A Laguna Beach artist’s speckled paintings celebrate favorite pop culture brands and icons from the past.
By Sharon Stello | Photos by Jody Tiongco
From classic Coca-Cola bottles to vintage restaurant signs and logos for sports teams, childhood games and candy, Laguna artist Robert Holton puts his own spin on pop culture icons with the use of brightly colored “drizzle” painting in a fun, nostalgic homage to well-loved brands through the years.
His style of art, described by some as a cross between Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, has resonated with buyers locally and all over the world, including celebrity collectors such as comedian Ellen DeGeneres, Food Network personality Guy Fieri, and singers Macy Gray and Madonna, as well as sports teams such as the Anaheim Ducks, Angels and LA Dodgers.
Robert—wearing a straw fedora and paint-splattered white shirt and pants—creates his paintings in a second-story South Coast Highway studio that also serves as his gallery, with a clear view of the ocean and bustling crowds on the sidewalk below. He opened the gallery in March after moving from Anaheim in July 2013, working out of his garage before finding the current space. He came here to tick off a box on his bucket list: showing at the Sawdust Art Festival, which only admits Laguna Beach residents. He plans to apply for a booth at next summer’s festival.
“I have been attending it for over 25 years and thought it was the coolest venue I have ever seen: [a] very eclectic group of artists, [a] great vibe to the booths and the grounds are awesome,” Robert says. “About five years ago, I started my [bucket] list and that was probably [the] second thing I added to the list, as it would be a great goal to shoot for.
“And, as my father told me years ago as he was aging, ‘Make sure you have no regrets in life.’ Sawdust would be a regret if I at least did not try and get into it,” he continues. “Worst-case scenario is if I do not make the cut, I have lived in Laguna Beach—one of the most beautiful art communities in the world. … Not a bad place to be.”
A Long Road
Painting came late in life for Robert, 56, although he was artistic from a young age. “I was always drawing on the Pee-Chee [folders] and stuff. It was hard to focus,” recalls Robert, who often visited Laguna as a boy and was exposed to the art shows early on.
At 17, he started working for a sign business owned by a friend of his parents before switching gears to the hospitality industry and shuttling tourists to sightseeing locations—including Laguna, which left a lasting impression on him. After getting married and having kids, he attended Los Angeles Trade Technical College and started a silk-screening business with his dad, Pete, making T-shirts and signs out of the garage. His dad has since passed away and two of Robert’s sons, Trevor and Cody, now manage the business, One Day Signs in Anaheim.
Robert always wanted to paint, but never had the time. Then, his wife Alicia died in April 2003 after a four-year battle with breast cancer, and Robert sought a creative outlet to deal with the loss. “That was a really hard time in my life, and that’s why I started painting,” he says.
One day, Robert was repainting the walls of his wife’s home office to erase the constant reminder of her absence. In the room sat a photo of Alicia, printed on an oversized canvas, from the memorial service. Suddenly overcome with grief and anger, Robert grabbed a 5-gallon can of paint and a stir stick and started flinging pigment at the photo, splattering paint across her image.
“It was very cathartic,” Robert says. “It helped me deal with some of the pain.”
Once he took a step back and looked at what he had done, he realized the paint-covered photo had a certain quality that he liked. He tried the technique on several photos of Alicia, tweaking the method to both splatter paint and drip it onto the outline of her picture. As Robert slowly worked through his grief, he started branching out to other images.
“I started painting more things that brought me joy,” he says. There were signs from favorite restaurants and a “U-Drive” rental sign that hung near the Balboa Island Ferry dock, which he used to see from his boat.
“A lot of things are from the past,” Robert adds. “As you get older, you gravitate to those things from when you were younger.” People often have fond memories of childhood cereal, candy, soda and restaurants, recalling a happier time when they were young and carefree.
While Robert sometimes hand-paints an image, he typically starts with a photo of a logo or sign (for which he pays a license fee), then prints it on a large stretched canvas and begins painting over the picture. “It’s a blueprint that’s created, or it’s a high-tech paint-by-numbers, but there’s no numbers,” Robert says of his highly embellished work.
Using an old barbecue skewer to drip or “drizzle” the paint, he builds up pigment along the image’s outline to give it texture, particularly on pictures of neon signs, and make them really pop. “It’s like therapy at times. I get in the zone,” he says.
To add splatters and speckles to the background, his tool of choice is a brush meant for removing air bubbles when hanging wallpaper. Behind his worktable, a row of 16-ounce water bottles are filled with hues mixed from bigger paint buckets.
