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Robert Rishell Interview
March 1, 1969, Robert Avery: KGO Radio
on the occassion of Robert Rishell’s One Man Show
at the Desert Southwest Art Gallery,
Palm Desert, California

Click here to listen

Robert Rishell Photo

Bob Avery: “Saturday night, March 1, 1969, this is Bob Avery at the Desert Southwest Art Gallery, and as you can hear in the background there are many people here, just enjoying to the fullest extent the works of a one man show Mr. Robert Rishell of Oakland and fortunately, I have Bob right here, Bob, do you mind if I call you Bob?Robert Rishell: “Not at all, we have a couple of Bobs.”

Bob Avery: “Bob and I are both in the Rotary Club. Bob is from Oakland and he makes up here in Palm Desert every time he’s down here at the Desert Southwest Art Gallery.

Bob, you have a whale of a show.”

Robert Rishell: “Well thank you.”

Bob Avery: “You have thirty-six paintings here?”

Robert Rishell: “Thirty six paintings, yes.”

Bob Avery: “And they are absolutely fantastic. Bob, they call you the ‘Sunshine Painter,” I noticed in the newspaper the other day which I know you shouldn’t say that on the radio, but somewhere, I don’t know where I heard it, but I have heard that you paint looking into the sun, is this correct?”

Robert Rishell: “That’s right, I use this primarily to accent highlights of sunlight against patterns of dark which of course gives you the feeling of light. You need dark to show light. If everything was light, you wouldn’t have the feeling of light, so by using this method of painting toward the sun, why, shadow areas accentuate the light in the painting.”

Bob Avery: “Bob, where did you first take an interest in painting? Where did you get your training and so forth?”

Robert Rishell: “Oh, actually I was interested in the first grade in grammar school, and received some recognition in second and third grade by having pictures taken of some of the things I had done and put in the local newspaper which was quite a thrill at the time, to be recognized at such an early stage in my life, and from there on my parents gave me a lot of support. They enrolled me in Saturday classes at an art college which helped me along when I was in junior high school and then I went on to high school and entered a state wide scholarship program my senior year in high school and won the state wide scholarship which carried me on for three years of college at the California College of Arts and Crafts.

I also won a second and third scholarship. One was for being the outstanding student in the college the second year, and the third was the Latham Humane Society contest, an international contest. I was very lucky to win. All of this has been an encouragement to me something to keep me going, to keep my striving to improve.

Bob Avery: You’re a comparatively young man.

RR. I may look younger than I actually am.

Bob Avery: Bob, your paintings are so realistic some people think you can reach out and touch them. I was noticing in the other room a painting, just looking at a culvert, of the water coming through the culvert and the rocks on the other end, you think you could reach out your toe right then and you get your foot wet. What would get you to paint something like this?

Robert Rishell: Well, when you paint, many people say, ‘Why don’t you go to Yosemite and paint,’ or ‘why don’t you go to a seashore and paint a seascape or any number of things that are so familiar to people and they’re so beautiful and when you paint them, they look like a post card. So, to paint something you can really get a mood into and something out of the ordinary is the thing that I strive for. It is something everyone has witnessed, they all have experienced in their life, perhaps its a small vignette in their life that is now past, but when they see this, it brings back memories to them and a pool that would come out of a culvert under a roadway is something that you might find wandering in the countryside, but it has a certain amount of quiet, a certain peaceful feeling to it, the stillness of the water and the colors reflecting in it, the sun playing across the rocks, all of these things lend toward a more interesting composition and final feel.

Bob Avery: You have also, I have noticed in the past, lets say three years I have known you here in the Desert Southwest Art Gallery, have many paintings with horses in them. Do you like horses, or do you ride horses?

Robert Rishell: I’ve done some riding, not too much recently, I just haven’t had time. But to me, the horse represents a period in American History, and probably there are more horses, a greater population of horses in the United States now than there were back in the days when there weren’t any motor driven vehicles. Now this is hard to believe, but the horse is a very popular subject, its a very graceful animal. I very seldom paint them in violent action, but I like to paint them in quite repose, where they’re standing in the shade, kind of relaxed, and maybe swishing their tale to keep they flies off of them, patterns of sunlight playing across their back, this type of thing that adds sort of a nostalgia.

