Robert Bradshaw: Layers of Character

Removing tiers of ink reveals the artist's figurative flair.

Robert Bradshaw claims he never has a story he wants to tell — and yet tell them he does. His ink paintings introduce characters whose spirits are bared primarily through their poses.

In She Is A Determined Woman, a barefoot woman wearing a slim black dress walks along a beach, her long body hunched over against a gold-washed sky, one hand shielding her side-turned face, the other holding an umbrella into the wind.

“There’s generally one important figure close to the viewer, usually in black, and then with something going on,” Bradshaw says of his work. “Quite often, I have used the umbrella as a motif. It gives them something to hold.”

Or not. In A Romanian Expatriate and Exotic Personage, a man sporting a tall hat with multiple sets of eyes sits outside in a Queen Anne-style chair under an umbrella supported by a wooden framework. In other paintings, handleless umbrellas float above and a bit beyond the subjects’ heads.

Although motifs change, Bradshaw’s works typically include horizons, and he likes to include architecture. However, the figure dominates — except in one image: a portion of an empty bedroom a la Van Gogh’s Arles bedroom. Bradshaw, who based the scene on a sketch he made while staying in Florence in 1971, has painted 15 versions since running across drawing 10 or 15 years later. While the furnishings remain in their same location, Bradshaw makes other alterations, perhaps adding a window and beamed ceiling and changing the contents of the paintings within the painting. He recently experimented with collage to fill the largest of those paintings.

The artist has also experimented with desktop supplies. In A Life Held Together By Staples and Scotch Tape, he placed short strips of tape over portions of the illustration board, subsequently pulling it off to reveal the masking effect. He painted staples over the subject woman’s joints to hold them together, and then used real staples on her wrists. He also stapled an image of a woman and two men that appears to have been folded, with portions of their bodies “hidden” under the folds.

Once a lettering artist in San Francisco, Bradshaw sometimes incorporates words into his images. Even those that look stenciled were lettered by hand.

Bradshaw draws inspiration from his files. “I have got thousands of clippings of poses and noses and toeses,” he says. “I don’t copy that pose down to the face or hair, but just the action of it. Sometimes it’s a pose that I could change the position of an arm to hold an umbrella or a fish or whatever.”

The artist’s intricate technique, which he has continually refined during the last 20 years, requires him to draw each composition three times. First he puts a sketch onto tracing paper. After taping illustration board to his drawing table and sanding it, he marks the surface with waterproof India ink and ruling pens or compasses to create “residue” that will show up serendipitously in the finished image. He then applies layers of acrylic ink in various colors on the board, dragging the ink down the board with a metal roller and allowing each layer to dry for 20 minutes, until the surface is black.

Bradshaw next chalks the back of his tracing paper sketch, places the sketch over the board, and transfers the image by going over the lines with a pencil. Immediately, he retraces the image with a grease pencil and then wipes away the chalk.

Because the ink dissolves itself, Bradshaws’ paintings are subtractive works. He removes ink by brushing more ink onto the areas he wants to reveal and blotting it with paper napkins. In the final phase, he details the painting with wax-based Prismacolor pencils and sprays the board with acrylic coating. He consistently sizes his works at 14x14 and frames them at 23x23.

Bradshaw refers to his palette as Renaissance. The works derive much of their mood from blacks, browns, golds, oranges, and other earth tones. The “residue” lends an edge of rawness that, along with shading, provides depth. Artists he particularly admires run the gamut from the highly symbolic, complex canvases of Hieronymous Bosch to portraitist John Singer Sargent to gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman (Hunter S. Thompson’s collaborator).

A native of Midland, Mich., Bradshaw went to the Chicago Art Institute and American Academy of Art in Chicago before becoming an apprentice in a commercial art studio. “Then the Korean War came along, so I enlisted in the Navy for four years,” he says. “No artwork.”

This article was originally published November, 2006 and updated for the web June, 2007.
After being discharged, he worked for an interior design firm in Boston for 15 years and then moved to San Francisco, where he ran his own gift and home furnishings store until 1985. “I sold the business and started painting,” he says. “It was an experimental period where I would put anything on an illustration board and see what would happen.”

Being asked to create posters for an international dance company brought him back to art. Then the art-centric ambiance of Carmel lured him to move south in 1996. He was accepted into the Carmel Art Association and still shows his work in the association’s gallery.

Now living in the Coachella Valley, Bradshaw was drawn, like most locals, by the weather. “Carmel is beautiful,” he says. “It’s just too foggy and cool.”

For someone who works in a somewhat solitary genre and listens to Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Strauss while he works, Bradshaw seems a paradox of sorts, with a broad sense of humor and easygoing manner. He prefers his ink technique to paint and brush for the “transparent, almost print quality of the finished piece,” but mostly for its uncontrollable nature. “You are never sure what the outcome is going to be.”

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