Interview with artist Robert C. Jackson
November 17, 2016
Delaware Art Museum: You worked as an electrical engineer prior to committing yourself to painting in 1996. How did you shift from what you have described as a hobby to a full-time profession, and how did your life change once the transition was made?
Robert C. Jackson: I graduated college in 1986 and went straight to work as an engineer. It was the kind of job that is exactly what I thought you did with life. You didn’t have to like it, you just had to make a living and do it. For some, I’m sure it would be a wonderful life, just not for me. I don’t think I remotely understood myself until I was 25; I know some people do at 15! In 1989 there was that movie, Dead Poets Society, and believe it or not, it changed my life. At that time, the whole idea of carpe diem, “seize the day,” and the reality that one only lives once had never really struck me. I was shaken awake to the idea that eventually I’d be pushing up daisies so I’d better find a way to enjoy the intervening years. I could no longer see myself doing my job until I retired and knew I wanted to make my hobby of painting my career.
I honestly thought I was going to quit right then, and in an attempt to test my sanity, went to breakfast with the pastor of my church to toss out my idea. Little did I know he actually wanted me to quit to enter the ministry at that very church in which I was attending. So, I did. But, after 5 years, in 1996, I reminded him of how I wanted to quit engineering to be an artist, and let him know the insatiable bug was back and I was quitting again to be an artist.
Of course, this all felt incredibly risky! In reality, for me, both the quitting to enter the ministry and again to be an artist were exhilarating moments for me—freedom. I broke all the rules that I thought were set for me. Of course there were tough logistical aspects. An artist doesn’t have a regular paycheck coming every other Friday. Nor is there a profit sharing program or health insurance benefits. But I loved, and continue to love some 20 years later, each moment I am at work.
So, what is life like now? Painting is now my job. I go into work sometime around 6am with breaks for coffee, the gym, and lunch. I typically work until about 6 p.m. and paint whatever I choose. I’m glad for every day.
DAM: You were initially taken by the representational painters of the 1970s and 1980s such as Jack Beal, Chuck Close, Janet Fish, and Sidney Goodman, among others. You also mention Andrew Wyeth. How has the Delaware Art Museum’s collection and the artistic legacy of the greater Brandywine Valley tradition influenced your painting?
RCJ: Since I wasn’t an art school attendee, my education was primarily achieved by poring over the artists that spoke to me. And for me, those were contemporary, representational artists. Of course, no such list would be complete without the Wyeth legacy. One would be hard pressed to find a representational painter today that wouldn’t at least give a tip of their hat to Andrew.
To foster my own education, and out of my pure enjoyment of art, I’ve become an art book junkie and look at art constantly. I look at a different art book everyday over lunch. And, I’ve wandered countless galleries and museums just staring. At the Delaware Art Museum, more than anything, I’ve enjoyed its eclectic collection. I’ve been able to see individual identity within representation… reality isn’t really reality. Reality is filtered through the eyes of an artist. So when I stood in the Museum, I saw that a Hopper looks like a Hopper, a Wyeth a Wyeth, and Cadmus a Cadmus. One can see that their signature is all over the painting. As well, with all the artists initially mentioned, I can spot and identify them from 50 feet away. That is a special thing to achieve in representation. I’ve come to realize how important it is to have a unique voice.
The Delaware Art Museum showed me storytelling. There is a long line of narrative painting in the Brandywine Valley. I’ve found the narrative pieces the most engaging, for example Howard Pyle’s Marooned. One can’t help but daydream in front of that painting and become pulled into the story. I want my work to achieve that.
The artistic tradition of the Brandywine Valley has also imparted the notion that this crazy dream is a possibility. Being an artist seems like a pie-in-the-sky idea. Yet, here we have success stories! But copying them isn’t the answer, learning from them is.
DAM: Building the still life is an important aspect of your studio practice. How do you pick your various props and how do you determine the setup?
RCJ: Props follow my ideas, not the other way around. What I mean is that instead of seeing an object and thinking, “I must paint that,” I have an idea and deliberately seek out objects to make my vision a reality. I try never to stare at a blank canvas wondering what to paint next. As a result, I have sketchbooks that I take everywhere to jot down ideas when they occur to me; I simply don’t want to miss one. So I try to have a running list of ideas so long I couldn’t possibly execute every one. I often take my sketchbook for brainstorming sessions over a cup of coffee or pint of beer and try to come up with as many ideas as I can.
Let me give you an example. I’ve spent some time pondering iconic imagery that just can’t be forgotten and becomes etched in one’s memory—paintings like Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, or Grant Wood’s American Gothic. These images are more memorable than the rest of these artists’ work. In researching this, I came across the classic Dogs Playing Poker series by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, which is often considered the worst of art. However, I’m taken by the idea that Coolidge’s images are unforgettable! So, my impish side decided to do a tribute painting with balloon dogs playing the part.