A lady came in yesterday, I had one painting with hay stacks in the background, and she was very interested in horses and had been around them for years and she said ‘I can smell that painting.’ And that’s the feeling I tried to get in it.

Bob Avery: You had one in there this evening that I noticed of two horses straining their necks for a bucket of apples that have sort of fallen over ...

Robert Rishell: ... the other side of the stone fence just a little bit out of reach.

Bob Avery: I can remember that when I was a kid seeing horses reach for that. You can just feel that.

Bob, where do you go to do your painting? I know in the past, last year you had some paintings here you had done when you had gone up Highway 74 here in Palm Desert looking down at the valley.

Robert Rishell: I painted up high looking down for a change. I’ve painted so many things in the canyon down here and they’ve been very popular, and they don’t stay in the gallery too long, but you don’t like doing the same thing over, in fact I never do the same thing over again. I’ll paint the canyon, but they’re ever changing. You can sit in the canyon for an hour and look at it, and in no five minutes is it the same. It is continually changing. The light changes, the color changes, the patterns of shadow change. But, just the same, with this type of thing, you begin to get stale, so I look for other areas. I go up to the high plateau above here near Anza to get a change of scene. There’s a different type of growth you find, you find different colors and sometimes looking over the valley, you can step back and get a different perspective on it. And this to me is like painting portraits, I do paint portraits and can get all the commissions I want and do nothing but paint portraits, but this would get rather boring, rather dull, because to do the same thing over and over like I mentioned a moment ago would be stifling. That’s why I try to paint as many different types of things, the Sierras or the Rocky Mountains, the coastal plains of California, the local desert here, or in the rural area, old barnyards there or anything that happens to catch my eye and has the mood I am looking for.

Bob Avery: Tell me Bob, do you actually set up there and do them live or do you take a color photo?

Robert Rishell: No, unless it is something that is so fleeting and I don’t have the time to do the painting where I’ll want to use a photo to perhaps and interesting cloud pattern or something like that I may be able to use in a painting that needs a certain composition. But the way I really like to work where I can get out on the spot with my full size canvas and just get right in and get it started. I get the canvas blocked in with all the local detail roughly placed in with a type of shadow pattern and so forth, then take it back to the studio and put myself into it. There is so much detail and and so much local color that I don’t care about how fine an artist you are, the good lord put it there and it is never the same in any two places and if you tried to project yourself into each canvas without going out on the local scene, you’d find out pretty soon your rocks would all be the same shape or your clouds would be pretty much the same. But the fact that there is such a great variety of happenings in nature, in using this you can only get it working with nature. But then to put the thing into the painting which makes the painting yours and not some other artist, this is done in the studio where you project the feeling of atmosphere, the feeling of light. Simplify some areas, intensify the detail in others. This is the type of thing you do in the studio to finish it.

Bob Avery: Its so amazing, your eyes see so much more than mine Bob.

RR; Well, I could go to a concert and listen to music, a beautiful rendition of a concerto say, but a man who is trained in music would hear things that I would never even know where there, because he’s trained in that.

Of course, working out in nature, you train yourself to look for certain things happening. I’ve had students who say ... I’ll say ‘Look at the warm color on the underside of that rock.”

‘Well I don’t see warm color on the underside of that rock.’ Well you know when there is sunlight hitting the earth, the warmth of the earth is reflecting back on the underside and creating this very very subtle warm glow. And until you really point it out to them, they never see it.

These are things you train your eye to look for. You look for color, you look for things that are occurring in nature that are natural so that when you put them in a painting, people may not be conscious of what you’ve done or what is happening, but it is there and they recognize it.

Bob Avery: Was this part of your training going through school to look for these things?

RR. Well yes, it was. Perception was a very big thing. When I went to school, the training was different than it is now,. I went to school from 1935 to 1938 and got my bachelor’s degree, and they hammered drawing drawing drawing, until I wondered after three and a half years of this, aren’t they ever going to let you paint? But they kept saying, ‘This is the important thing, to be able to draw, to understand the basics of these things.’

