Robert Cantor has a captivating story to tell about how he learned his craft and how he decides on subject matter. Although his early years we spent focused on math and science, he always had an urge to draw, perfecting his amazing skills at Northern Virginia Community College and the Torpedo Factory via the Alexandria Art League in Virginia. His goal is simply ‘to create something beautiful’ out of everyday objects. Profoundly inspired by an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Art about 12 years ago on the Index of American Design featuring watercolors from the 1930s. During the depression and before the advancement of photography, artists were commissioned to simply chronicle what they saw, bringing out the details of everyday objects on a plain background. This influence is evident in his series of pencil sharpener paintings, often working from old family photos and substituting these pencil sharpeners for people. For example in ‘Ball Play
’, the objects take the place of the pictures of he and his brother, grounding the objects in a setting but still looking unusual and ‘other worldly’. I hope you enjoy his story – and his art.
Robert Cantor (RC): Hello?
Laura Jajko (LJ): Robert? Hi, it’s Laura Jajko at American Frame and I’m here with Aubrey Koralewski. I’m the president of the company and Aubrey is our social media maven. She’ll be taking notes and transcribing your interview for your webpage when we’re finished. Is this still a good time to connect?
LJ: Good! It’s so great to make your acquaintance. Congratulations on winning one of our month’s contests
RC: Thank you.
LJ: How did you come to learn about American Frame?
RC: I’m not sure when I first discovered you. I had just been looking for online frames as an alternative to the very high prices that the framing shops would charge. I tried a few out and once I found American Frame I stuck with you. I’ve pretty much done all my framing with you since then.
I think I always identified myself more as left brain because I was very strong at math & science & got good grades in school & that seemed to be the dividing line. I never really felt like it was different skills that I was using to do the different things. It always felt like it was coming from the same place.
LJ: Oh, thank you! How long ago was that?
RC: I’m guessing that was about 7 or 8 years ago.
LJ: That’s a long time.
RC: I don’t remember for certain when I started getting frames from you.
LJ:So, you’re in the DC area in Alexandria?
RC: In Maryland. I live near Silver Spring.
LJ: Oh, I see. The reason Alexandria caught my attention is because my husband used to work out there. We used to go out there all the time. It was just such a great time.
RC: I lived in Fairfax about 10 years ago. That’s where I lived most of my life.
LJ: Nice! Did you receive a list of questions?
RC: Yes, I did.
LJ: Let’s go ahead and get started. So I read your bio on our website. You’re trained as a programmer. What led you to painting and when did you start producing your art?
RC: As long as I can remember, I’ve always had the urge to draw whenever I can get a pencil and paper in hand. At an early age I had a very strong aptitude for math and science and so that’s basically the direction I took. I wasn’t very good at drawing realistically, which, when you are young you think that’s what art is all about. So I tried some cartooning when I was younger and never really got anywhere with that. After I graduated college I got interested in commercial art and began taking courses at the local community college. And then at some point I had an excellent instructor in a drawing course and an excellent instructor in an art history course and that’s when I got hooked on producing fine art. I think that was about 20 years ago. I’ve been painting and drawing since then.
LJ: So you must be very strong both left and right brain. It’s kind of a rare combination that someone is really strong in math and science and can also tap into their creative mind.
RC: In working as a programmer and then being in art, I meet a lot of people that met the stereotypes and a lot of people that totally defied the stereotypes. So I really don’t know how much of a strong distinction that there is. But occasionally I have taken some of those online ‘right brain, left brain’ type things and it would tell me that I was in the middle. I think I always identified myself more as left brain because I was very strong at math and science and got good grades in school and that seemed to be the dividing line. I never really felt like it was different skills that I was using to do the different things. It always felt like it was coming from the same place.
LJ: I would imagine. Listening to what you said about being a programmer, to be a good programmer I’m sure you have to be creative as well.
RC: Yeah. I think people who don’t do it don’t realize that when you’re good at math and programming it’s because you’re not just seeing it as arbitrary rules, you’re seeing it as abstraction of reality.
