An Interview with Russ Maxwell in Geneva, Switzerland

One of the earliest artists to be featured here on The Watercolor Gallery was Russ Maxwell and his painting Profile Study. Shortly after that Russ joined the relatively few artists to be featured twice on the gallery with Smoking Spider (my title, not his). And then, shortly after that, Russ was the first artist ever and since to have three separate paintings featured on the gallery with z.o.m.b.i.e w.o.r.k.e.r.

So, you could say, I really enjoy Russ’ work. We now have the privilege of having Russ answer a few of our questions in my Artist interview series which has spanned the globe asking artists a few simple questions.

Russ could easily be considered a sketch artist and from the interview I can see why he’s gone in that direction. His introduction and journey into watercolors makes it apparent that the ink+watercolor sketch look is one that he most enjoys and is inspired by.

But don’t let his sketchbook-like style fool you into thinking that his approach is any less well thought out than anyone else’s. Russ’ answers to our simple questions provide a ton of great insight, so be sure to read the entire interview. Let’s see how Russ answered the questions, shall we?

Russ,How did you get started in watercolor?

“I was looking for a good sketching technique when I came across two great artists and their sites: “How I sketch” by Martha and Russell Stutler’s Sketchbook.

These artists were really honest about their technique and brought the ink/watercolor technique into the realm of possibility. Something about the combination of ink with watercolor washes really spoke to me and I knew I wanted to go in this direction…that was really the start of watercolors for me.

In addition, these artists were very open about making mistakes and how many sketches really don’t work out…that made a difference for me as it had seemed that everyone was doing killer work all the time…in reality, that’s not the case.”

How have your tools changed from when you got started until now, and what are your favorite tools currently?

“Things are pretty much the same from when I first started. I’ve continually been using a thinner and thinner pen to the point that now I’m using a 0.1. I’ve been fiddling with my palette of colors, and I only use a little travel kit of 12 colors. It’s portable and forces me to use a limited palette.

Also, I learned about water brushes from the artists mentioned above… they are really great for on-site watercolors. Other than that, I’ve been experimenting with blowing ink from an atomizer, but I find it hard to control at this point.

I also invested in some sable brushes and they really make a control difference… like everyone says, invest in some good tools from the start.”

How do you prefer to work? Plein air, from a photograph, from memory? At a desk, outdoors, in a closet?

“I do plein air when I can… it’s great practice but can also be frustrating. But it makes you pare down your tools to the bare minimum. I also work from photos a lot and from my imagination for my doodling-type stuff.

I tend to work very small, so I’m usually on my desk painting/drawing in modest-sized watercolor pads or sheets.

I’ve tried to separate learning to draw from learning to paint… since I tend to do a lot of wash/tintings, I can do an ink drawing and then trace it, transfer it, re-ink it and practice painting over it again and again in different styles.”

What has been your favorite painting or painting experience?

“I really like my hand study that I did in June and posted to my inkaboutit site… I just had a good feeling from the initial inking to the final dark payne’s grey washes…it all came together in a way I really like.”

Name two watercolor artists, perhaps those who are currently inspiring you, that you’d like to have do this interview also.

Russ Stutler & Martha.”

The key bits of this interview, for me, are some of the lessons that Russ has learned from both his own practice and also from others. First, he learned that it is OK to make mistakes when doing art. Pioneering artists like Stutler and Martha who are willing to publish both their best and worst pieces can inspire so many other artists to pick up the paint brush. Many times we look at the best work of others and simply feel that our work falls short. How many statues did Michelangelo ruin before he finished David? Be willing to ruin some paper and use some ink.

Second, he appreciates the constraints that differentenvironmentscreate. Doing plein air watercolor has been, for me, the biggest struggle. Finding the time and dealing with the frustration of the quickly drying paints can become a pain – but those pains actually make you more creative.

These types of insights are exactly why I started thisinterview series. These types of insights are invaluable to new artists.

Thanks so much to Russ Maxwell for taking the time to answer these questions. Stay tuned to The Watercolor Gallery for our next interview with a globe trotting artist that is doing some of the best art I’ve ever seen and for the very best reasons too.