Bob Gilbert is a solitary man, an artist who spends the better part of each day with an paint brush in his hand.
A man of habit, Gilbert sets about researching his subjects, and uses photography to record his finds.
“I don’t do a lot of painting outside,” says Gilbert. “I find the light changes too fast. I see how light is working on something and I take a picture of it to capture it at the right moment. Then I bring it home to paint it.”
This process has been repeated dozens of times now. Gilbert retired in 1991, and up until then, was not able to devote his time solely to his craft. For many years he drove a grocery truck to make a living, and he and his wife raised three children that way.
“I did get hired in advertising by a company in Racine, but they folded. Then I got a job as an illustrator with TJ Hoffmaster in Oshkosh.” The illustrations he drew graced the tables of restaurants as placemats.
Since his retirement, Gilbert has enjoyed countless hours of uninterrupted painting. Now his work appears on walls in fine art galleries, where he gains commissions from his sales. He is appreciated by many as a fine artist.
“I guess I’ve done pretty good at it, although this year has been very slow,” says Gilbert. He says he will finish two paintings each year that are worthy of a gallery, while also doing commissioned work for locals or organizations.
He’s come a long way from his meager beginnings in illustration.
Robert Edward Gilbert was born in Forest County, Wisconsin in 1928. His father was a farmer and Robert and six siblings helped on the farm. They logged in the winters. He was lucky to attend Range Line School, a one room school house with a chalkboard he could draw on. His teacher told his mother that one day Robert would be a great artist. Gilbert says he is proud that he now makes a living as a painter.
He explained that he put himself through the Famous Artists Correspondence School from 1956-60, and did freelance work when he could find it. He finished his course and was very pleased to be graded by the likes of Norman Rockwell and Ed Whitcomb, among many others. He couldn’t wait to get his artwork back in an envelope. He would sit down and read every notation made by the famous artists. It was a thrill for him.
He has worked assembly on an auto line for American Motors and road construction when he could pick up the work.
But the art always called to him.
His four, large 1950s art instruction binders are nearby even now. He brought them out to show an example of how he learned his trade as an illustrator.
“I still refer back to them to this day,” says Gilbert. “They are a constant reference to my drawing.” Inside these binders are the answers to all of his questions as a painter. Sections of the book include using light sources, perspective, modeling, the human form, and action. All are part of what keeps Gilbert in check while he invests incredible amounts of attention to detail.
His efforts have been acknowledged by the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, who awarded him six times with the “Artist of the Year” award for wildlife ranging from the lynx, raccoons, blue birds, owl, a young fawn and a stately buck. He is currently working on his seventh win, and has a trout painting nearly complete. The painting lures you in to a deeply shaded stream and the cool bark of birch trees on a mossy bank. Upstream, where the sunlight filters through the leafy canopy, a fisherman battles a trout with his fins in flight over the stream’s surface.
“I get the original painting back from them, plus 20 prints for free,” explains Gilbert. Prints are affordable, being a fraction of an original oil painting. Hunting dogs seem to be an easy draw for Gilbert, as the eyes are painted to perfection and capture the innate hunting instinct of the dog.
Even more paintings spill into your memory fields with the colors of each season – summer, winter, autumn and spring. Not only the subject matter, but every twig and cloud in the background contains a hint of the season, especially evident if you are born and live in Wisconsin.
His studio is filled to capacity with neatly stacked shelves. Paint brushes and tubes line the table and wildlife taxidermy samples hang overhead for reference. Recycled cat food cans work perfectly to cover oil paint on a current paint palette. “Everybody has their tricks,” says Gilbert. “That’s just one I use so my paints don’t dry out so fast.”
There are stacks of photographs gathered and sorted, pertaining to the latest subject. One stack will help with his most recent commission. The photos reveal ducks hung in the crotch of a tree limb. In the painting, a father and son are duck hunting with their golden retriever by their side. They have guns pulled and aimed at ducks in flight.
“I take probably 50 to 100 pictures of the subjects if I can, before I start to paint. That gives me the reference I need for detail,” says Gilbert. In the background, behind the hunters main focus, are the ducks they have already harvested, hanging in the crotch of a small tree.
“I like to do commissioned work for people,” says the quiet man as he pours over a scrapbook of past commissioned work. There are hunting dogs, kittens, farm houses, farmers at work, farm families, hunting families, children, children at play, you name it, he’s done it.
Curt Sommer of New London knows first hand the fun that is involved in commissioning a work. “Robert did a painting of me and my blue bird houses. I have them all along a trail in Minnesota and he painted me hanging up a house while bicyclists rode by. I love it. He took the time to ask me questions about what I wanted. It was a great experience.”
“I like it when I can make something happen in a photo that a person has a good memory of,” says Gilbert as he points to a painting of domestic house cats. He also likes to keep the price reasonable. “There’s a big difference in time if I am painting a dog or a portrait versus an entire landscape and all the details,” says Gilbert.
In his spare time, Gilbert likes to attend art galleries and see other artwork. He was able to see Norman Rockwell’s art on display in Oshkosh this year.
“I saw how very dark some of his colors were. They had pure color in them, more than I thought there would be. You don’t see that in the printed pieces.”
Walleyes for Tomorrow local chapter appreciate Gilbert’s work. “They have taken my art for several years and sold prints of it. Just this year the National Walleyes for Tomorrow bought and printed four paintings and are interested in more.”
Tom King of Walleyes for Tomorrow New London Chapter concurs. “Gilbert has the keenest eye and is able to adapt a photograph into a painting, and even add certain aspects to the subject.” King recalls the painting Gilbert did of the Wolf River Sturgeon Trail. “I asked if Robert would be able to paint in some fishing poles next to the man (King Pharr) sitting on the bench. He was happy to do it, and excited at the idea. That makes him really fun to work with and being so adaptable makes my job easier too. We always want paintings the sponsors will enjoy.”
Gilbert is now entering contests at the Richeson Gallery in Appleton, and has his work at Parkside Gallery in Minocqua, Wildes Art gallery in Tomah, Wisconsin Arts Gallery in Green Bay, and Northwoods Gallery in Menomonie, Michigan.
Contact Robert Gilbert at 920-851-1954 to see more of his work or talk about a commissioned painting.