LJ: Yeah. You see the possibilities. So the second question is not really relevant to you. It’s not like many of the artists that we interview who were going to school and started down one path and wanted to drop everything to be an artist and it was a battle with the family. That just isn’t part of your narrative.
RC: No, like I said, everything just kind of pushed me towards math and science and I could get positive feedback doing that and recognition and I had a good job and so it just pushed me into a school where I actually got a degree in chemistry. I took a few computer courses and got a programming job when I graduated and did that for the next 25 years.
LJ: Did you do it for a company or on your own?
RC: I did it for several companies and then for the last 10 years I was doing it as an independent contractor; as a consultant.
LJ: Nice! Do you still consult?
RC: No. I didn’t make a conscious effort to retire from it but the last few years I was doing it, the jobs were coming less frequently and after the last job I wanted some time off and didn’t make an effort to find a new job and then I ended up getting married and realized I didn’t need as much money coming in as I had needed before and so eventually after a couple of years of not working, I realized I was retried and I just haven’t done any programming since then. Except I did a little bit of volunteer work at a local environmental organization, but that was a few years ago now.
LJ: So you’re really able to focus on your art?
RC: Well even that, I wouldn’t even say I do it half time. It’s less than that, maybe 10-12 hours a week I put into the art. Mostly just focus on enjoying the time that I now have for myself.
LJ: Yeah, no kidding! That’s a nice luxury. So you had studied at community college and then worked with the Art League of Alexandria. It’s amazing to me what kind of resources these art leagues have for the interested public.
RC: The one in Alexandria, the Torpedo Factory, is very well known and has extensive courses and excellent instructors there.
LJ: Do they have a really nice facility?
RC: Oh they do. It’s called Torpedo Factory because it’s a building that had been a torpedo factory during WW2 and was converted into artist studios. It’s a pretty large building. Most of the classes that I had were there. They had a few off at other places where they would teach classes in the area.
LJ: So what kind of studio space do you occupy? Did you build a room for yourself or did you take a spare room or do you have a basement studio?
RC: Well I took over one of the small bedrooms that we have in the house. It’s an old house. It claims to have three bedrooms upstairs but two of them are pretty tiny. So I took over one of the tiny ones and pretty much filled it the brim with my supplies and a table and an easel.
LJ: What kind of substrate do you use? Do you paint on canvas? Or paper?
RC: Most of the paintings I’ve been doing now are on panel. I usually buy the panels not gessoed but prepared and cut to the proper size. I get those from Dick Blick or Ampersand. Then I gesso it myself and prepare the surface because I like a smoother surface than what most of the prepared ones come with.
LJ: Get rid of all that texture?
RC: Right. You need a little bit of tooth. I’ve found some prepared ones that are almost like glass smooth and that’s too smooth. There’s nothing that pulls the paint off the brush. But I t typically don’t want as much texture as you’d get in a canvas. Even a canvas that’s been heavily gessoed. Although I do have a few paintings that I do, that doing them on linen seems right for the subject and for the scene. But I mostly work on panel.
LJ: In looking at your work, especially the piece that won, it’s very clean and a sharp look.
RC: Yeah, it’s a very sharp edge and the smoother the surface, the easier it is to get that effect.
LJ: How large do you work?
RC: Most of them are pretty small. The largest paintings I’ve been doing now are about 18 inches in the largest dimension. Most of them are around 10” x 10” or 8” x 8”. I really haven’t done anything that is more than about 32 at the largest dimension. I was doing a few paintings that size a while back, but I’ve been working small lately.
LJ: You like that square format. It’s very in.
RC: For a good portion of the last few years I was doing paintings that are based on old snapshots. That’s like the image that won the contest, which is from an old family photograph, where me or my older brother is sitting in this chair. I stuck this little figure in there instead of me or my brothers and most of those old snapshots came in a square format so that sort of dictated the dimensions of the painting.
