A Master-ful approach

Cold Spring visual artist Russ Ritell’s contemporary work pays homage to centuries of art history.

His website puts it right out there: “Russ Ritell — Oil Painter, Artist in the Hudson Valley.”

And while that description is certainly accurate, it only touches on the depth of Ritell’s story.

A recent visit to the artist’s studio, housed within a cabin in the woods of Cold Spring, offers a closer look into a most creative soul whose work is poised to reach a wider audience.

In 2018, Ritell had his first international showing in Berlin, was featured in an autumn show in Woodstock and, in December, not only exhibited again at bau Gallery, the oldest contemporary fine-art gallery in Beacon and one where he is a member, but also curated the show, “Natural Selection.”

This, it must be noted, is all juggled with a daily commute to Manhattan, a full-time job in design and animation, maintaining a home and being father to two girls, ages 13 and 7.

“To get from the house to the studio, just downstairs, is a challenge,” he says.

But he takes that trip on many a night, often working well past midnight, with a goal — “to get the paintings to live, beyond me, to get them out there.”


“I do a lot of different work,” Ritell says. “I do installation work but I’m primarily a painter.”

His current work is focused on sweeping oil paintings that at once convey a sense of history but with a contemporary immediacy.

“I have models. They’re mostly my friends because they’re free,” Ritell says with a laugh. “Or I’ll grab somebody who looks great for the part.”

All the preparation builds to what he needs.

“I want solid references so that I’ll have a solid painting … whatever it takes to get that end product. I can’t not do it.”

Ritell, from early childhood days in Thornwood, remembers having his own approach.

“I had always, always been influenced by harsh or dramatic lighting,” he says, noting that was the way he would draw and define his characters.

Unwavering encouragement came from his Westlake High School art teacher Marsha Zumbach, whom Ritell says insisted he apply to art school.

“My parents said, ‘Go for it,’” he adds — and that brought him to study at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, which gave him a foundation to work professionally as a designer/animator for nearly 20 years. The “day job,” he shares, has influenced his own art, especially when it comes to integrating technology into the process.

Early influences, he adds, were illustrators, including Frank Frazetta, Dean Cornwell, N.C. Wyeth, Arthur Rackham and Norman Rockwell. He was also drawn to classical painters, from Michelangelo to Velazquez to Caravaggio.

When exhibiting works related to the punk-rock scene some six years ago — a break from the previous heavy subject, veterans’ issues — he realized those attending the show were drawn to “Sailin’ On,” a stylized work of him crowd-surfing that echoed a Caravaggio.

“I really took notice of that and I said, ‘That’s the direction I’m going.’”

And since then, he has focused on sharpening his tenebrist, or dramatic illumination, style, reinterpreting scenes featured in masterworks from artists such as Caravaggio with contemporary themes. “Gorgon,” for example, shows people gathered around someone getting a tattoo of Medusa, a famed Caravaggio image.

And do those viewing his work get the references?

“They get that immediately,” Ritell says with a smile. “It’s awesome.”

His subject matter is broad, with ideas, he continues, coming from “whatever being” inspires him.

“I don’t know where it comes from,” he says. “When an image comes to me, I don’t deny it.”

He never wants to keep doing the same thing, he adds.

“I’m not going to get pigeonholed into one style,” he says, referencing the diverse works of several contemporary artists, including London-based Mat Collishaw. “That’s what keeps me going. These people are creative. I get inspired by that.”


Ritell embraces technology and the tools it gives him, taking an idea and first translating it into a photograph from which he begins work on a computer.

“I make it like I want it in Photoshop. I’m really good at Photoshop.”

Then, he takes the work to canvas, drawing by hand while using the image as reference.

“It’s always oil,” he says of his painting. “There’s three layers, an ‘underpainting,’ a base layer and then one or two layers on top of that… It’s called ‘fat over lean’ painting.”

A work that was in progress during our visit was a prime example of another bit of layering — the meaning found in his work. Based on the heroin-
related death of the son of friends, the painting — done with the family’s blessing — was inspired by their candid sharing at the funeral.

“What that said to me was ‘I can be direct.’ I want people to look at this and kind of be upset.”

A man shoots up, with a crow hovering over him, a symbolic take on a serious subject.

“They bury their dead, and they’re a strong community,” he says of crows.

Sometimes, his work is personal in other ways.

“Metamorphosis,” a joyful piece that depicts his older daughter surrounded by butterflies, joins the nearly completed, still-untitled painting of his younger daughter, this one featuring fireflies.

Though he will exhibit the works, he says, “They’re for them. They own them… I really love that — that they’re going to have them.”

For Ritell, his recent works as a whole represent how he has developed, sometimes reflecting his interests in poetry, yoga and hiking.

“My work has kind of evolved from doing this subcultural subject matter to more spiritual works.”


As with most any artist, the final step is finding an audience.

“‘Keep doing the work’ is really the mantra,” Ritell says, adding that exhibiting in Europe was quite a milestone.

“The art scene in Berlin is awesome and just being there with your own art is amazing.”

Because of the nature of his creative process — plus his varied obligations — Ritell says he is not prolific, often creating just two or three oversize paintings each year.

Now, though, with a solid body of work, he regularly applies to open calls and competitions.

“I’m looking for a gallery to represent me at this point.”

Ritell definitely has made an impression, including one on a fellow member artist at bau Gallery.

Carla Goldberg, a Nelsonville artist — and subject of a past WAG feature — is a Ritell fan who suggested we spotlight him.

“Russ is genuinely a nice guy and one hell of a painter,” she says. “His works are worthy of a long viewing session. It’s not just his highly rendered classic technique of layers and glazing or his classic poses right out of a Caravaggian setting that deserve attention. That’s just the beginning.”

While Ritell’s work has clear historic references, it’s not stuck in the past, Goldberg adds.

“His contemporary day-in-the-life approach to subject matter makes his art relevant. The vastness of his paintings fills your whole vision. The absolute blackness and stark light pull you in to his subjects’ angst and drama. You cannot help but  feel for his subjects as if you know them, love them, pity them… and you are moved to the core.”

Seems Ritell’s mission as an artist has more than been fulfilled.

For more, visit russritell.com.

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