By Jessie Maguire
Gabriel Roberts might be just like you, if you’re an artist or an aspiring artist. His intention is to paint, and he enjoys working hard at his craft. However, it’s not always easy to get enough time to delve deeply into his dream – except now he can. He’s saved and taken the necessary leap to pursue what he loves: painting from life.
I sat down with Gabriel Roberts, a professional, 29-year-old artist originally from Sacramento, California to talk about his artwork, the benefits of art residencies and the colors of Cochabamba. Here’s the Q and A!
Q: So what’s your background?
A: I started painting in about 2009. In college I studied ceramics, I took a couple of painting classes, but I was really into ceramics.
I went to a summer art program right after college as a ceramics student, then switched to painting in the first couple of days, because all the painters got their own private studios, and all the ceramicists were expected to share one communal studio.
I thought I want my own studio (laughs) and there was also a professor there called Stanley Lewis, a landscape painter, who’s one of the most passionate artists I’ve ever met and he talked about painting in a way that I’ve never heard it discussed.
He kind of talked about it with a very scientific outlook. He talked in the same way about completely abstract paintings as completely representational paintings. Like to him there’s no difference – it’s only about the picture, and what effect it has on you as the viewer.
And it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, it doesn’t matter what message the artist is trying to convey, it’s all about the viewer’s experience with that picture. From that standpoint, you can analyze any art, because you know as much as you need, even knowing nothing, to appreciate the art.
“…it’s only about the picture, and what effect it has on you as the viewer. And it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, it doesn’t matter what message the artist is trying to convey, it’s all about the viewer’s experience with that picture.”
He got me into landscape painting so I switched to painting and then went back a couple of years later and studied with him again, and I’ve kind of been on it since then.I had a full-time job that I left at the end of 2011, and since then it’s been gradually getting to a point of supporting me. It was about 50/50 between that and landscaping or construction and that kind of hourly work.
Now I’m doing it full time, this is what it’s all about. I saved up so I could come and just paint.
“Now I’m doing it full time, this is what it’s all about. I saved up so I could come and just paint.”
Q: So what kind of material are you working on? What mediums are you using?
A: I use printmaking paper from France, called Rives BFK and then I put acrylic gesso on it. It’s just like rag paper: thick and soft. And then I put some gesso on both sides to seal it. I think the gesso should protect it.
It works just like canvas, but it’s easy to store and transport so I’ll be able to pack up my paintings and transport them in a little folio, and then I’ll frame them up when I get back to the States. And I have my oil paints. That’s what I use.
Q: So you don’t ever think to hell with it, and just start on the wall or something?
A: No, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I was thinking about that as I was doing this first painting. I mean here I am – and I could do anything, but I’ve chosen to focus on like a one foot by one foot view of a bush! And I spent hours on the detail of that bush.
I’m not tired of it though, and it’s pretty exciting for me to be working from a figure. It’s new to be working from a drawing. If I were to go to art school, I’m sure they would think I was crazy, and encourage me to do something new, but I like it and I’m not at all tired of it yet.
I set the stage by bringing my paints and my box – so the work is very much in line with what I do at home.
Q: Yes, because everyone has the right to do the kind of art that they want to do, right?
A: Yeah – right.
Q: So you sell your work? Do you do exhibitions?
A: I have had some shows, but I haven’t done many and I haven’t put a lot of effort into getting gallery representation. It’s somehow not felt very accessible to me.
It takes a lot of energy to promote your work, and it can be quite distracting from the work itself. It’s been nice to be able to pick up work – carpentry or house painting or whatever, and then be able to do the painting for myself and not have to think about the money side of art too much.
But I think I’m getting to the point where I’m getting more confidence in my work, getting a larger body of work, so that soon I’ll be able to find a gallery that appreciates what I do. I just haven’t found a good fit yet.
Q: I guess it depends where are you in the world, right? What city you’re in…. The people that live there. How do you sell your paintings right now? In shops?
A: I sell most of my art directly to friends. I post all the stuff on Facebook and Instagram. Before I came here I did a video and an email and put a bunch of paintings on Etsy, which is super easy.
My average patron has been my age. I’m 29. Somebody that I went to college with or school with, that has a full-time job, appreciates my art and wants to support me.
And the most I’ve ever charged was $750 for a piece, and the average is about $100. I’ve sold about 200 paintings. I set the prices depending on how long they take me, but I spend more time on painting from life now – anything up to 30 hours paint time.