LJ: Were they old Polaroids?
RC: No, they weren’t Polaroids but they weren’t 35 mm either. They were some other small point and shoot cameras of the 1960’s. The film still had to be developed.
LJ: How would you describe your artistic process? When you are in the mood to paint, how do you approach your subject and how do you decide what to paint?
RC: It’s hard to say exactly how the ideas come, although I’ve been painting my little pencil sharpeners and other toys for the past almost 10 years now. So I know what to be looking at until some idea pops into my head. But once that happens, the computer programmer in me comes out because it’s very methodical. I’ll start photographing the figures in different light and different angles to see how it works best. I’ll actually put it on the computer and begin playing with compositions and backgrounds and making whatever minor adjustments and tweaks to get the right composition out of it. Then I’ll transfer basic outlines to my panel and start with a monochrome layer and I typically do that in three separate painting sessions, each one drying to the touch in between. The first one is just the basic blocking in of the shapes and then I start working a little more with getting the values right and then the final one is where I really get it to a very realistic, but still monochrome, painting. And then I begin the transparent glazes which, I slowly build up the color, adjusting it how I want and at some point I can tell it has gotten far enough and then I go in and touch up the details, touch up the highlights, really sharpen some of the edges. Then I add a few contour lines to make things pop out where I need them to.
LJ: It’s pretty amazing, just from looking at your work online, it seems like your objects really do look like you could hold them.
RC: Well thanks, I’m almost going for a Trompe l'oeil effect. I’m painting them larger than life and I don’t usually put them in settings that’s going to add to the effect that you’re looking at the real thing. Most of them, they do kind of look like they pop off at you. I am going for a very high degree of realistic effect.
LJ: So the one that you have, in particular, that is kind of interesting to me is the “Puppy Dog.” That’s very grey and the way the shadows are it really does look like a sculpture.
RC: That was one of the early paintings that I did in that style and I remember having to spend a lot of time on that one to get the shadows and highlights just right. A lot more time than I would spend now that I have experience doing these ones. Back then I was still learning and really the only way to make it look realistic was to paint everything exactly as I thought it should be.
LJ: When you put it on the computer, you print it out and you use that as your visual reference as well? Or do you still use the object as a visual reference?
RC: I’ll use both. Yeah, I’ll make some prints after I’ve worked on the computer but I also always have the object right there and kind of go back and forth between the two of them. At some point I almost look at neither because I’m trying to make the best painting out of it and I’m not doing it for archival purposes so it’s not important that it actually be completely accurate to the subject.
LJ: You’re still creating a representation although you are trying to create a realistic representation, if that’s correct?
RC: Trying to make it look realistic, in that it looks like you can reach out and pick it up, but not realistic in the sense that if you see this, then you know exactly what the original figure looks like.
LJ: Oh, I see what you’re saying. So you’re making a real object but it’s not necessarily the exact object that you have in front of you.
RC: Yes. It’s usually very close unless I’ve got some reason not to. Some of the images where I was putting two or three sharpeners together into the snapshots and they had to represent me and my brothers at different ages, and I had these three figures that were all the same size, so I’d end up stretching and shrinking some of them but I could do it in a way that made it look natural. I wouldn’t just expand the whole thing. I might have to stretch the body while keeping the head the same size and keeping it almost the same width.
LJ: It sounds like fun!
RC: It is. The conceptual phase is always fun. It’s not hard work at that point and it’s not nearly as final. You can experiment and do whatever you want and know that if you don’t like it, you try something else.
LJ: That’s the beauty of doing art for yourself. It doesn’t matter. Whatever works for you. The next question I like to ask is about underlying themes. What I pick up here is the whole interest on these objects that you’ve collected over time. Are there any other underlying themes that I might be missing in looking at your body of work?
RC: What’s been common in almost every painting that I’m doing is that I’m trying to create something beautiful and try to create a beautiful composition of shapes and colors and objects. But other than that, I don’t know that there are other themes that run through them.
