Follow Your Art: Rick Austin

Self-portrait by Rick Austinby Susan W. Pidgeon

Most people see artists as being like butterflies, floating around just pouring forth all this creativity wherever they go but not staying in one area long. Drifting through life, somehow avoiding the responsibilities everyone else has by living a carefree bohemian lifestyle. Just partying and making art and living on other people’s couches while they skateboard around looking for inspiration and hoping someone feeds them. While that might be true for some artists, currently in Folly Beach there lives an artist with true internal discipline. His name is Rick Austin.

Austin recently had a one person show at North Charleston City Gallery called Observations. He cranked out an impressive 45 paintings in a few months in preparation for his upcoming show. He was given a 77 foot wall space to fill and, in his words, he “got back into his illustrator/design mode, cranking them out and loved doing it. I was immersed, possessed almost. It was exhausting yet exhilarating.”

Observations was primarily a show of Lowcountry Landscapes. Austin says the show was totally unplanned and the title came to him after painting for a few months. He began asking himself, “Why am I painting? What am I painting? What is it about me that draws me to want to put that down on canvas?” He came down to: “It is observations. I observe something beautiful and I want to paint it”.

Drawing by Rick AustinFormative Years

Rick Austin was born in Ogdensburg, New York on the St. Lawrence River, but a lot of his youth was spent at the family log cabin in the Adirondack Mountains. Ogdensburg is in upstate New York and very near to the border of Canada which was only about a half mile away.

His family was filled with avid hunters and fishers who went into Canada on a regular basis. “I discovered early on that I rather look/see/draw the landscape than I would fish or hunt,” said Austin. He attributes his love of art to just a natural inclination. “My mother would tell me to quit drawing and go to bed. It just was a natural thing. Nobody else in the family was into art. It was in my veins.” He remembers being about 8 years old and drawing often in his father’s discarded ledger books.

Austin started out drawing in pen and ink because it was portable and lightweight during his long treks with the family, hunting and fishing around the area to survive. Later he switched to oil painting but at first, it “was a disaster until I learned to use it thinly.” In grammar school his uncle, who was a custodian, would trade packs of cigarettes for art lessons for Austin. He was to discover his art teacher, Alan Fish, had changed jobs and would also be his high school art teacher.

The Navy and the Art Institute

Austin continued to draw until he entered the Navy where he traveled the world and “drew constantly” for four years. Upon leaving the Navy, he desired discipline and applied to the Art Institute of Boston where he was a student for three years. While there, Austin studied under Norman Baer, an illustration teacher and head of the department. He was a major influence on Austin’s life. He “taught us the job of the illustrator is to enhance the writer’s story with the illustrations.”

Drawing by Rick AustinAt that point in time, photography was not primarily used in magazines, so illustrators played a bigger role than in today’s society. Baer would have his students do ten thumbnails of a story and think in terms of storyboarding. Austin also would be told to draw large 20 x 24 ballpoint pen drawings of the figure model. Baer was militaristic, driven, and a stickler for detail. There would be a critique every Thursday and he wanted no excuses, only results. “I saw him send many kids, fresh from high school graduation, out the door in tears.” Baer himself worked on book covers for novels as well as magazine illustrations.

While at the Art Institute of Boston, Austin would go to the surrounding art museums alone and draw, preferring the traditional work similar to the School of Athens. Austin stated, “there is always something to learn from other artists.” He added that he prefers to speak the viewers language and that he feels “abstract is more heady, in my mind.”

He found the Early American and French Impressionists to be his museum favorites, but the American Illustrators of the 1930’s, ’40s and ’50s are who he truly admires. Austin was thrilled on a recent trip to Washington, DC to see a traveling show of the American Illustrators, many of who were in the military during World War I and World War II and drew while in the field.

Advice for young artists

When asked what advice he had for young artists, Austin said, “Don’t wait for inspiration, but learn self discipline and draw everything and anything. Don’t get caught up in a subject and say ‘I only like to draw horses’. I did production work for 40 years illustrating and you cannot wait for inspiration because you have deadlines. Over the years, I learned to ignore the voice that says ‘let’s wait for inspiration’. A pro golfer doesn’t only play when it suits him; he practices all the time.”

Painting by Rick AustinAfter a discussion of how work is valued more once an artist dies, he said “people think there isn’t any work to painting, so you should just give them away.”

Lastly, Austin quipped “Can’t we just skip all this work and go straight into making masterpieces?”

