NEW YORK—How could it be possible to convey the poetry, the depth, the sweat, the soulful interpretation of life in the watercolor paintings by Mario Andres Robinson? The essence they emanate can only be fully appreciated in person, because they are the results of countless moments transformed into multiple thin layers of paint. The washes and glazes he applies to render a beautiful luminosity is a testament to the love of the people and places he has immortalized on paper made of cotton rag and linters.
The great American realist artist Andrew Wyeth once said, “One’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes.”
This truism is immediately evident in Robinson’s paintings.
Robinson paints people and places he knows well and has known for a long time, revealing their layers of character and emotion. His paintings tell open-ended stories of his family, close friends, and a few interesting acquaintances in their usual settings. He renders these average Americans extraordinary. To him, they are heroes; to the viewer, they are strangers. Yet, because of Robinson’s honesty and passion for what he does, the way he conveys their humanity with paint is enthralling.
Robinson was born in Altus, Oklahoma, in 1967. When he was 12 years of age, his family moved to New Jersey, where he still resides. After he finished high school and served in the Army for four years, he attended the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, on scholarship for fine arts, thanks to the support and encouragement of his fifth grade teacher, Louise Elvinger, who recognized his artistic gift. Since graduating from Pratt, Robinson has been working solely as a professional artist.
He initially became known for his incredibly detailed pastel paintings. Later, he taught himself and perfected his own technique for painting with watercolors, which has been his predominant medium since the year 2000. Today, Robinson is perhaps the only American artist who has mastered the watercolor medium at a level comparable to his contemporaries who use oil paints, including Jordan Sokol, Michael Klein, Bo Bartlett, Henry Casselli, and Burton Silverman. His work harks back to the great American artists he admires: Winslow Homer (1836–1910), Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), Edward Hopper (1882–1967), and Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009).
Robinson’s aesthetic stems from his quiet sensibility. His paintings connect us with our time but also with a rich heritage, especially of these previous generations of artists. He has looked to them for inspiration and technical insight, and has quoted them in his book, “Lessons in Realistic Watercolor: A Contemporary Approach to Painting People and Places in the Classical Tradition” (published by Monacelli Press in 2016).
Both his book and his instructional video “Watercolor Portraits” (published this year by Liliedahl Video Productions) are peppered with wisdom and little life lessons. He emphasizes laying a good foundation and the importance of establishing tonal values, which also rings true with moral values.
“I have learned more from making critical mistakes than I have from the more triumphant moments,” Robinson wrote.
Other morsels of wisdom he gives are about tenacity and having the right mindset required to work with the watercolor medium: understanding its properties and working with its strengths, instead of fighting with it.
“Once you face a challenge head on and conquer it, you will be surprised to discover the inner strength that you possess,” he wrote.
He seems to have such an affinity for watercolors that when he occasionally paints with oils or draws with pastels, those works end up looking more like watercolors.
Robinson joked about how he regards his preferred medium.
“It’s like a big unicorn in the middle of the art world right now,” he said. “I love it. It’s just like I’m riding my unicorn up Main Street; everybody else [oil painters, and so on] has horses. I’m spreading glitter, pixie dust all over the place,” he said, laughing.
As there are not many living watercolor artists of his caliber in our time, he’s essentially walking in virgin territory of the art world.
Letting Go of Hurricane Sandy
“I paint all up and down the shore,” Robinson said in his small studio at home in Point Pleasant, just a five minute walk from the New Jersey shore.
He showed a stack of his watercolor paintings on his table.
“These are all like love stories, looking at the temporal nature of something like this,” he said about a beach hut in his painting. The hut had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy six years ago.
Robinson’s watercolors were recently (Sept. 6–29) exhibited at the Bernarducci Gallery in Chelsea, the contemporary art hub of Manhattan. Several of those featured he had painted around the time of Sandy (2012); others were of specific places and people, like his wife, aunt, father, a neighbor, and a sergeant.
He was compelled to paint “Day Before Sandy” because it was an extraordinary moment.
“The light was so silvery and electric because of the storm coming up the coast. So I took my wife out there to do some sketches the day before Sandy,” Robinson said. “She was out there with a coat on; the wind was blowing through her hair. My family, to this day, tells me how crazy I was, but who knew it was going to be a 100-year storm!”
While his wife evacuated, Robinson did not take the hurricane warnings seriously and decided to stay at home. He was stranded alone for a little over a week. He recalled the silver-lining moments of neighbors helping each other, people taking it upon themselves to deter looters, and kids going around passing out water. Today, he still feels a little apprehensive during hurricane season.
“My work took a turn after that because I saw my mortality in a different way. It took on more of a resonance,” he said.
Also, after his grandmother, step-grandmother, and mother-in-law passed away within a year, his work became more present. Before, he sensed it had a little bit more of a voyeuristic feel to it.
“I was always more of a storyteller, like a reporter. You can dig down and touch the ground and feel people’s pain and get stories, but when it is your own story, it hits you directly. I had trouble finishing some of the paintings because it was just too much,” he said. “I became more aware of time passing. Every moment can mean something. We’re so fortunate to live.”