LJ: Are there any artists that have influenced or inspired you to work in this genre?
RC: Well, about 12 years ago, there were three exhibitions that I saw within a period of about one and a half years, which, really focused me on what I wanted to do. One was on Impressionist Still Life paintings. One was botanical illustration and the third was something called The Index of American Design. The Index of American Design is a huge collection of watercolor paintings, which, the government commissioned in the 1930s. It was to document American decorative objects. It was done partially to put artists to work in the 1930s but also to be an archival reference for all these historical American decorative objects. When I saw this display at the National Gallery of Art, many of these were usually on a white plain background, or no background at all, it was just the white of the paper. There would be some piece of furniture of some old toy from colonial times painted on this white piece of paper and many of these were just really beautiful paintings in and of themselves. I didn’t really care about the archival purposes of them I just thought they were really beautiful as works of art. I looked at those and at that point it kind of all came together. I realized I’ve been collecting pencil sharpeners for 20 years; I’ve got all these little toys at home. I could be painting these the same way. I could be making beautiful paintings out of these little objects.
LJ: What kind of subject matter was in this index?
RC: Like I said it was described as being American decorative objects. There was furniture, old toys, quilts. The big categories really were furniture and textiles and toys. They wanted to archive it with artists painting it for two reasons. One: because in the 1930s color film was still not always completely accurate and couldn’t be guaranteed that it wasn’t going to change color over time after you printed it. Two: also it’s because the artist is able to bring out details of the structure that the photograph often can’t do. You look at some of these paintings of quilts and there are places where you’re basically seeing every thread the way that the pieces are assembled together and a photograph taken from a single light source just wouldn’t be able to bring that structure out the way that the artist can do when they’re making artistic decisions.
LJ: That is just so interesting! The artists themselves were just everyday artists, there weren’t any names that you recognize that went on to make a career?
RC: Right. I’ve never seen any names in there of people that I recognize, who later became famous for their work.
LJ: That’s really an interesting story. I’ve heard a lot of different stories but you’re the second person to tell me about, and it has to do with the resources that we have there, between the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian and how things were documented before film was stable.
LJ: How do you keep a fresh perspective?
RC: Once I figured out what I was doing with these pencil sharpener paintings, new ideas just kept coming. As long as I see the subject that motivates me, it feels fresh to me. I’ve actually mostly stopped painting the pencil sharpeners about 6 months ago when I moved on to other items around the house. I do always wonder what’s going to come next. Occasionally I get this idea, like, when I started using the old family snapshots and sticking the sharpeners into them, when I came up with the idea of doing one of these and started looking, I just started finding all these pictures where I was like “oh! There’s a painting, there’s another painting. I can do all these.” I ended up doing about 34 or 35 of those and then I ran out. I realized the ideas I was working on weren’t really feeling fresh. It was feeling kind of forced and I realized I had to move on to something else. When I was doing that it was great because I had all these new ideas that were coming up. Then there are other times when I only have ideas for the next two or three paintings. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that. I just hope something does.
LJ: I’m sure it will. I’m certainly not a painter but I do a lot of writing and sometimes you think, “how am I going to express this?” or “I need to write an article about that and how am I even going to say it?” and just putting the time and focus into it, it just happens. So, how do you know when you are finished with a piece or series? When you look at something and you say, “Okay, I’m done working the image.”
RC: The paintings that I’m doing now with that methodical process of building up slowly and working out the exact composition in advance, I pretty much know when I’m done. I will always put a painting up on a wall somewhere I can see it after I’m finished and a week or a month or two months later I might see something that I don’t like, like the way the background is working or I see some section of it that just didn’t come out right that I somehow didn’t notice before. Then I’ll have to go back and fix it because once I see something wrong, that’s all I can see when I look at it.
LJ: Isn’t that awful, it’s like a curse.
RC: Yeah, the fact that I somehow didn’t notice it for two months is not comforting to me that it’s not the only thing anyone can see when they look at this painting.
