William Russell Flint (1880-1969) was the son of an Edinburgh (Scotland) graphic artist and watercolorist. He began drawing early; he later wrote that "I lost my first sketchbook when I was not more than five." Apprenticed at 14 to a firm of lithographers, he spent 6 years there mastering the craft of drawing, printmaking and printing, supplemented by evening classes at the Edinburgh Royal Institution School of Art. In 1900 he made his first tour of the Continent and moved to London, where he was employed first as a medical illustrator (which helped to perfect his figure drawing) and occasional illustrator for magazines, then (from 1903-07) was a news illustrator for the Illustrated London News. In 1905 he began color book illustrations for the Riccardi Press and other publishers, including delightful, neoclassical interpretations of Gilbert & Sullivan operas for Savoy Operas (1909-10) and literary or mythological scenes. He was elected to the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in 1910, the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour in 1914, and the Royal Academy (after hanging only 3 paintings) in 1924. He continued illustrating books until 1929, but began taking frequent opportunities to travel in Europe, especially to Spain, France, Italy and Switzerland, as well as back in Scotland, to paint landscapes and marine studies after his own heart. These were in high demand by collectors in England and the United States in the 1920's and 30's. He was president of the Royal Watercolour Society from 1936-56, but spent much of his later life making drawings. He was knighted in 1962 and left his autobiography unfinished when he died at age 89.

You can't get very far into the works of Russell Flint without encountering his most widely admired specialty: erotic nudes. Late in life he authored several books that provided a narrative excuse for nude illustrations — among them the feebly humorous Models of Propriety (1951) or Minxes Admonished (1955). Russell Flint's nudes, still admired by connoisseurs of comic book art, are famously "well knit" as one critic put it: leggy, lithe, with flowing hair, exquisite bone structure and glowing skin. To add spice, the models are frequently cast as gypsy or Spanish girls who have stripped native costume to the waist, the better to bathe, doze in the sun, or taunt passersby with their charms. The young ladies in The Privileged Three (1921, 35x54cm) don't seem to mind that we have blundered into their afternoon bath — typical of Russell Flint's view that hedonism depends on female nonchalance. It might be intriguing to trace the connections between the 19th century high art porn of Alexandre Cabanel or Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet and the 20th century pin ups of Alberto Vargas or Olivia de Berardinis; the watercolors and etchings of Russell Flint would be an important link in the story. In any case, this painting is a fine example of the light, sure touch and harmonious color mixtures that Russell Flint popularized in hundreds of color book covers and story illustrations, a style that seems effortless but turns out to be bafflingly skillful. The visual impact depends on variations in pigment texture and brushstroke drawing within contrasting visual areas (for example, the downward diagonal timbers over the horizontal wedges of wall, or the spotlighting effect of the walls and dark robe around the three figures). Russell Flint's nudes are impressive because of his absolute control of watercolor shading and gradation: charcoal and eraser could not be more subtle and accurate. He enhances the feeling of intimate light by using a limited palette — ultramarine blue, burnt sienna and raw umber predominantly, with touches of rose madder and viridian. The ultramarine flocculation visible along the lower left and throughout the rafters is a sign of technical assurance. Experienced painters know this texture only forms if the juicy paint is laid down with a sure stroke, once, and left to dry — while to novice eyes, it's just a magical effect. Either way, Russell Flint always knows how to impress.



Although many Georgian and Victorian watercolor artists learned to transcend their training in etching and illustration to achieve artistic goals, toward the end of the 19th century mass media began to regain the upper hand: quick execution and effortless technique became ends in themselves, and l'art pour l'art did not pay nearly as well as commissions in advertising, journalism, and book publishing. Russell Flint became affluent and famous by contributing to this trade, and in the days when news images were captured by illustrators rather than photographers, he learned the craft of working briskly. But after 1912 he began to spend more time painting his favorite locales and landscape subjects, including Gareloch (Scotland), the Alps, and Spain. Passing Gleams, Gareloch (1925, 46x65cm) is a portrait of his homeland that presents Russell Flint at his best. The design is so simple that we can spend time exploring the craggy horizon, with its complex shapes nested against complex edges, and the subtle variation in values that models the slopes in full shadow. The broad ceiling of clouds is rendered with deliciously understated and perfectly controlled wet in wet technique — another aspect of Russell Flint's technical mastery. The flat gray sheen of the River Clyde provides a luminous contrast, with Russell Flint's trademark ultramarine flocculation (mixed to a cool gray with burnt sienna and viridian) used to suggest the distant sparkle of breeze swept currents. The foreground trees are inserted just far enough to set the stage, to provide a warm green contrast to the dull cool blues and grays, and to anchor an area of near sunlight that echoes the lights scattered across the clouded landscape. It's an austere yet lyrical painting, and it captures the love of the countryside and outdoor painting that stimulated some of Russell Flint's best work.

Russell Flint's paintings are well worth knowing for the tricks of brush and nuances of wash technique they can teach by example. But there is in many of the works a sense of virtuosity running on its own momentum, a lackluster quality that makes the paintings unexpectedly lose their charm on repeated viewing. Mistral (1927, 51x72cm) is striking at first glance: an animated tangle of slim tree limbs and frothy leaves contorted in the famous winter wind of south France. The color scheme is beautifully judged, with reddish violet tints along the horizon contrasting with the dark and dull yellow green leaves, and brighter green notes harmonizing with the rich blues of the sea. Next we might examine the washes more closely, and admire the compact rendering of the ocean waves, the wispy touches in the topmost leaves, the crisp way the trunks are silhouetted against the leaves by precise control of the painted edges rather than use of a resist or stopping out medium (the white trunks at right were lifted out of the sky wash by blotting). But by now we might notice that we're admiring the technique but not the picture: the sky doesn't create a convincing mood or suggest a specific time of day, the fluffy mass of the trees does not match the extreme bend in the trunks (gusted leaves would be in greater disarray), and the warm greens don't capture the raw cold of an actual mistral. This sense of routine rarely accompanies Russell Flint's nudes, which is what he will always be remembered for. But one wonders what this fabulous technique might have done if it had struggled with a larger ambition.

There is now an "official web site" for Sir William Russell Flint, and other gallery sites that sell prints of his exotic paintings. The best available introduction is the formal biographical and artistic study Sir William Russell Flint by Ralph Lewis & Keith Gardner, now available in paperback (David & Charles, 2004).