The paintings at Bernarducci were initially not intended to be exhibited. He had stored them away for a long time. As if marking a healing turning point in his life, Robinson said, “I felt like it was time to release it.”
A Warm Opening
The opening reception for Robinson’s exhibition at the Bernarducci Gallery on Sept. 6 was a gathering of friends, family, neighbors, fellow artists, and kindred spirits. The general atmosphere was naturally congruent with Robinson’s character and art—open, genuine, in the zeitgeist, and without pretentiousness.
“I have a real affinity for the kind of work that Mario does,” Frank Bernarducci said in his gallery. “His paintings deserve to be collected because they are so well done. They are not trendy. They are very traditional, and yet he has a following,” he added. “He’s such a tall, quiet guy and has such a delicate touch. It’s really disarming, and I really like representing him.”
Bernarducci is a well-respected art dealer championing contemporary realist painting, and specializing in a specific kind of photorealism, what he has coined as “New Precisionism.” He values artwork based on its intrinsic and aesthetic merits, before considering potential market value, and maintains long-lasting relationships with the artists he represents.
Robinson’s paintings are created from life and, on the spectrum of realist painting, couldn’t be farther from the New Precisionist paintings, which are created from multiple photographs. So it may seem surprising to see Robinson’s watercolors exhibited in the same gallery and at the same time as the huge photorealist paintings by Nathan Walsh. Yet Bernarducci has foresight and a keen sense of intuition for what will most likely become prominent in the contemporary art world in the near future.
“I have been finding a way to incorporate artists who paint from life, in my program,” Bernarducci said.
He will continue showing the New Precisionist work, as he has over the years, but will also champion more realist artists who paint from life.
The challenge Bernarducci faces is in finding new people who are interested in buying paintings for the pleasure of looking at them and not simply for making investments.
“Things have changed, and collecting is changing … What is missing is a detachment from the money part of art.”
As if encouraging an ideal client, he said, “If the artwork is beautiful, you love owning it. You know who made it, and it’s a soulful, handmade thing. It’s not a stock. So I think it will retain its value, at the very least, and will probably go up. But what if it doesn’t? So what. Is that so important? I don’t think so,” Bernarducci said.
Bernarducci walked through the exhibition of Robinson’s paintings, describing how he regarded them in detail.
“We put his self-portrait in the middle to anchor the show … His eyes tell the whole story. It really hones the expression on his face. And that flag behind him, it’s representative of the outside world, of him kind of turning his back on the outside world a little bit. It’s a beautiful painting,” Bernarducci said.
Every one of Robinson’s paintings conjures a story. Two paintings of his dad wearing a cowboy hat are especially intriguing and reminiscent of Wyeth’s paintings, especially the composition, and the muted tones show a somber moodiness.
More uplifting in mood, giving a sense of lightness of being, is his painting “Cruiser.” It depicts Robinson’s bicycle leaning on a beach hut in front of the ocean.
A painting of an elegant, middle-aged woman was of his aunt dressed for a funeral.
“He did a great job conveying her. She looks very proud and honest, and I love this,” Bernarducci said.
As Bernarducci pointed out, there is nothing trendy about Robinson’s paintings, and that is what is so appealing about them—their timeless quality.
Keeping It Real
Robinson’s studio is surprisingly small for such a tall guy. The room is not much wider than his height. On one end of the room stands his drafting table for making watercolors, and on the other end of the room, in the corner about three strides away, stands a tiny desk he uses to make drawings.
“I do a lot with less,” he said, and then he paused. “Don’t you love real life, though? Real life, it just cuts through it all.”
He feels comfortable drawing and painting in small spaces, like the nursing home rooms where he painted his aunt, his grandfather, and grandmother, or in the rooms of the Army barracks where he painted a sergeant so poignantly that his supervisor granted him an early release.
Now his paintings are born out of his little studio, his yard, and the beach. When he paints, he has to be relaxed.
“That’s when it is the best for this style of painting,” he said. “I’m either listening to music when I’m alone, or talking with the person I’m painting, so I am not overthinking. Everything has to be uplifting; there can’t be any negativity. I’ve never painted when I am mad or upset because that would just block creativity. That’s how I have operated and live my day-to-day life: in a happy, not naive, but positive, light mood to be able to do what I am doing. So it’s creating a certain type of individual, and that’s the power of art,” Robinson said.
In his art, Robinson gives generously what we long for the most: to live life deeply, even the mundane moments. That is what art is for, to help remind us that what we experience is valid, and at times even miraculous. It reminds us that we are resilient and can even survive storms.
Leafing through his watercolor paintings, Robinson gazed through them, beyond the paper.
“You can’t fake it, you can’t fake it, and you can’t get this time back. When I am gone, this is all that is going to be left behind. These are moments when I was fully present, when I was there, when I was doing something that I loved, and hopefully people will appreciate it,” Robinson said.