LJ: Isn’t that true. So we have a gallery here in our location. We put in a beautiful state of the art gallery that I hope you can come visit and see sometime or maybe even exhibit with us, and we have a show going right now from the Ohio Watercolor Society. These paintings are unbelievable but what my problem is, is that I’m also looking at the frame and sometimes if there’s a gap in the corner or dust under the Plexiglas or a miss-cut mat, I’m sure no one else sees that stuff but I do. What does a typical day look like when you’re working? Are you one to sit down and paint for 10 hours at a time or do you spread it out?
RC: Usually it’s 2- 3 hours at a time because when I’m working with total concentration, I’m very focused and there are tasks I can do that are easier and I can sometimes spend the whole day working on them. But usually I paint in the morning. I set up my palette and I get the painting I’m going to work on and spend the next 2 or 3 hours working on it, forcing myself to take a break after each hour because otherwise my eyes end up out of focus and I’m bent like a pretzel. By the time I’m done with that, I’m usually pretty much exhausted from painting. The first time I had a show and I had to complete a lot of paintings, I was doing more and working mornings and afternoons and forcing myself to put in more hours each day and I got used to it and it worked okay. But since I don’t need to do that now, I’m not doing it.
LJ: Did you find that your quality suffered when you tried to push like that?
RC: No, I was still able to get the focus in. It’s really hard to predict beforehand whether I’m going to have a good painting session or a bad painting session but a lot of times I’ll make excuses for not painting like, “oh I’m too tired, I don’t think I can focus properly” and I’ll start painting and it works out fine anyway and other times I’m totally focused and I’m painting and things just aren’t working out for me. I don’t know what the connection is but it’s not this fear that I’m too tired to be able to focus properly. It’s something else that for some reason the paint just seems to go on right some days and other days it doesn’t.
LJ: So what would you say is your biggest accomplishment so far?
RC: That would be the one solo show that I had, which was three years ago. That consisted totally of those snapshot paintings I was telling you about. There were 24 of them and when I first submitted the proposal for the show I think I had only done 3 or 4, just to demonstrate the concept and to show the non-profit art place where I wanted to show it. Once they accepted and gave me a show, I had about a year to finish the remaining 20 paintings for it. I had to get those done under a deadline and they all worked well together and I thought they were all strong paintings, so I felt very
good about having accomplished that.
LJ: Yeah, no kidding! Were you able to get any media to come out and review your work; review your show for you?
RC: This was in Frederick, MD and I did get interviewed by the local newspaper.
LJ: Did anyone buy your work?
RC: I think I sold 6 paintings at that show.
LJ: Let me kind of skip ahead here. How do you decide what to charge?
RC: I look at what others are charging. I think about how much work I’m putting into each piece, I take a wild guess, and it typically is going to be too high for most people to consider but not high enough that the serious collectors [don’t] take it seriously.
LJ: What does an original go for?
RC: My smallest one I think I’m starting at around 280 dollars and the largest ones are 1200.
LJ: Those are fair prices for the average collector.
RC: Yeah, At my show I had someone tell me I’m not charging enough and someone else telling me, “well I knew some people that really wanted to buy but they were just too high for their budget.” So you know, it’s just like you have to come up with some middle ground somewhere, whatever you think you can get away with.
LJ: Now, as far as your online art gallery, do you ever direct people to buy copies of prints if they can’t afford an original?
RC: Well I’ve tried to do that but not with much success. I put links to it on my website and I will tell people when they’re looking at my paintings that they can buy prints, but no one ever seems to follow through on that.
LJ: Have you tried any prints yourself?
RC: I’ve made some prints to give away as gifts. I haven’t tried making prints to sell, which would be the most effective way but would also require the investment up front.
LJ: It does. We have several artists who stock up for shows. They have their originals and then they have a bin or a few matted or poly bagged prints ready to go at a lower price. Some artists like doing that and others are like, “no I’m not doing that because that dilutes my original work.”
