Friday, October 7, 2011

The Billiards Paintings of René B. Ruffner

Though I am the only one in my family who made a career in art, I do in fact come from a family of artists. René, an older brother, today works steadily as an artist, painting fine still lifes and landscapes. He also plays in local and regional billiards tournaments, and has painted a number of pieces depicting that very mathematical passion. Today, I'm turning the blog over to René, who will be telling the stories behind his own paintings:

Old School High Roll  |  © René B. Ruffner 2011 
Thanks, Mark. Old School High Roll is a very large oil on canvas, mounted on panel. If you were to approach a pool player and propose, say, a race to 10 for $20, and he responded with "How about a race to 10 for $200?" then you could say you'd been "high-rolled." So there are sharks, but sharks can be divided into pelagic and littoral sharks. The subject matter would measure about 8" wide on the front plane, yet has the feeling of both spaciousness and compression in the canvas' 40" width. Doing this oil, I discovered the odd fact that Payne's grey mixed with white produces a close semblance of dollar-bill-green. This is called Old School High Roll because everything in the painting is an antique,
from the cylindrical Brunswick chalk to the old "Clay" balls, to the Gold Certificate.

Two Rails for the Two  |  © René B. Ruffner 2011 
This is the earliest of my large pool oils. The player posed for me at a "Super Seven" tournament in Baltimore Maryland. The dynamics of his posture and the shaved head appealed to me, as it was a pose Bellows might like. As my paintings progressed, I got more patient with background details, to which I'd simply allot sessions, rather than try to hurry through.

A Dame Takes the Cheese While Jaybird Watches  |  © René B. Ruffner 2011 
This very small oil on panel was based on a single vintage photo of a solitary woman shooting behind her back. I spliced her with an image of me (in the Stetson), and my old "Fortress America" pool table to complete the scene. The background character is "Jaybird," a habitué of Breaktime Billiards in Front Royal, Virginia, who always hectored me to play for cash ("cheese," in pool parlance). The sign on the back wall, which isn't legible at low resolution, is a deco warning that "Absolutely No Gambling is Allowed." Because I took my reference photographs in a small enclosure, getting the perspective on the floor and table was a challenge.

Action at the Blue Fox  |  © René B. Ruffner 2011
That's "Mr. Barnes" playing 9-ball at the Blue Fox in Winchester, Virginia. Conrad, sitting against the "Absolutely No Gambling" sign on the back wall, owns the Blue Fox, and I disingenuously placed him in this painting hoping he'd pop for another pool oil; he's bought a few. This is another large painting that posed challenges — balancing color and lighting and components, I brought together literally dozens of reference photos. Mr. Barnes, incidentally, is a master of safety play or defensive pool, "punting" the cue ball around so that when it's your turn to shoot, you're hidden behind a wall of balls, a mile away from your object ball.

Champions at Midnight  |  © René B. Ruffner 2011
The title of this painting is a play on words, as it is loosely based on reference photos I took at Champions Billiards in Laurel Maryland. I took the liberty of painting myself as the bartender. This scene typifies the drama, tension, and lighting in pool halls. I think that if Caravaggio were alive, he'd head for the nearest pool hall with his easel. By contrast I was examining a nice gallery photo of a Civil War reenactment; lots of smoke, blazing muskets, and yet the posture of the reenactors was that of people watching a tire being changed. In billiards, the action is avid, all attention is focused on a single thing, and the body language shows it. I like the figure of the woman looking over her shoulder — she reminds me of Piper Laurie. I perhaps unfairly got the reference shot for her by getting into position with my camera, and saying "hey!" I think the figure of the man in the upper right background was a success because he looks "Tooker-esque." 

Willie Morton, 1999 APA National Amateur Champion  |  © R. B. Ruffner 2011
Willie Morton posed for me in 2003 at Atomic Billiards in Washington, D.C.  I played him at a tournament in Champions Billiards in Laurel the same year. He said he was down because his eyesight was failing, but he may have just been laying the groundwork for a more remunerative game. After he won the National Championship in 1999, Morton began going by the nickname "Jackie," because, as he said, he'd earned the right to use it. His lifelong hero was Jackie Robinson, whom I inserted in the background of the painting, wearing his 1946 Montreal Royals uniform.

Cicero Murphy  |  © René B. Ruffner 2011
This is a painting of Cicero Murphy, a player of great repute who was eventually inducted into the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame. I met Cicero (James) Murphy in Chicago in 1969, where I'd been sent to a government school, but played hooky to shoot at a pool hall with near-shrine status, Bensingers Billiard Academy. Bensingers had been Walter Trevis' model for the "Ames" Pool Hall in his book The Hustler and the movie of the same name. I didn't know it at the time, but Bensingers would shortly close its doors forever. I would meet Murphy twice more in different venues before his death in 1996. While he looks fierce in this depiction, I saw him as a modest, quiet person. Cicero Murphy had a very jazzy, snappy "slip stroke," meaning when the cue came forward as he prepared to strike the cue ball, it actually slid through both of his hands until he caught it with his right hand at the last moment. He was the consummate position player.

This is Mark again. I'll end this guest posting by showing a view of René's Virginia studio. A landscape is in progress, and Cicero Murphy perpetually looks over the artist's shoulder.


  1. Dear Renė - billiards is a completely unknown quantity to me. However, your expertise with paint is there for all to see. I love the way you have portrayed the different characters, each one an exquisite vignette. You can feel the atmosphere in the rooms - superb.

