Carlo Russo crafts beautiful paintings reminiscent of 19th century works. His work hints at the influence of orientalism in western art of the past century. Carlo is inspired by realist, naturalist and romantic painters such as Ilya Repin, Jules Bastien-Lepage, John William Waterhouse and Claudio Bravo. One can see Bravo’s influence in some of Carlo’s still lifes and in his color choices.
Since Carlo’s work is traditional and impeccably crafted, I wondered if he was trained in Europe. I asked him where he was from.
I was born in Philadelphia but I lived in Bucks County and New Jersey when I was young. I moved back to Philly when I was 13 and have been here ever since. Although I did move down to New Orleans in 2005, my stay was brief. Katrina hit two weeks after I got there so I ended up back in Philadelphia.
When did you discover that you wanted to be an artist?
I really didn’t think about a career as a fine artist until I was in my late twenties. I had studied fashion design at the Art Institute but realized it wasn’t going to be a good fit for me. So after I got my degree I enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and by the time I was in my 4th year I started to feel that I could make paintings that were good enough to show in a gallery and sell to collectors. I was probably 27 or 28 when I made the decision that painting was going to be my job.
What did your fashion work look like, what materials interested you then?
My fashion work was creative but I wasn’t a natural born tailor, so I think the construction wasn’t too great in my early designs. I got better through lots of practice in the sewing room, cutting patterns, etc. My graduation show was a group of military-inspired designs with touches of biker influence. I ended up using denim and wool as my main two fabrics. I did some hand painting on them, hand embroidery and I even made little skull buttons out of Scuply clay! It was pretty funny. I think my teachers got a kick out of them.
Can you tell me a little more about what you like to do other than paint?
I love to golf, believe it or not. In the summer, I try to play at least once a week. It’s really the most challenging sport I’ve ever attempted. The biggest thing in golf is consistency. Keeping mistakes to a minimum and being able to strike the ball well and make it go where you want, over and over, is one of the biggest challenges. It also helps to have a good short game. If I’m putting and chipping well I know I’m going to have a chance at a good round. Also, it helps to be relaxed and just have fun. I’ve played my best rounds during those times.
You are able to capture the texture of objects in your still lives, whether it is yarn, a sheepskin, glass or terracotta. How do you choose your subject matter or objects? Does the material of the object come into consideration?
The choice of subject matter is not always easy to explain. I choose things that have a certain visual or textural quality that attracts me. It can be an antique clay pot or a feather duster from Ikea. The material of the object has to have a certain harmony with the rest of the painting. Is it harmonious or discordant with the rest of the composition? I consider colors and size/shapes of objects in the same way. These things, plus other factors are running through my mind as I’m setting up what I’m going to paint.
What draws you to the desert to paint?
The desert landscape painting that is in this show was based on a small study I did near Phoenix, Arizona, in 2010. I had never been to the desert prior to that, but the landscape always seemed intriguing. It’s so different compared to the typical eastern United States landscape that I grew up with. It seems otherworldly to me. I made some other studies that will hopefully become larger studio painting in the near future.
Can you tell me what was the most important thing you got out of your education at PAFA and some of the things you try to teach your students? Where do you teach?
The majority of my teaching is done right at my studio. I have a small number of students I work with who study privately with me. I’m actually moving to a bigger studio in June so I’ll be able to take on a few more people then. I also teach at Woodmere Art Museum on Tuesday nights, which is sort of an intro level class. Plus I started teaching workshops at different schools last year and have two workshops scheduled for June of this year at Studio Incamminati and The Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art. I’ve enjoyed teaching the workshops and it’s something I’d like to do more of in the future.
I think the whole issue of my education is an interesting question. I studied at PAFA and I feel fortunate that I got to study with some excellent teachers while I was there. Many of whom are not teaching there anymore, sadly. I really feel like I was in the right place at the right time and it helped to set my career on the path that I’m on. I think what I came away with was an excellent foundation in drawing and anatomy. I think the painting aspect took time to develop after I graduated. I feel like I’ve started to come into my own a bit during the last few years. When I was fresh out of PAFA I lamented that I hadn’t studied at a more traditional, atelier-style school. But in recent years I feel like I’ve changed my tune a bit. I feel like some of the living artists who I really admire the most didn’t come out of the atelier environment. And they are doing some incredibly beautiful, skillful and brilliant work. I could also say they are lots of well-trained painters who have come out ateliers who are creating nice work too. But training doesn’t equal vision or taste. I guess I’m saying that I got to cultivate my own visual aesthetic and I’m grateful for that. So when I teach my students I do teach them the methods I use to create my work but I know in time they will develop their own language and vision.
Carlo Russo continues to develop a rich and beautiful language in his work and I for one, look forward to seeing his growth as an artist over next few years.