August 9, 2006
The Blues, like all art forms, lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Sound is the most standard medium, but the visual arts play a part as well. Examples abound, from Dick Waterman’s photographs of Mississippi John Hurt to Brad Holland’s illustration of Stevie Ray Vaughan for the Texas Flood album cover. I first met Diane Russell around the turn of the millennium at Portland, Oregon’s Waterfront Blues Festival. Between acts she told me that she was a painter who was specializing in Blues artists. She took photographs to have something to work from in her studio.
Over the next few years we’d run into each other at different Blues events. Sometimes she would have postcards or prints of her paintings with her. The first time I saw one, I was floored. They had the depth of Van Gogh while exhibiting the realism and color intensity of Peter Max. In 2005, she was contacted by The Blues Foundation about using her painting of Pinetop Perkins for that year’s Handy Awards poster. She agreed and the rest is history.
Bob Gersztyn for BluesWax: How long have you been painting and how did you first start?
Diane Russell: I started painting in college, first at Portland State University and later at Parsons School of Design in New York. Even though I seemed to have a natural ability and passion for the medium, I left painting behind to pursue a career in fashion illustration. After almost twenty years, I picked up the paintbrushes again when I was approached by a small publishing company to paint romance novel covers. The publishing company went out of business a few years later, but I continued to paint and am now painting full-time.
BW: How long have you been painting Blues artists and why did you begin?
DR: I was a teenager when I first began to experience the power of music and I have since come to fully appreciate music’s universal language and the way it touches one’s soul. Dance and theater affect me the same way, probably in part due to the music involved. I started following the Blues about ten years ago when my husband introduced me to Linda Hornbuckle. As I listened to more and more Blues music, it became increasingly clear to me that music and all performing arts were so close to my heart that I really wanted to paint all of the experience. Since I am a portrait artist that meant painting the performers; somehow I wanted to try to convey what I felt at a performance to the viewer looking at my finished canvas. Eight years ago, I photographed Linda for a painting and have been painting musicians ever since.
BW: How did your painting of Pinetop Perkins get used in the 2005 Handy Awards program?
DR: I was in the middle of building my portfolio of family portraits two years ago when something told me to stop and paint Pinetop Perkins. I had many photos of him performing to choose from, but the one that I had taken backstage at the Waterfront Blues Festival of him smoking a cigarette and giving me the thumbs up seemed to express his personality the best. Even so, I wasn’t sure about using the photo because he was sitting on a golf cart with a crowd in the background, but once I thought of putting him on a concert bench with a piano behind him, the painting fell into place. Just weeks after I finished it, The Blues Foundation contacted me and asked if I would be interested in painting a portrait of Pinetop for their 26th Annual W.C. Handy Awards poster. Talk about serendipity! So in May 2005 I attended the awards ceremony in Memphis, and also had a showing of my musician paintings at the adjacent Marriott Hotel during that time.
BW: What was it like for you to attend the Handy Awards, and who took the shot of you on Pinetop’s lap?
DR: Seattle photographer Jef Jaisun took the photo of me and Pinetop; it was his idea for me to sit on Pinetop’s lap, which made for a great photo and a great way to remember the experience. Going to the Handy Awards [now renamed the Blues Music Awards] was an experience like nothing I’d had before. It was exciting to see the Handy posters with my painting in windows all over Memphis and on the program for the award show. The trip was a lot of work because I shipped all of my framed prints there and back for my exhibit, but it was worth it. We stayed at the Marriott where all of the musicians stayed, so we kept running into them in the elevator, eating, etc. The show itself was great; non-stop music for over eight hours. Meeting Pinetop was a highlight of the trip, he seems so happy with what he’s doing, playing and traveling all over the world. He has a certain presence about him, almost a century’s worth of living, and it’s an honor just to be around him. I took some great photos of him during his performance, but interestingly I didn’t take photos of him hanging out at the Marriott, I just enjoyed watching him watching everything.
BW: How many artists have you painted so far?
DR: So far I’ve painted sixteen musicians, but I have ideas and photos for so many more that I don’t think I’ll ever run out of subject matter. I keep many of the photos that I want to paint taped to my drawing board where I can look at them often as I work out the composition in my head while I’m working on other projects. Determining who to paint next is interesting because sometimes it’s not who I think it will be. I’ll have something in mind and then another photo will speak to me, kind of like what happened with the Pinetop painting. So I try to stay flexible about what I want to paint next and try to let that voice inside guide me as much as possible.
BW: How do you determine whom to paint?
DR: The inspiration for a painting usually starts with my experience at a performance of music or dance and the photos that I take. I always work from my own photographs, unless it’s a collaboration with a photographer, which I recently did for a portrait of Calvin Owens. Using the photos as a starting point, I may elaborate on one photograph or combine several photos for the final painting. Sometimes the lighting is so inspiring that I don’t have to change much and other times I change the background completely. I take the composition very seriously, sometimes spending months or even years trying to figure out what to do with a particular photo. Every painting starts with a drawing, which I then enlarge and trace onto the canvas. Because I have been a professional illustrator for most of my working life, I am in the habit of also creating a small color composition, which I use as a way to work out the colors before I start the painting.
BW: Exactly what type of medium are you using, for example brand or type canvas, paint type and brand, brushes or application tools, studio setting?
DR: I paint on linen canvas with M. Graham oil paints, which are made locally. The paint is thinned with a natural walnut oil and alkyd medium, which helps it dry faster.
BW: From beginning to the end, describe the process of creating one of your images.
DR: I first draw the image in with paint and then gradually apply five to six more layers, which is what gives the painting the depth and luminescence that I am striving for. I don’t try to solve everything at once, so the detail and color are added gradually with each layer of paint. The final layers are when I finally loosen up a little and add broad brush strokes and color highlights. This stage is also when I want to move onto the next painting, so it requires infinite patience on my part to work out any remaining problems and to finish the painting properly.
BW: How costly is it to purchase one of your originals and do you offer prints?
DR: Because of the time involved, my originals are relatively expensive, however almost all of my paintings are available as limited edition giclee reproductions so that they are affordable to almost anyone. All of my work is sold with permission from the performer, and they are compensated with prints or a percentage of sales. This year I will be showing my work at the Portland Art Festival in June, the Vancouver Wine and Jazz Festival in August, and at other art shows in the Northwest. My musician portraits are also showing in an ongoing exhibition at Jimmy Mak’s in Portland. A complete list is on my website at www.dianerussell.net.
Bob Gersztyn is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax. You may contact Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.