  2. I agree with Rosemary - very impressive René. Thank you Mark for another interesting post. René's studio was a nice addition. I think you have to be very orderly to do such fine and detailed work.

  3. Thanksgiving must be interesting in your family! Such talent distributed between brothers. Very nice work Rene'.

  4. Dear Rosemary and Anyes - Thank you both for the kind words, and of course René will be seeing them.

    Incidentally, René was at his studio when the earthquake rocked Virginia, and he reported that things fell off his shelves.

  5. Hi, Theresa - It's interesting that you mention family holidays because we've been known to arrive wearing the same attire, or bringing identical items. So I guess we tap into the same wave length now and then ...

  6. With mt love of old things, my favorite has got to be the still life "Old School High Roll".

    In the others, in addition to how they capture the pool hall atmosphere, I especially like the backgrounds, with their detail and receding levels of activity.
    --Road to Parnassus

  7. Hello, Parnassus - I love the "Old School High Roll," too — it reminds me a little of the still lifes by the 19th century artist Peto.

    I think capturing the pool hall atmosphere is largely a matter of lighting, with the focus on the bright surface of the tabletop, and all the rest receding, at least in color.

  8. Mark, I tried earlier but was unsuccessful in leaving a comment about your brother's wonderful work. I'm trying again and hoping for the best.

    I am especially taken with his painting of Cicero Murphy. It is obvious that artistic talent runs rampant in your family. (Love your brother's studio as well.)

    Your brother's concentration on the pool hall and pool life reminds me of the main character in Dick Francis' book TO THE HILT.

    There the protagonist is a painter living in Scotland who concentrates on painting all aspects of the golf course. The golf course as a metaphor for life. A terrific book by the way.

  9. Hi, Yvette - René tried to answer comments from his computer, but Google didn't make that possible. I know he would enjoy your comments, as well as all the others, and I'll make sure he sees it. Who knows, perhaps billiards is a metaphor for life?

    "To the Hilt" sounds like a great book, and one that René and I might enjoy, too.

  10. Rene-

    You're very talented. Cicero is absolutely perfect. Do you sell any prints of your paintings? If so, where can I get information for them?


    1. Thanks for the interest and complements. My brother Mark was kind enough to feature my work, and I can be contacted at for information on prints, which at this writing have yet to be produced. Some of the paintings pictured in this blog are for sale.


  11. Lovely. Not only do you capture the magic it's clear that you lived it. Would also love to see some prints at some time. (on a budget)

  12. Hello Mark, I enjoyed perusing your page and want to express my sorrow and condolences for the loss of your brother and my friend. Rene and I played many games of pool at Breaktime billiards and his home. I have a framed autographed copy of the Jackie Morton painting he gave me and I will cherish it forever. May Rene Rest in Peace.

    1. Dear Cenick,

      Thank you for your kind words. René was not only a fine brother, but he was also an inspiration to me, as he began producing art and very inventive creations well before I did (we were five years apart in age). Throughout our lives, we had wonderful exchanges around the subject of art.

      Billiards was of course another big passion of his, and I know that he played the game as long as he was able to get out of the house, and shortly before he died.

      Again, thank you for remembering my brother.

    2. Dear Mark,

      I knew Rene had been ill for some time, but did not know that he had passed away. I am deeply sorry. I knew Rene principally as a finder and seller of wonderful paintings. My house is adorned with many of his finds.

      He was a gentle spirit and lovely man. I only wish I could have acquired one of his works. One in particular I shall long remember ... a porch light in this painting of his seemed to almost be electrified, the white was so brilliant.

      In any event, my condolences to you and your family. Had I known, I would have attended any service there may have been.



    3. Thank you, Erich, for sharing how you knew Rene. I know that he had a great love (and knowledge of) mid-century art, and I do believe that the paintings he collected, bought and sold, had an influence on his own work. That you are living with Rene's art finds gives me the pleasure of knowing that you are surrounded by a distinct and singular style.

      Thank you again so much for your comments — they brought pleasant memories.

  13. Dear Mark, I am sad to read that your brother Rene passed away. A few years ago he contacted me after seeing a post of mine on Ebay as I was selling a piece of my Uncle's artwork. We connected the dots as it were, and found that his namesake and my Uncle, Lars Hoftrup were friends years ago. He purchased several paintings from me and I sent him photographs taken by Dr Breguet of himself and you as children. We enjoyed corresponding through emails and I also knew of his illness. When I became ill myself two years ago I tried to contact him to let him know but got no response. I feared his illness may have returned. He was a dear man and so knowledgeable about art and history and life. He also thought the world of you.
    My sympathies go out to you and yours. All My Best, Parnilla Carpenter

    1. Dear Parnilla,

      René mentioned having been in touch with you, and your good exchanges. Thank you for your remembrance of René, and your kind words.

      Your Uncle Lars Hoftrup has had an iconic status in my family. I grew up looking at his work in my grandparents' house, and saw his image in family scrapbooks — records of lunches and outings with him. Lars also taught watercolor to my father, and I might add, taught him very well. My parents remembered your uncle not just for his immense talent, but as a very sweet soul. He was very much treasured.

      Thank you again, Mark

  14. Greetings Mark, do you know of any connection between your family and Ruffners in the Luray area? Someone recently acquired one of Rene's paintings, and she is asking those of us in the Ruffner Family Association about whether you and your brother are from the same branch. Our lineage goes back to Peter Ruffner in the 1700s, Shenandoah Valley.

  15. Yes, I believe I am descended from Peter Ruffner and William Henry Ruffner, who was the first superintendent of Virginia schools.