Impressions of Preston

Some visual artists are drawn to Savannah for its beauty, others attended SCAD and stayed on, and others just wound up here. There are as many types of reasons as there are magenta sunrises, golden marshes and historic buildings tinged with the patina that only the passage of time bestows. Preston Russell had been painting for 40 years before he moved here in the early 1970s.

“I previously had never seen anything real like Savannah,” he said. “It blew my socks off. And any place I love, I like to paint.” That includes France and other places in Europe, but Russell never paints on location. “I’m a studio artist,” he explains. “When I travel, I take photographs not an easel. It takes a week to do a small painting—and up to three months for a major one.” Russell has sold hundreds of paintings, mostly of people and buildings, interiors and street scenes from Savannah to Paris. Yet he says he didn’t become serious about his work until he settled here, and the first time he felt like a real artist was when he helped co-found Gallery 209 on River Street. Now one of Savannah’s best-known artists—his works are in Southern museums and in homes throughout the country, and three of them were selected by the French government for the 1976 Americans in Paris exhibit—Russell still experiences the occasional dead end. “I work on only one painting at a time,” he says. “I’m too absorbed in that one painting;  all my intensity goes into that. I sincerely believe this. However, more than once I’ve given up (on paintings) and have ditched them as hopeless.” An early riser, Russell prefers to work in the mornings. “I tend to paint in early mornings. I wake up about 6 and head to the studio, paint until around noontime. After that I’m pretty well shot. I’m mentally tired, starting to make mistakes,” he explains. “When I go to bed, I’m generally feeling pretty satisfied. In the morning, I’m thinking, I’ll finish it off. But after about five minutes in the studio the next day, I can see what’s wrong. Then I start to lose it or become absorbed or confused. It’s like when you rearrange your furniture and then the next morning it looks OK except that one chair should be moved 2 feet that way.”

His studio takes up most of the ground floor of an 1866 carriage house near Forsyth Park. Against a well-lit backdrop of sandblasted brick, works-in-progress stand easel-to-easel with finished pieces. Also a writer as well as a historian, Russell co-authored, with his wife, Barbara, Savannah: A History of Her People Since 1733 (now in its sixth printing) and has 15 years’ worth of a novel stuffed into the proverbial desk drawer. He’s now working on a book about George Washington and Lafayette (the French aristocrat who served under Washington during the American Revolution), envisioning a father-son relationship he says is not all that far-fetched. To see more of Preston's work, prestonrussell.com

Photo by Josh Branstetter