that you decided at one point to sell prints of certain paintings. Did you find that worked well?

CR: I sold a number of prints, but it wasn’t quite as many as I’d hoped for. I wondered if maybe I had picked the wrong prints to release or if I should have offered more choices instead of just three images. I also got many print requests for images other than the ones I released. Overall, it was certainly a good learning experience and an opportunity to get my work out in the world. I think it’s a good way for fans of my work to still feel connected to what I’m doing and for them to enjoy these images in their homes, regardless of whether they own an original. 

AM: You are now in your early forties and have recently had a baby. You had mentioned that pretty much for all your twenties and thirties you were completely devoted to painting and learning your craft. How has having a family changed your perspective and informed your art?

CR: I think the timing of things happens for a reason. I married my wife Charity in 2005, and we talked about having children, but it was never certain that we would. As we were both getting older there was a point where we had to just make a choice. We decided that we did want a child, and thankfully we were rewarded with a beautiful little girl named Chloe on New Years Day of 2017. It’s changed my perspective on what love is. And what true happiness feels like. I had no idea the amount I love I would feel for this little human being. When she was born and I heard her cry for the first time, it was an overwhelming experience of emotion and love. I can’t think of any words that suffice. Now she is five months old, and I feel such a deep love and attachment to her. It reminds me of a great Andrew Wyeth quote: "One’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes.” Time will tell how that love manifests itself in my work. 

Mortars and Tamarind, 2010, oil on linen, 24 x 34 in. Private collection