RC: I don’t mind about diluting the original work. I’m not trying to support myself doing this. I’m not doing art fairs and art shows and places like that.
LJ: That’s a whole different lifestyle. So how do you see your art evolving?
RC: Oh, I wish I knew.
LJ: Okay! You don’t!
RC: When you asked earlier, “how do you know when a piece is done? How do you know when a series is done?” I know when a series is done when I’m working on new compositions and I realize they don’t really motivate me. I’m just coming up with an idea and I’m doing paintings that fit that idea but I’m just sort of doing it as a gimmick. I’m not really motivated and then that’s when I stop because I don’t really want to do that. And that’s happened a couple of times with offshoots where I thought, “oh here’s a new direction I’m going to take these paintings” and then I do two that I really like and realize that there just weren’t any more that I wanted to do that way. Right now I’m painting these little tchotchkes around the house: salt and pepper shakers and ash trays and other little figures which I’m putting together some paintings that I really like from it. I’ve got 4 or 5 ideas in the pipeline that are waiting for me to do but I have no idea what comes after those.
LJ: Do you have any framing tips that you’d like to share?
RC: Nothing specifically I can think of other than having discovered that I could get frames much more economically buying them online than having them done custom made at a local frame shop. I’m not just saying this to butter you up, but what I would tell people is try americanframe.com
LJ: Oh thank you! What’s your favorite profile? Do you use metal, do you use wood? Is there a particular style that you like?
RC: I like to always use wood for my paintings and most of them I’m using very simple frames. Very simple contemporary frames. In fact, the show I had with the 24 paintings, they were all done with a plain black frame that’s just a flat surface profile. The ones I’m doing now, I’m doing a little bit more like traditional still life painting so I’m starting to look in to much more traditional frames that set them off. I haven’t really decided which ones to use yet.
LJ: You probably know this but I’m going to say it anyway, but anything you want to see, we send free samples of.
RC: Oh, yeah! Almost every time I order frames now I try to figure out which samples to get.
LJ: Great! So which samples did you order, do you know?
RC: Oh, I don’t remember.
LJ: Okay. I’m just curious. Do you have any questions for us while we have you here?
LJ: Okay, well I just want you to know that American Frame is a family business. I’m second generation. My father started this in our garage when I was a kid. It was one of those things where he had had his hardware store and my parents had opened the first modern art gallery in the Toledo area. And my family was always doing weird stuff and I was 13 and thinking: can we just do something normal? But, that wasn’t the way things were. So I came home from school one day and it was the middle of winter and there was my dad in the garage with the saw, cutting metal picture frames. He literally had icicles coming off his beard and there I was, the brat kid going, “oh my gosh this is so weird.” He was the first to ever sell custom metal picture frames via direct mail. So, he kind of started this industry and we’ve kind of taken it from there. We have a rich history and a deep connection to the business and our artist customers and so it’s a real privilege to spend this time with you and hear your story. I really appreciate that you’re an American Frame customer and that you’ve taken the time to set up an art gallery on our site and that you’ve told people about us. That’s very meaningful.
RC: Something I wanted to add now, because I remember: I’m pretty certain that when I first discovered American Frame, I was still looking at the frames in the catalog. So that must’ve been before you had an online store.
LJ: Yes! So the website, we were kind of dabbling in it in the early 90s and then really kind of had a nice professional site by around 1998 or 1999. Then in 2000 it really started kicking in. 2003 we started the whole online printing and it was because of that digital printing technology that allowed us to say, “hey, why don’t we give the artists a place to archive their art on our website?” That is why we came up with the art gallery. So, you know, one thing leads to the next, which leads to the next. Like you were saying, you don’t really know where it’s going to go next but you kind of look at what works and what doesn’t and what people like and you build upon that. It’s a lot of fun! Well thank you again for your time. It was very nice making your acquaintance.
RC: Thank you! It was a pleasure talking to you.
LJ: Likewise! Bye!