With so many paintings, from the box art of Rock’em Sock’em Robots to Mr. Potato Head, the old Bob’s Big Boy restaurant statue and Heineken beer bottles, it’s difficult to choose a favorite. “It’s usually what I’m working on currently because it’s something new,” Robert says.
Sometimes, he inserts a bit of local flavor to his paintings, such as a vintage Coppertone sunscreen advertisement with that famous baby on the beach—and the Laguna lifeguard tower in the background. Robert has quickly fallen in love with his adopted hometown. “This is God’s country. It’s beautiful,” he says, looking out the window. “On a clear day, you can see Catalina.”
Robert has been painting for 11 years now, showing his work at art fairs before coming to Laguna. Here, he mostly creates commissioned pieces, like the painting of a dog for a bride’s wedding gift to her husband-to-be, or the favorite candy brands of each child for a family’s movie room at home.
Robert also hosts art shows at his family’s sign shop in Anaheim. He allows anyone to display their work at his Warehouse of Contemporary Art display, which started as a monthly gathering but now brings artists together quarterly. In Laguna, he’s part of the First Thursdays Art Walk and often hosts casual receptions on the deck outside his gallery, chatting with fellow artists as well as past and potential buyers.
Striking a Chord
When someone buys his artwork, Robert often asks the story behind what drew them to the piece. “It’s just nice, the connection you get with people,” he says.
For example, a woman purchased the U-Drive boat sign painting because it brought back memories of learning to fish under the sign with her grandfather, who lived on Balboa Island. For one couple, the painting of a classic McDonald’s restaurant recalled their after-school dating spot, years before they eventually married.
Of course, some memories aren’t as happy: One man bought a Bob’s Big Boy painting to help him move past painful recollections of a summer after his father left the family. His mother worked as a waitress at the diner and he had to come along; he slept in the car and woke up to a view of the eatery’s iconic statue, then went inside for breakfast every day. Robert hopes to one day assemble a book with photos of his paintings set alongside the buyers’ stories.
Roy Slavin, a part-time Laguna resident who has purchased Robert’s paintings, says he appreciates the artist’s choice of subject matter and the use of vibrant hues. “The colorful, serendipitous nature of Robert’s work is what draws me to him and his gallery,” Roy shares.
He has one of Robert’s pieces—of the Statue of Liberty—on the wall at his New York City home, where he also can view the actual statue from his window. “My guests always comment on this juxtaposition of the ‘artificial’ Statue of Liberty—colorful and provocative—seen at the same time as the ‘real thing,’ ” Roy says.
Individuals aren’t the only ones seeking a dose of nostalgia with Robert’s paintings. Corporations often commission pieces to celebrate their logos or products for an event or special promotion. The World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta invited him to create a painting for a 2010 “pop” art show, which also featured pencil sketches by Andy Warhol. Netflix requested a painting of its “House of Cards” show featuring Kevin Spacey for an event. And the Angels commissioned Robert to paint team logos for the visiting team clubhouse.
Robert recently worked with Crocs (a shoe manufacturer) to create a painting that incorporates the firm’s logo as well as use colors from the artwork in a limited edition line of footwear. Last fall, he started on prototypes using tones from his Mr. Bubble paintings. He was also in talks with General Motors about making a piece that features a Corvette to display at a large car show.
Robert often gets involved in charity efforts, too. In 2014, he painted a Charlie Chaplin piece for an old Hollywood-themed fundraiser benefiting the Irvine-based Human Options, which started in Laguna and provides services for domestic violence victims. Among other charity work, he has created five or six custom pieces for the Irvine-based In-N-Out Burger Child Abuse Foundation, which supports groups that provide residential treatment, emergency shelter, foster care and early intervention for kids in need.
And, Robert is part of a reality-style TV show in the works by Yorba Linda-based ArtMoose to give a glimpse of what artists go through to become established. The project was successfully funded in June 2014 on Kickstarter, a popular crowdfunding website, and ArtMoose is shopping the show around to various networks in hopes of getting it picked up. In addition to Robert, wildlife artist Chris Hoy will be part of the show and ArtMoose is in talks with the management team for Monica Warhol, cousin of the late pop artist Andy Warhol.
While it can be difficult for an artist to get started and survive, Robert has found much success with his passion. “There’s worse ways to make a living,” he says. “… This doesn’t seem like work.”