Debut exhibition after 40 years working with art and illustration

Russell Coulson is reluctant to talk about art – his art or anyone else’s for that matter. “Art is for looking at not talking about. It always sounds so false and pretentious,” he tells me.

“Whenever I go to a gallery and they give me those headphones, so they can give you the guided tour I always turn them down. I want to look at the pictures with my eyes and make up my own mind.”

So it is with this approach, he’s talking to me about his first solo exhibition which is being staged at Wingfield Barns. He’s most anxious that the pictures speak for themselves. I assure him that I really don’t want to talk about the pictures too much, I am more interested in him because it is his story which will give the pictures their context.

The reason I am speaking to him at all is because I have already seen the pictures at Wingfield and am amazed that he has never had a professional show before and yet he has been an artist for more than 40 years. I confess that I am more than a little confused.

A graduate of St Martins College of Art, he explains that for most of his career he has been a graphic artist, illustrator and art director working for magazines, ad agencies and merchandising companies. “I have to admit I was among the first people to start littering the shelves with merchandising tie-ins for comic book characters and cartoons.”

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Away from the day job, he has always painted and drawn – mostly for his own pleasure which is why the majority of his work has never been seen except by a close circle of family and friends.

The pictures I saw were breath-taking. They were colourful and impressionistic but they gave off a strong sense of place. They were also obviously created fairly quickly as they all gave off a sense of urgency. It is as if they were painted sketches.

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Russell laughs when he hears my assessment of his work; it would appear that this is exactly how he works – a legacy of his days as an illustrator working to a deadline.

“I doodle – I draw and paint. I feel compelled to draw and paint. I have always painted that’s my first love but until now I have always done it for myself. Then about four years ago, I decided to give up the day job, and concentrate on it full time.

“I create my own pictorial language, build compositions from my own imagination – I observe natural things and use them as a springboard. The resulting image may not be how it was originally visualized, and may often fall short of the idea, but it has a life which has grown and developed and attracted other personal influences. I call it subjective expressionism, it’s just what comes out of my head.”

In addition to his stylised paintings Russell is also a serial sketcher – creating rapid-fire drawings in his notebooks and sketchpads which he takes everywhere with him. “I am fascinated by line drawings. I am consumed with the notion of pushing a line as far as it will go. I get tear sheets of photographs of so-called celebrities, I look at the picture and just draw. I try and push the line as far as it will go before it gets cartoony or just collapses. A line has its maximum shape and if you take it too far it collapses and you will lose all sense of what you are trying to convey – but I am interested in pushing that line to the point just before it gives out.”

He says he will include a number of drawings in the Wingfield exhibition so visitors can compare his very different styles. “I use what I see whether it’s stones on a beach or the red earth of Australia and harness it to push my concept of colour. I love to look at the world. I have spent my life experimenting and looking. I love walking. I love going into the countryside and I constantly have my flick books, as I call my sketchpads, to hand.

“It’s a very personal thing for me. I do them pretty quickly, both the paintings and the drawings. The paintings rarely take longer than two days to complete and once I have done one painting I have to move onto another. I don’t like getting lost in the technique. I use mixed media because I can’t wait for oils to dry. I just want to get my ideas down - that’s why I walk around with sketchbooks because I am forever playing with ideas.”

For Russell drawing is his handwriting. It just flows which is why is describes his work as doodling. He mixes naturalistic work with abstract and delights in playing with colour. He describes it as visualising rather than painting. It’s about composition, it’s about design, it’s about creating a mood or getting a reaction from the viewer – which takes him back to his origins in graphic design. But then there is his ever-present fascination with the simplicity of line-drawing which strongly contrasts with his complex colour work.

“But, I suppose I am rather perverse. I do all this work and then just file it away. Not even my wife sees everything that I do. I know it drives Fred (Barter) at Wingfield insane. I have known and worked with Fred for a long time and he gets to see bits and pieces and has always been on at me to show my work. It was originally suggested it was going to be a retrospective but I have always seen it as a collection of all my different styles.”

Russell’s training was in illustration at St Martins during the early 1960s. “I then went off to work for the big agencies like J Walter Thompson and for magazines like Harper’s and Vogue. I worked for a long time as an art director in the 1960s but even then I was doing paintings and selling them in Carnaby Street. Then I married an Australian and moved out to Australia in the middle 60s and over there I did everything. I was designing discotheques, as they were called then, boutiques, designing for television – working for ABC, Australia’s version of the BBC – I was doing posters, corporate stuff. Then I came back to this country in ‘73/74 and got more into corporate work but I have always freelanced for magazines doing illustration.”

Among his clients were Octopus Books, Penguin, Hamblyn before the work then evolved into gift-packaging and merchandising. In the early days they all had hand-drawn illustration before computers took over. “I could visualise in any style and that led me to doing all the merchandising for Disney and Warner Brothers, so I got involved in all the classic cartoon characters as well as figures like The Pink Panther and British classics like The Beano and Dandy. In turn that led into my own original work and I designed the 1999 world cricket mascots. A year and half ago I was invited to submit an idea for this latest Olympic mascot. I got short-listed, did a little song and dance act for them and then they didn’t decide to go with it. That’s the way it works.”

As far as his own paintings are concerned, his influences take in artists like Chagall, Matisse and Picasso but, just as importantly, he says that he gets just as much inspiration from fellow illustrators. “I am not so inspired by the traditional artistic greats but instead I turn to graphic artists like Heinz Edelmann, who created The Beatles surreal world for Yellow Submarine, Peter Max, the American psychedelic artist and Ken Done in Australia – I suppose the best way to describe it is that I go on a colour journey.

“I have this urgency. I find traditional oils too slow. I use acrylics, I use water soluble pastels and pencils, goache, oil pastels and oil bars. In some paintings I use five different layers. It’s a shortcut to get that depth and intensity you associate with oils without having to wait around for it to dry. If I am on a roll then I will paint for 18 hours at a stretch. I just wish there was more time.”

He says that he hasn’t had a yearning to display his work in the past but now it’s happening he’s interested in hearing some feedback. “I was watching a documentary series on David Hockney recently and he just sat and absorbed the finished work. So the first audience is you yourself. Either you get energy back from what you have done or it sends you in another direction. But, yes you do want to show people and you do want people to react. But, I hate talking about drawing and painting because it is very much up to the individual.”

He says that for him his work is all about colour and shape, about the relationship and interplay between the two and how we see nature and the world around us.

Russell Coulson: One Man Exhibition is at Wingfield Barns from September 3-18. Admission is free.

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