Basically at this point I just try to keep painting. Just keep painting. And I also make a podcast, and I keep that regular. I photograph my work so I always have pictures of it, and upload it to my website so people can see what I’m making, and that’s full-time, pretty much.
I have a lot of different ideas, and there are a lot of wonderful ways that one can sell their work. People have found my stuff out of the blue, but I’ve met most of the people that buy my art in person, and that seems to be the best way to do things.
Q: Did you choose Bolivia specifically?
A: A couple of years ago I did a lot of searching for residencies. There are sites that aggregate art residencies you can do all over the world. I went to a place in Colorado, then I ended up living in a little town there, where the residency was.
I forgot about residencies for a while, and then last spring I started to feel like I wanted to take a big trip of some sort.
I studied abroad in Barcelona for a year during college, so I learned Spanish and I always thought that South America would be the next destination. So I thought, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do this trip.
I did a search and I applied and Alex got back to me real quick. It just seemed like it was meant to be.
Q: Do you like it here?
A: I do, it’s good. It’s less developed than Spain. There are some similarities, but it’s a good town. It’s the right size. A bigger city would be too much for me. I feel like I’d like to get out a little more.
I wanted to stay at SB and settle here for a few weeks, but the colors are exciting, and the various states of decay in the streets, the buildings and the paint on the walls. The people, the hats and their aguayos.
“It’s the colors I find exciting (in Cochabamba), and the little unexpected views where you’ll see a combination of rooftops receding to the hills….the colonial architecture is beautiful, too.”
Q: What else interests you about Cochabamba specifically?
A: Yeah, it’s the colors I find exciting and the little unexpected views where you’ll see a combination of rooftops receding to the hills, or something like that, or you’ll be walking down the street and a parking lot gate will be open and you’ll see brand new cars parked in a really dusty yard.
Things like that, different unexpected things. The colonial architecture is beautiful, too. With the palm trees, it’s an awesome combination. I’m excited that the plaza is just being redone.
Q: Do you think it’s possible to capture culture in your paintings?
A: I’m sure it is. I guess the most direct way would be to do a portrait of someone from here. Of an indigenous person, or with other subject matter…. There’s a little clash between the old world and the new world which is pretty interesting.
You see people in traditional dress walking by a supermarket or in a supermarket, or with a smart phone. That’s what makes this time and this town special.
I think that anything that’s in your surroundings makes its way into your paintings no matter what. Just sort of on an energetic level. If you’re kind of open and absorbing what your environment is – no matter what your painting is of, it’s going to have some flavor of that.
Q: So your experience is communicated through you into the painting?
A: That could be the case, especially if you spend hours in a setting. When you find a spot to make a landscape painting, just being out there for hours every day – I think your body absorbs some of the vibes, and you kind of put them into the painting subconsciously.
“There’s a clash between the old world and the new world….You see people in traditional dress…in a supermarket, or with a smart phone. That’s what makes this time and this town special.”
Q: It would be cool to do a painting from the Cristo, right?
A: Yes. With that view? Looking out from the hill? Yeah, there’s a lot there. You could go insane trying to paint that.
I’m using photos for color reference right now, but I find that if I actually work from a photo…. The camera flattens the scene, and I prefer to flatten it myself. If you work from a photo, the scene is flattened twice and it means that the viewer is removed from what’s exciting about that space.
Whereas if you do the flattening yourself and I’m looking at the depth, the viewer is still directly connected to the experience, they can access it. It’s not explicitly shown because of course it’s a 2D image, but if they look at it long enough, then they get to assemble the space and work out like, oh, that’s actually way back there.
And that’s related to what Stanley Lewis talks about. In his theory of painting, that’s what makes it exciting: when the viewer can’t actually determine where an object actually exists in space, so at first glance you might think that that it’s in the foreground, but when you look at it from further away you realize, whoa! It’s way back there!
That creates a kind of tension in the picture. And I think it’s harder to do that from a photo. But I think if you have more illustrative capability as an artist, you could probably create that. With more experience.
Q: So you do a mixture of abstract and representational art. So are you more excited about one of them? Or does it depend on what you’re painting specifically?
A: I guess I’m more excited about the representational stuff right now, because I feel like it is directly related to the things I get excited about visually while walking around. My abstract work feels different somehow.
I’d like for them to intersect more, and not feel so separate in my mind and my work, but at this point they feel like color study somehow, separate but complementary. And when I’m walking around I’ll get ideas about a representational picture, and not abstract pictures. So we’ll see.
When I’m working abstractly, I’m forced to be more creative. I’m forced to generate something, and I have to figure it out, thinking, does that work there or not?
