Nov/Dec 2021 edition
Issue #19 AutoMobilia Resource magazine
Written by Sharon Spurlin
Photos by Robert Carter – Please do not duplicate without permission.
Robert Carter grew up in London, England. When he was 13 years old, he went to the Tate Gallery in London on an educational school outing and fell in love with art. He didn’t want to leave, and his schoolteacher not only allowed him to wander the gallery for several hours but fanned this spark of interest by arranging and encouraging him to take many more field trips to numerous museums and art galleries throughout the city.
At age 15 he was an apprentice in a commercial art studio in the highly charged world of 1960s London, working in black and white airbrush and yearning to work in color.
One year later, he was at RGM Design Studio, working on projects for their clients, including Johnson & Johnson, cosmetics firms, cigarette companies, and food packaging. He spent three years learning the trade from hand-lettering artists, technical illustrators, packaging design artists and airbrush artists, who taught him to design creative logos and fonts, airbrush illustrations and more. He was young, full of energy and loved the work. Could he stay late? Could he work on his own projects at the studio?
His bosses saw the creative desire and not only allowed him to stay late and work on his own projects, but let him use their equipment and paints. He followed his heart and painted what he loved: giant paintings of vintage motorcycles. “It’s a shame we have no accounts like this,” was the remark from his manager, who was impressed.
At age 19, Robert chose to go out on his own in London, working freelance for studios on projects for Ford, Chrysler and International Harvester. Then in the late 1970s to early 1980s came a big change to the art world, a change that had a not-so-great effect on many graphic artists, including Robert. Computers made much of what he knew how to do obsolete. Hand lettering, illustrations and package design work could all be done on a computer, cheaper and faster. He had a little nest egg saved up and decided it was time to take a trip across the Atlantic to America for a while.
During a motorcycle tour of the U.S. and Canada in 1982, riding a BSA 441 Victor in Chico, California… Robert blew the engine. Chico offered a bucolic setting to paint in, simply a lot of farms, walnuts, almonds and oranges… and there were few ad agencies. He knew what to do! His experience with “fruit crate art” and hand lettering was just what these farmers didn’t know they needed. Robert stayed and created big, bright, colorful fruit and vegetable art, then highlighted the farm names with his unique hand lettering for logos, painting the designs on their trucks and of course signs. For 20 years he brought color and creativity to the Chico area’s farms and farmers.
With many racetracks and other venues in the area, this led to hand lettering sprint cars, dragsters, race boats and more. Again, computers foiled his livelihood in the late 1990s. Technology at the time made it possible to cut vinyl in creative designs which could then be affixed to the sides of any vehicle… including the race cars and farmer’s trucks which had become his livelihood. The vinyl substitute didn’t look as good, but it cost a lot less money. Once again Robert had to reinvent his career.
Remembering his time at the art studio in London, he decided to “paint for himself” and see how that went. His favorite was still giant 6-foot-tall paintings of motorcycles which were period correct in racing settings with hand lettering from those times. He had four or five finished pieces and took some photos. Somehow one of the photos landed on the desk of the “right guy” at Bonhams in 2005. Robert was asked to make the 500-mile drive from Chico, with samples, to meet with that guy from Bonhams on the roof of the parking garage at the Peterson Museum in Los Angeles during their Steve McQueen auction.
He was then asked to create six new pieces for the upcoming Bonham’s motorcycle auction at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay, California. So he did, and they all sold! Could he create large art pieces of vintage race cars? You bet! He started with the Bonham’s Quail Lodge Auction in 2008. Coming to know Robert’s work well, Kurt Forry, Automobilia Specialist from RM Sotheby’s, stated: “The overwhelming response to Robert’s work is a belief that his paintings were produced by an artist from the 1920s-1950s era. He captures each period’s look and feel that well.”
From auction sales, Robert’s work became known within the motorcycle and vintage race car world. It wasn’t long before his giant pieces of art were on display at Thunder Hill Raceway in Willows, California, and at Sears Point Raceway (now Sonoma Raceway) in Sonoma, California – all great venues, typically with giant walls that were excellent for gallery showings of sizable art.
Robert only paints in oil. “Acrylics simply aren’t bright enough.” He uses pure pigments in oil and one-shot lettering enamels. When he started, each piece took over 60 hours. After years of practice, it’s typically 40 hours, which doesn’t include the time needed to research the subject matter. He said, “It’s really important to make sure nothing is incorrect in my paintings. I typically spend 20 or more hours researching the car, the motorcycle, and the race to make sure I get it right.”
In 2008 Robert (finally) found a use for computers in his own world of art by building a website for his art, RobertCarterArtwork.com, where you may find signed, limited-edition prints available in three sizes, on archival quality paper and canvas.
Robert is a huge motorcycle and car fan and rides almost every day. He is vice president of the local vintage motorcycle club and rides his vintage Harleys and British bikes in many Antique Motorcycle Club of America events. In the four-wheel category, he owned an Austin Champ and a 1950 Land Rover while in the U.K. Today, in the U.S., he drives a Jeep, an International Scout and a 4x4 Dodge diesel truck. Riding clears his mind and often inspires his next painting.
The striking quality of his work, and his subtle yet kinetic style of projecting cars and bikes at speed, have attracted the eye of many museums and private collections. Museums not only have the wall space, but they found Robert’s paintings to be historically correct in regard to the vintage car and race being depicted, and the hand-lettered fonts are legitimately as they would have been created in the time period.
Recent sales include the 4'x6' “Indy Winning Lotus” acquired by the Drummond Collection in Indiana. Two pieces were commissioned by the Savoy Automobile Museum (SavoyMuseum.org) celebrating the racing history of Georgia. All were sourced from his advertisements in Automobilia Resource magazine.
To read more great columns like this one from Publisher Sharon Spurlin...