Artist Rob Gratiot on Painting Nervous, Discovering Worlds in Small Objects, and Why He Hides Airplanes in His Paintings
- On September 21, 2017
Rob Gratiot says he’s usually a quiet guy–but he gets fired up about reflections and painting small objects on huge scale.
He spends weeks, sometimes months at a stretch on his larger-than-life canvases of marbles, agates (a series now showing at Art Gym’s Art Rocks Exhibit), and his most well-known work, cityscapes with layers of complex reflections.
He spoke to Art Gym’s Outreach Director Julia Dillard about the way his background as an abstract painter supports his work as a realist, and the importance of being a little nervous every time you start a painting.
“I tell my students this, and myself too, that with every painting you do, I want you to be a little bit nervous, which means you’re challenging yourself…I love the idea of being a little bit nervous about every painting I start.“
Julia: When was the first time you dove into this hyper-realism that you’re so well-known for?
Rob: Well thank you, I’m glad to be well-known for something! I kind of evolved into it–in undergrad I was an abstract painter, then in grad school I was an expressionist painter. One day I saw a painting of a Volkswagen, called “Baby Moon Hubcap” by a realist painter named Don Eddy. It just was a plain, shiny chrome hubcap, but in it you could see the reflection of the landscape behind you. That just fired my imagination. So, a lot of my paintings have things on several different levels.
Julia: Did you grow up in an artistic family?
Rob: My dad had a real job but he painted as well. As a little boy, I’d watch him paint. He was very generous with his time and he’d give me lessons. At night, we’d get in bed look at art books. It was embedded in my spirit from when I was a kid. I majored in pre-med because my dad was a doc, and my uncle, and my grandfather. I switched my major to art my final year, and my parents just said, “Do the best you can at what you choose to do.” Of course, they might have hung up the phone and started screaming at each other. But what better thing they could have said to me?
Julia: That’s amazing, to have support like that from your family! Tell me a little about your studio, and your current work.
Rob: I work on the large canvases one at a time, they are kind of all-consuming. Sometimes I take breaks to work on small canvases to keep my sanity–but it obviously doesn’t work, haha. The Agates series that’s up at Art Gym, one of those pieces probably take a month to six weeks, while the city scenes I paint take longer than that.
“So much of my work is solving problems. I enjoy doing tough crosswords and sudokus, and I like having tough problems to solve in painting as well-especially if I can solve them. I’m not a good sport if I can’t solve ’em.“
Denver Doors II, Rob Gratiot.
Julia: That’s a lot of time looking at one canvas. It seems like creating hyper-realistic images of small objects involves a lot of problem-solving, a lot of moving back and forth between the close-up action of painting, and standing back to see if it’s coming together.
Rob: Your word solving is perfect, because so much of my work is solving problems. I enjoy doing tough crosswords and sudokus, and I like having tough problems to solve in painting as well-especially if I can solve them. I’m not a good sport if I can’t solve ’em.
Julia: That’s probably what makes you so prolific with these big paintings, you have this determination to find the solution.
Rob: I tell my students this, and myself too, that with every painting you do, I want you to be a little bit nervous, which means you’re challenging yourself. But I want you to have a good time, so it’s that combination of challenging yourself but not overshooting. I love the idea of being a little bit nervous about every painting I start.
“One day I saw a painting of a Volkswagon, called “Baby Moon Hubcap” by Don Eddy. It was just a plain, shiny chrome hubcap, but in it you could see the reflection of the landscape behind you. That just fired my imagination.”
Don Eddy, “Untitled”, 1971.
Julia: It’s so interesting me to look at your work and hear how you started out in abstract and moving into realism – in a way when you’re up close to these pieces it’s abstract, until you move away and the pieces come together to create this incredible realism. Do you feel the work you did as an abstract painter supports the work you do now as a realist?
Rob: I think that’s an excellent observation–so many of my paintings are about putting abstract pieces together to make a realistic whole. It’s especially true in my more complex paintings. I find the abstraction that I used to do is very helpful in realism. Even when I look at realism paintings I enjoy finding the abstract within those. Even though I don’t really like to look at realism paintings, except mine, haha.
Julia: What drew you to create the Agagtes series that’s showing at Art Gym right now?
Rob: I did a series of paintings of marbles, and I enjoyed looking at small things and making them bigger. Each one is almost their own little world. When I started looking at the agates, I thought how beautiful they were, and they were the same scale as the marbles. It’s hard to compete with nature, some of the colors and designs in the agates are just beautiful. More than any other series I’ve done the Agates are aesthetic pieces–I don’t make many statements in my pieces anyway, but the agates are really for their strength and beauty. I’m glad I’ve done em. They’re fun.
“When I was taking photographs and painting them, sometimes I wouldn’t see hidden reflections until later, when I was looking at the printed shot, because there’s just so much to see. I’m not really much of an adrenaline junkie but I get really fired up about that.“
Large Agates, Rob Gratiot.
Julia: Something I enjoy about your work is that it challenges the viewer to see things in a new way–you reveal these whole worlds by painting small objects on a huge scale. It’s such a unique way of seeing. How did you develop your ability to see these “worlds within worlds”?
Rob: I think that evolved along with my painting. I mean I’ve been painting since I was small. I think it goes back to that Don Eddy painting and thinking, “God, there’s a landscape in there that’s back there.” I think that really clued me into things–really got my imagination going. Then when I was taking photographs and painting them, sometimes I wouldn’t see hidden reflections until later, when I was looking at the printed shot, because there’s just so much to see. I’m not really much of an adrenaline junkie but I get really fired up about that.
Julia: Sounds like you discover things that surprise you when you sit back and look at a photograph, is that true?
Rob: Yeah, and sometimes it’s in a negative way. There can be too many things that are illusions that I don’t think it will make a good painting. It’s also about the negative spaces. When you blow things up to a large scale, the negative spaces can take over and not look good. But other times I look at something and go “Wow, I didn’t see that third piece of glass that has that person walking in it over there!” And then I just can’t wait to get to work on it.
Julia: It almost sounds like “Where’s Waldo”–there are these hidden elements that come to life as you allow yourself to be immersed in the image.
Rob: Yeah. And I tell my students too, I have to look at the shape rather than object. Sometimes if we look at the object, we are so intent on painting the object, like a fire hydrant or something, that you’re not painting an ellipse here and a rectangle here, you’re not painting what makes up that beautiful object. I like to look at shape as much as or more than object, and that goes back to the abstraction. Put the abstract shapes together and there’s that front of a Volkswagen bus.
“The plane is kind of a personal symbol of fear and recovery, not just that I like to look of it. It’s not like I’m putting a Volkswagen bug in each one.”
Julia: I’ve heard a rumor that you hide airplanes in all of your paintings. Where did that come from?
Rob: I put them in all my recent paintings–that rumor is true. When I went to school in LA, I realized that I was not immortal. I started getting phobic and developed a real fear of flying. I started throwing up before flights, and finally stopped flying. For 12 years. Then some neighbors told me about a course through United Airlines called “Flying Without Fear.” They went over everything from how airplanes work to maintenance, and you got to meet attendants and pilots. Finally, you got on an airplane and flew to Salt Lake City for lunch and flew back. I’m a slow learned so I had to take it 1.5 times, but since then I’ve flown to Europe and other places. I still get a little nervous, but once I strap in I’m okay.
The plane is kind of a personal symbol of fear and recovery, not just that I like to look of it. It’s not like I’m putting a Volkswagen bug in each one.
Julia: You could do that!
Rob: Someday I might, haha.