Robin Eley

Robin Eley

Stemming from the early colonial era of the 1770’s, Australia has always had an efficacious art culture. Today, it may seem as though Australian art is understated in status, but lurking from behind the shadows are some immensely talented craftsmen that are coming into the limelight at a steadfast rate. One of those artists’ is illustrator, Robin Eley. He’s a promising force to be reckoned with, and he’s received accolades for his realist-influenced illustrations. Robin’s talent has garnered him relationships with publications such as Vibe, The Village Voice, and the Wall Street Journal.

He’s also an Art Instructor at the University of South Australia, which is more than many, forever burgeoning artists’ in western society can attest to for themselves. His spectrum (of clients) are broad in range, but it’s when he orchestrates his fascination with popular culture through his drawings – that his creative genius comes into play, and his art takes a life of its own.

“Illustration should answer questions, fine art should ask them.”

Format: Mr. Eley, you used to be a guard for the ABA (Australian Basketball Association) team the Norwood Flames. What made you streamline your career into art, and, in your opinion, what’s the correlation between sports and art?
Robin Eley: The process wasn’t so much a conscious choice, rather a natural evolution. I consider my basketball career (if you want to call it that), the four years that I had played at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. Although I had opportunities to play back home in Australia (and I did for a while with Norwood), after college, I never really dedicated myself [to the sport] with the same focus.

[While playing ball], what I discovered, was that the passion I had for the game had not diminished but had redirected itself towards my artwork. Now, instead of spending hours in the gym shooting jump shots, I spend hours honing my painting skills. It’s not so much a transfer of skills, but of less tangible things like work ethic, competitiveness and the desire to improve. For me, the transition was such a straight line that I can say with all confidence that without basketball I wouldn’t be an artist. Sounds weird, but it’s true.

Format: In your opinion, what’s the difference between a contemporary fine art painter and an illustrator?
Robin Eley: One of my favorite illustrators, CF Payne, once told me that illustration is fine art done under circumstances. The rift that often simmers below the surface on many college campuses between the Fine Art majors and Illustration majors, is the perception that illustrators are sellouts, and that their work isn’t pure because it sold before it is painted. Personally, I find the whole issue amusing and don’t really give it much thought.

I see the difference as a simple one. Illustration should answer questions, fine art should ask them.

Robin Eley

Format: When you do illustrations of high profile criminals such as Clem Tucker Sr. and Jr., and Russell Byers, do things become difficult for you in terms of the integrity of the publication that you’re doing the work for, versus your view of the people that the illustration is based on?

Robin Eley: I don’t really have any moral qualms about painting anyone. If I did, there are few, [there are] much more famous names that I would have to blacklist before Clem Tucker and Russell Byers!

In addition, the articles that accompanied the Tucker and Byers illustrations were by no means glorifying their feats, merely telling the story.

Format: What’s the most fascinating thing about hip-hop inspired illustrations?
Robin Eley: Obviously, it’s fun to paint famous people. And, I often find myself painting portraits of people whose music I really like. One of the more interesting things that had happened; I was working on a portrait for a magazine (both of which shall remain nameless), [and] I was sent word that I absolutely must not “caricature” this rapper because he is extremely sensitive about his appearance, and they didn’t want to risk offending him because he is such a powerful figure in the industry.

Format: If you had the opportunity, would you display illustrations that were ‘forbidden’ in your own exhibitions?
Robin Eley: I am planning on having an exhibition of my illustrations in August of 2008. The only criteria I have [when I want to choose pieces to] display one of my pieces is whether I think [they’re] good enough.

Format: If a hip-hop artist wanted to commission you to design a potential album cover, what would be some of the stipulations that you would lay down for them?
Robin Eley: It’s tough to attach too many conditions to an illustration job like that other than the price. Usage rights don’t really apply and, I [kind of] would be at their mercy regarding content. But, I feel that being approached to do a cover implies a level of trust artistically, both in my skills and ideas, so I would push for some creative control.

Robin Eley

Format: What are some of the problems that you’ve noticed with album covers today?
Robin Eley: Photoshop, Photoshop and Photoshop!

Format: In your opinion, why do you think a Damien Hirst piece sells for a 100 million dollars?
Robin Eley: Art is worth what people [are willing to] pay for it. If someone is willing to pay $100 million for a painting or sculpture then I can only tip my hat to the artist. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean I like their art, or that, if I had that kind of money would spend that much. But it’s just one of those ‘how long is a piece of string’ things.

Format: When you were approached about teaching art to second-year students at the University of South Australia, what did you feel would be your biggest challenge?
Robin Eley: My art education has been profoundly influential. I have been taught by some of the biggest names in American illustration. The challenge for me was whether I could communicate the same information in a way that would connect with my students. In short, my biggest challenge was working out whether I could actually teach. Thankfully, I had a fantastic and talented class that made the experience the highlight of my year [as a teacher].

Format: Based on your experience, and the politics behind getting an “A” in art, what do think is the protocol for being a good art instructor, and nurturing the career of a potential art star?
Robin Eley: The first thing I tell my students, is that it doesn’t matter what grade you get, just how good you are. When in the relative sanctuary of the academic arena, I encourage students to experiment and extend themselves as much as possible because all of that is riding on the result are their grades, not food on the table. For some students, being grade-conscious is embedded in their psyche and they instinctively play it safe. But I firmly believe that finding your personal artistic vision is a reductive process, whereby you must first discover what you don’t want to do. And the only way to do this is to experiment.

Robin Eley

Format: From what your blog states, you still use the traditional oils and acrylic methods on Masonite when doing your illustrations. But don’t these methods cause time constraints when it comes to deadlines because they take so much longer to dry?
Robin Eley: Painting with acrylics is my preferred method right now for illustration work as it does dry very quickly (for bigger areas I use a hair dryer). But with oils, I can only use them when I have a longer deadline, which doesn’t happen that often. To speed the drying time there, I use Liquin [a quick-drying medium for oil and alkyd] with my paint.

Format: Did creative control ever really exist in the corporate world?
Robin Eley: I guess that’s the illustrative zenith. There are very few illustrators in the world who command creative control, but that’s what we all strive for. So yes, it does exist, but only for those who really kick ass and, I ain’t quite there yet!

Format: What is going to happen for you once you’ve hit your plateau where your art career is concerned?
Robin Eley: I’m not worried. Art for me isn’t a career, it’s my life. I will never retire, [I’ll] never stop painting. My productivity may fluctuate, but I will always be driven by the hope that my next painting will be my best one.

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Robin Eley


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