“A place that’s just for art. I think that’s so important…it feels good to have a place to go to work, and…put in a good number of hours, and then you get to fully enjoy your free time, and not feel like you should be painting or thinking about painting.”
Q: What do you think the benefits are, as an artist, of leaving where you’re from, going to a new place and having a space to explore whatever you’d like to?
A: Well the space itself is huge. Depending on what you are already working with. I mean, a lot of artists don’t have a proper studio, so having just that is a huge thing, where all your thoughts can collect, a wall where you can tack things up. Also a place that’s separate from your bedroom, or your kitchen.
A place that’s just for art. I think that’s so important. I’ve rented a studio. A tiny place, but having a dedicated place was so sweet.
For me, the art feels like work, in a good way, and it feels good to have a place to go to work, and feel satisfied if you’ve put in a good numbers of hours, and then you get to fully enjoy your free time, and not feel like you should be painting or thinking about painting.
There’s a lot of that among artists. They can be really competitive and there’s a lot of glorifying the pain caused by the amount of hours you put in, and so it’s nice to have a separate place to work. I think that travelling is hugely important, just seeing new sights is enlivening and I think being in one familiar place can be comfortable but deadening, too.
Here you’re blasted with new sights and I think there’s definitely something to digging into a new place and studying it more. I feel so fortunate that I get to do this.
It’s so crazy to be able to get on a plane and fly down to South America and get picked up from the airport by somebody and driven to this place and it’s like, here’s your room. It’s like what?! And have internet and get to watch football on the weekend. It’s totally amazing.
“I think that travelling is hugely important, just seeing new sights is enlivening and I think being in one familiar place can be comfortable but deadening, too.”
Q: Do you think there are any disadvantages to doing it?
A: No. I can’t think of any disadvantages. I mean, if things go bad, you can always go home and you will have learnt something.
I mean, obviously there’s challenges to doing it. And I think they’re there for a reason. That’s the sweet stuff, the things that normal society makes it difficult to do.
That’s where it’s at, and that’s where you get to learn and grow and be challenged. All the good stuff.
I was packing my bags before coming here and thinking, am I really doing this? And then I flew to Lima, where I had a stopover. I got off the plane and it was like chaotic and hot and the streets were a mess and I was like, what am I doing here, this is a third world country, and I was comfortable at home.
So it’s definitely a bit of a challenge but then you realize that it’s not that big of a deal. But if you don’t do it for a few years or whatever, you lose your sea legs.
“It really doesn’t cost much more to be here than it does to be there. It really doesn’t, but people think it does. You tell people you can get a round trip ticket for $500 to South America, and they’re like what?!”
Q: What about cost?
A: It really doesn’t cost much more to be here than it does to be there. It really doesn’t, but people think it does. You tell people you can get a round trip ticket for $500 to South America, and they’re like what?!
I mean it’s not always that cheap, but mine way like $600 to La Paz from New York. But you get trapped so easily. If you have rent to pay or a job, you can’t just necessarily do it. Or car payment, a mortgage. You get locked down quickly.
I’m not really cut out for travelling or backpacking. I’m kind of a home body. I like to get a little bit settled.
Q: You prefer to have somewhere to go.
A: Yes, oh my gosh. Because there are like endless amazing places in the world, where you could go and have an amazing experience, and it is sometimes a question of somehow choosing one and committing to it, and then seeing what meets you there.
Q: Even going online and looking at a few different places and the opportunities can get the ball rolling right?
A: That’s right. I feel like there’s a lot of pressure in the States for people to tie themselves down. I feel like there’s this overall societal pressure to be a good little producing unit.
And yet there are so many wonderful opportunities and networks that are growing, like the Wwoofing network or the work away network or couching surfing, which enable people to move around a little bit and come to see that it isn’t that much of a big deal, life is kind of the same wherever you go and in a way, you can go anywhere and make it.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
A: Just that I feel really blessed to be here, have the opportunity and I’m grateful. I’m happy, excited and hoping to gradually get into a better and better rhythm and keep the painting going, see what comes out of it, travel a bit around Bolivia. It’s nice to be here on my own terms.
The year goes by and you have as many pictures as you made in that year, and that’s it! So I want to have good paintings from this time. I also worked really hard to be here and paint, so I want to take advantage of that.
I remind myself that I’m here for my own growth and fulfillment, and that feels great.
Many thanks to Gabriel Roberts for his time and for sharing his story with us. If you’d like to contact him about his work, his website can be found here.
And if you’re an artist wondering whether now could be a great time for you to do an artist’s residency at SB, in South America, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!