Design is design is design

For many years, Austin worked as an illustrator but had no time to paint. He started out doing advertising. Clients asked him to help them with ads and flyers so he expanded his services. “Design is design is design. It’s the same for anything.” He made ads, print materials, catalogues, and did architectural design for his clients. Austin advises “Learn the alphabet of Art. Every stroke is like a letter of the alphabet. We learn to put letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs. It’s the same with drawing and with design”.

In fact, his illustration work led him to a grant for teaching art provided by the New York Council for the Arts. He had been doing a lot of commercial work for The Fredric Remington Art Museum. He worked on a special task force and did all of their graphic advertising. The art museum was across from the library, and he was there teaching art classes for the New York Council for the Arts.

Afterwards, his students asked him to continue on with the teaching. He would freelance and charge them $10 to $15 and he let them do whatever medium they wanted because he had done them all. He sometimes would have 15 to 20 students, and other times only five people would show up. Austin describes his helping this group of artists as “opening eyes as to how to paint but more importantly, how to see as an artist.” Austin later was hired as the University Designer for Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York for eight years, also teaching a design course in the evenings. He even offered homeschoolers art classes at a local church.

In keeping with his outdoorsy family, Austin started a Plein Air Painting Group in New York. He works from both photos and life. He talked about how he would go to visit the Amish and they prefer to not be photographed. He perfected what he calls “memory work.” He says that photography for him is “strictly for reference. The worse the photo, the more it pushes my memory.” Over the years, he has perfected “closing my eyes to memorize what’s in front of me and being able to paint it from memory. Because I was not able to take photographs of the Amish, I learned to image them in my mind and keep them there until I was able to sketch them onto paper.”

Post retirement years and the move to Folly Beach

After retiring, Austin found himself once again drifting. During this timeframe he moved into an apartment with two of his daughters in Mount Pleasant and opened up a studio in North Charleston on the old Navy Base. After six months, he got a call asking him to help some old clients with an illustration job in Charlotte and became swamped with work. He had to give up the North Charleston studio and returned to North Carolina but continued to visit Charleston because his daughters lived here.

He began doing what is called Help X. It is a worldwide organization for people needing help with various jobs. You put up an ad requesting work to be done and in exchange you receive housing. Austin ended up back in Charleston that way. He met a lady at Redux drawing group and now they live on Folly Beach. She is a fellow artist and they travel and make art together.

Painting methods

When asked about his painting methods, Austin stated he does not paint thickly in oil like an impasto painting. He uses what is called a glazing technique where he paints thinly with a transparent glaze that “mimics air.” He also uses lavender oil which he says the ladies love. It is nontoxic and smells good. He blocks in his painting then does a tonal study in thin color, working like it is watercolor but in reality using oil paints.

He believes people are very receptive to this method because people think you have to mix a bunch of paint together with oil. He believes you can build thin glazes up, and get lots of atmospheric effects and all kinds of ranges of value and color. For highlights he goes more opaque.

Austin has been doing this technique since after art school. He believes it gives his work an interesting effect. “Artists are magicians, and they are visual deceivers. We paint on flat surfaces saying you can actually see in there. There is a box and I like to push that box as deep as I can to get the realism I desire.”

Painting by Rick Austin

In regard to the painting of his self portrait, Austin said he used a webcam “because I wanted to paint myself as others see me, not as I see myself in a mirror. The viewer sees me from the canvas perspective so that’s why the brush and the bend in the brush.” He also repainted a painting of his into the background but switched it to a very sharp angular design.

On his website, there are some very detailed traditional drawings of people that he stated are big wall hangings. He has done murals as well.

Austin seems to have plenty of lucky breaks in regards to his art. He was at the mechanics sketching and the owner of a local gallery on Broad Street asked him to come in. He ended up displaying his work there. He has also shown in Potsdam, New York and says humbly, “I have not had that many solo shows, only six to eight of them.”

Rick Austin is a man of many talents yet has remained humble about his talent and has retained his military backbone. You can find his work at

Painting by Rick Austin

Susan W. Pidgeon, MFA is the owner of The Studio Art Center on Fort Johnson Rd where she teaches private lessons and art classes to adults and children. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2001 and has been teaching ever since. She has taught for the City of Charleston and Charleston County as well as The Artists Loft in Mt. Pleasant. She lives on and loves James Island. You can reach her at (854)2025394 or You can find her at or her Yelp/FB/Twitter or Instagram pages as well.

The James Island Bugle shares news about the James Island, South Carolina and brings you stories about people, places and events. We are all all-volunteer, no profit news site. If you would like to contribute, write us at