And now that I look back, its the best training I ever could possibly received. I went back in 1951 on the GI Bill to get my master’s degree , and the whole concept, the whole function of painting had changed so radically. They’d give you paint brushes and say, ‘Express yourself’ when you don’t have the foundation for expression. You never say to a medical student and say, ‘Here, here’s a scalpel, and go out and express yourself. They’ve got to know anatomy, they’ve got to know the central nervous system, they have to know all of these things as a foundation basis before they even begin thinking about getting into practicing on their own.

And this is the same thing in art. You can go to school and get all the basic ingredients, but you really don’t learn, or don’t start to learn to project yourself until you as an individual get out and approach it as an individual. And you can’t try to assimilate Andrew Wyeth or assimilate Edward Hopper or any number of Dagar or any number of painters you may appreciate. Because when you do, you become a little so and so, a little Dagar, a little Renoir, or a little Van Gough. You have to develop your own style, your own feeling. Set a goal and keep working for it. And the day you think you’ve accomplished this is the day you’d better quit, because the horizon is just beyond the next hill. You keep striving for it, you keep working for it, and eventually each painting you approach, you hope to catch a part of what you are looking for.

Bob Avery: Bob, you certainly have caught what you’re looking for, and also what the public is looking for. May I ask you one more question since we are in this Coachella Valley and we have many many amateur artists. Would you have a word of advice as to what an amateur artist should do to start out, and what they should look for?

Robert Rishell: Well, I’ve given some lectures, I gave a demonstration this last year at the Shadow Mountain Palette Club, and I’ve juried perhaps thousands of shows. The one thing that always bothers me the fact that they’ll always pick the same type of thing that I mentioned earlier in this interview, the beautiful rolling hills or the mountains that look like a picture post card. They all do the same thing.

The desert here. There are painters, and you’ll see them sitting out in the desert and they’ll paint the wash and perhaps verbena and some sand dunes and you’ll see San Jacinto or San Gregorio in the background and snow caps. Its a lovely picture, but its a picture, its not a painting. It can be a painting, it depends on a great deal on the artist. To look for something that is more than this, something that can tell you more about how rugged the desert can be, what the desert is really all about, finding an infinite detail. I found one subject matter, a little dry wash where water had washed down through this wash one day and coyotes had passed back and forth across it over a period of days. The first day the mud was rather wet and the imprints were deep, and here right in the middle of this area, this pathway of coyote tracks was an old rusty beer can which was sort of the symbol of man’s intrusion into nature. But this caught my eye immediately.

Another spot I found in one of the basins in the dunes up here in Aseda was where the rain had washed down and run into this basin of sand and deposited a layer of silt. The sun came out and dried this silt to where it cracked like you were looking at the surface of the moon, and I went out into this vast area of cracked mud where there was this one desert daisy poking up through a crack in the mud, and finding this interesting shadow across this cracked earth. If you were oblivious to the fact that you were in the twentieth century, you could have been witnessing the birth of this universe in a way. It gave me that feeling, and I immediately had to sketch it and make a painting.

These are things that are unusual, these are things that a student should look for.

Bob Avery: Perception is very very important.

Robert Rishell: Yes, there is so much around a person to see and to paint. You can take a single flower and look into the face of this flower and spend an hour studying all the things that are taking place in this infinite little piece of creation. Many people would walk back and say, ‘Isn’t this a lovely yellow flower,’ but never really see the flower. They look at them, they don’t see them. And to teach yourself to see, this is the important thing. And there is so much in life you can gain from that.

Bob Avery: O golly yes, Robert Rishell, thank you so much for talking to us on our KGO microphone.

RR. I’m very happy you came to the desert southwest and gallery to see my show.

Bob Avery: We want all our people, our radio audience to come out and see your show, because personally I think its fantastic. You are probably, well we heard you introduced up at Rotary Club the other day as the finest artist in the United States.

Robert Rishell: You must be very kind. I’m always striving for that.

Bob Avery: Well thank you very much and stay with us for a very long time down here, and I’m sure our people in the radio audience have learned a lesson from you, how to look at things, to look at the little things and be perceptive.

Robert Rishell: I appreciate this opportunity to express a few of my feelings anyway.

Bob Avery: Wonderful, Mr. Robert Rishell, now showing at the Desert Southwest Art Gallery for the next month, well for the entire month of March. We certainly hope that anybody who is interested in painting will come by and see these wonderful paintings by Mr. Robert Rishell.