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No translation necessary: Three Spanish Masters on display at Russell Collection Fine Arts

Russell Collection Fine Arts Gallery
Get Directions - 1137 West Sixth Street Austin

Landscape painter Ramon Vilanova does not speak English, but his breathtaking depiction of a Spanish field of sunflowers before an afternoon storm communicates precisely what he is attempting to convey. With hyper-focused precision toward the project at hand, Vilanova translates the impossible imagery of the countryside surrounding Barcelona into the universal language of the canvas.

Prolific enough to validate an entire show, Vilanova is just one of three incredible Spanish painters currently exhibited at the Russell Collection Fine Art Gallery in their current exhibition, Spanish Masters. Also featured in the show are Joseph Domenech and Maria Dolores Rubio, also deserving of entire exhibitions. While they choose wildly diverse subjects for their work, all three painters employ unusual painting techniques and achieve marvelous results from their unique perspectives.

Vilanova is a lifelong landscape painter who, amazingly, works exclusively in the field (en plein aire) and prefers to use only a palette knife to administer his oil paints to canvas. As he explains it, he drives through the countryside saying "Good morning" to everything around him. And when a particular image or item answers "Good morning" back, he stops, takes out a canvas and his portable easel, and gets to work.

As long as weather and lighting permits, the diligent Vilanova paints strictly in the outdoors to infuse the full sensory experience of nature into a painting. To prove his point, he can tell you exactly what time of day it was, what the temperature of the day was and how he was feeling while he worked on any given painting.

"Feelings push me to paint the colors," Vilanova explains via his translator, Juan Pi. "I want to make contrasts come to life, and I want to capture the feeling of going into the painting, of the wind, smelling the flowers. That is why I must work quickly, to capture that moment."

He also must work quickly because he only uses oil paints. While they have the purest colors, they also have a tendency to drip, splatter and recombine, which is an element of the work he especially enjoys. As he works, the paint is able to achieve color combinations that are almost as interesting as nature's color palette. Examining one of his poppies or sunsets up close, you get an idea of just how much paint is on each one of his canvases.

"The hardest thing for me is waiting for the paint to dry," says Vilanova, who will go back to the same spot day after day to collect the scene under the same lighting conditions. "If the painting is not finished when the weather changes, it never gets finished. I have always been this way with my work."

A final touch to Vilanova's work are the titles he assigns to each one of his paintings. Like brief, contemplative poems on nature, they act as existential statements of the artists' state at the time of his paintings.

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On the other side of the gallery, fellow color enthusiast Maria Dolores Rubio approaches her subjects with a more whimsical attitude. But her results are equally as vibrant and charming and evocative. Combining fabric, collage, acrylic and oil paints, her paintings depict fantastical architectural designs that she gathers and embellishes with her own creativity. 

"What I make has nothing to do with reality," she laughs, while observing the minute, almost imperceptible details of her own paintings. "I like to find existing images and then let my imagination go. As I get older, I find new tricks to amuse myself."

A few examples of Rubio's "tricks" include the various cats that hide out in her scenes ("for dimensional perspective") and the color swatches of found fabric and magazine print that influence the subsequent use of paints and patterns in the scene. She collects these "magic scraps" in boxes throughout her studio, and seeks inspiration from those she finds in other places.

Her five-step painting process begins with inspiration of a given scene. Once she's drawn out the perspective and angles on to a canvas, she layers it with her collage materials. Next, she adds fast-drying acrylics for general color blocks, and then begins adding eye-popping gobs of oil paints to bring the scene to life.

Like Vilanova, she focuses strongly on filling every inch of the canvas with strong visual contrasts of light and dark to make the entire piece engaging to the eye. Rather than choosing a single focal point on the painting, both painters fill the visual field with several compelling variations.

For Rubio, the process of painting in her studio is an absolute joy, and her energy spills over into her pieces. "When I'm fully immersed in my work, I'm playing; it's like a new toy that I'm discovering," she says with a smile. "I believe that art, just like life, is not so serious. Yes, it's my vocation, but it's also what I really enjoy doing."

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Sandwiched between the two vibrant colorists, the final artist included in the Spanish Masters exhibition is Joseph Domenech, who approaches color in a completely opposite fashion.

Domenech's color usage is incredibly conservative, relying primarily on sepia tones, faded ivories, blacks and whites. After completely covering a canvas with black oil paint, he begins removing layers of the paint with a rag to reveal the images he wants to leave behind. As Pi coins it, "creation through subtraction." 

The images he reveals below the initial black swath are clearly drawn but still cloudy, like a hazy memory or a dream. Minute details of color draw the viewer's eyes across the canvas to the most important focal points on the symbolic figures: dancing women, empty bowls, musical notations. The result is an evocative feeling of timelessness, like a faded photograph or a classical sketch from a Renaissance master like Michelangelo.

Nestled between the other two Spanish Masters, Domenech's work stands alone in its quiet intensity. Employing obfuscation over vivacity, it's like the deep breath that comes between two verbalized statements. Once you see it, you'll notice you've never seen anything else quite like it.

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The Russell Collection Spanish Masters Exhibition runs May 3 -31. An artist reception with Ramon Vilanova and Maria Dolores Rubio takes place at the Russell Collection on Friday, May 4, from 6 -9 p.m.

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