Charlie Russell and His Characters

Charlie Russell was known to slip friends and acquaintances into his paintings. So, when Andy Thomas painted Charlie for the first time, it seemed only natural that the cowboy artist’s characters should join him.

“Andy has always been drawn to Russell, since he was ten years old,” explains his wife, Dina Thomas. “Once he became a professional and started to get his work into the C.M. Russell Auction, he wanted to create a piece that was historical and a tribute to Russell’s memory as well.”

That piece, titled Charlie Russell and His Characters, became the talk of the 2008 Russell Auction. Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway was among the active bidders on the piece, but the former Bronco stopped short of placing the final bid of $180,000—a record-setting sale for the auction.

“Charles Russell’s art career began in the saloons of Great Falls where he traded his art for whatever he could get… sometimes his bar tab,”
Andy explains of his groundbreaking artwork. “I suppose that turned the drinking crowd of the town into art critics of a sort. So, that’s what I’m showing here as Charlie unveils his latest work. The characters, of course, are taken from Russell’s own paintings.”

Many familiar faces appear in Charlie Russell and His Characters, some exact replicas of the original subjects, others composites of various people.

The woman standing alongside Charlie is from his watercolor Just a Little Pleasure. The man on the far right is the shooter from The Tenderfoot. The Native American is from several works by Russell, including Joe Kipp’s Trading Post. The clothes and faces of the cowboys were inspired by a multitude of paintings. Charlie Russell and His Characters is set in the Mint Saloon (Charlie’s favorite watering hole) in the mid-1890s, before he married Nancy, when he conducted business in saloons.

“This active art market dried up when Russell married his wife Nancy, who actively and successfully managed his career,” Andy explains, noting a parallel with his own career.

Like Charlie, Andy has seen financial success in his art largely thanks to the marketing efforts of his wife.

“Andy called me one day and said, ‘You know that one painting? Someone came in and bought it.’ When he told me how low he sold it for, I said, ‘Okay, no more selling for you,’” Dina remembers. “I think that’s common among a lot of artists to give away their work at a nominal price.”
With a lifetime in sales, Dina began managing the business- side of Andy’s art career.

“This was basically pre-internet. I wrote postcards and newsletters. I think about all that Nancy did for Charlie with fewer resources than I had,” says Dina.

She remembers not too long ago, when Andy had to research all of his subjects at a library or ask the children to pose for reference photos. With modern-day technology, Andy can now research and sell his masterpieces more efficiently, but his family remains essential to his success.

From the characters in his life, Charlie Russell drew inspiration and support. The same can be said of Andy Thomas and his characters today.