Once I had my idea, the props were sought to make my vision a reality. Balloon dogs, a poker set, and traditional still life props for my cocktail waitresses to be carrying. For most things, I go to eBay and look for buy-it-now options as I know what I want and need. The actual arrangement ends up being very intuitive. I look to make one’s eyes bounce around the canvas. I want the painting to engage and speak to its audience, and I move items around until the dialogue between objects seems right to me.
DAM: The details in your paintings are meticulously rendered. Can you describe your technique and painting process?
RCJ: Actually I think people are getting too familiar with seeing art on the internet now and viewing a four-foot painting at eight inches and perceiving most images as tighter than they are. Reproductions in books do the same. I’ve noticed when people see my book Behind the Easel, on which Truth & Vision is based, they remark at how polished everyone is. I can’t wait for people to see the artworks in person because I can see the differences in the brushwork of the 20 artists. That being said, I do aim for an illusion of realism, and I do want people to believe what they are seeing is real. In order for that to happen, the drawing is actually more important than the painting. Drawing is tough; painting is much easier for me. One can’t save a bad drawing with good painting; if the basic drawing is off, it glares its own error.
Now, let me backpedal…I suppose I’ll give in a little and let my work be called meticulous in reference to art as a whole, but I do lose and find edges and definition for the sake of illusion. For example, in The Apple Guy, everything surrounding the mirror, as well as the mirror itself, needed a convincing accuracy. But, everything seen in the mirror is actually six to eight feet away and needed to lose definition and the hard edges to mimic reality. Different levels of the painting were handled differently in order to be visually convincing, and the apple in front required the most TLC.
As for my techniques, I work with paint straight from the tube, and my brushes are mostly sables. No mediums, no thinners. I did that to eliminate headaches years ago. Working 10 hours a day and smelling petroleum-based products left me feeling lousy! For those who’d like a more in-depth look at my process, I’d suggest watching this video:
DAM: Your paintings stimulate conversation and often smiles. Is this the response you hope your artwork will produce, or are you looking for a different reaction?
RCJ: The best way to answer this is with a story from my life. Years ago, I began as a still life painter and painted what I thought a still life painter was supposed to paint—a bottle, a piece of fruit, maybe some flowers in a vase on a tabletop. Then, every once in a while my mischievous side would get the best of me, and I’d have some fun and paint something that related to what I was thinking about and made me smile. So, there were two types of still life I was putting out—the traditional and “me.”
I happened to meet a collector at an exhibition who owned one of these latter pieces, and he inadvertently gave me some wisdom that changed the course of my career and has stuck with me ever since. He told me that he had no idea what he was getting into when he bought one of my quirkier pieces. He explained that he had a very large art collection he was quite proud of, with work by many artists. But he revealed that his collection was only appreciated by those who knew art and were as passionate about it as he was; that was a very small group. For the majority of the people who visited his home, most of his art collection became wallpaper. People didn’t have to look at it as it blended in so seamlessly. On the other hand, whether he intended it or not, my painting was a constant conversation piece. I sheepishly apologized saying, “I guess my piece screams ‘Hey, look at me!’” He responded by pointing out that is exactly what art should do—engage people and make them interact with one another. That really hit me, and I knew then and there I wanted that to be said about every painting I created. I made a pact with myself to no longer just paint still lifes, but to make work with the intention of communicating an idea. I wanted my art to engage. So a smile is always welcome; it means I’m doing my job.
DAM: What are you most looking forward to with the presentation of Truth & Vision at the Delaware Art Museum this fall?
RCJ: That’s a loaded question! I made Behind the Easel (the book that became the basis for Truth & Vision) as a 50th birthday present to myself. Happy birthday, to me! I had honestly waited 25 years for someone else to write that book. But it was a milestone so I gave in and made it a project to make my favorite art book. Within the pages are the artists that distracted me from what I love to do most—my own painting. These are the artists that I zeroed in on over the years. For these artists, I’ve raced up to NYC to see their solo shows. I got them, they reached me, and I felt like they deserved a wider audience. They are incredibly competent, technical artists, but they also have something to say; their voices exude from their canvases.
As I said earlier, I didn’t go to art school. These artists were and are my mentors and proudly, many now are my friends. To have them all in one place showcasing the complexity of representational painting is a dream come true. I trust visitors will see what fueled my passion, and I hope they will be taken away by the paintings and experience art in a new way. These artists are storytellers waiting for their stories to be known. I look forward to encountering them again and again. You know where you will find me too often this October through January!