Phil Roberts interview

Surf artist, illustrator & sculptor

Phil Roberts is a multi-talented surf artist, painter, sculptor and renowned movie advertising illustrator…

Phil, tell us about your background, where are you from?

PR: I'm from Melbourne, Florida, surf capital of the East Coast. I grew up with many legends and surf stars. I taught myself how to airbrush at 15 (the competition was so tough, no one was willing to give tips). I was spray painting bikinis at a sidewalk art show when I was offered a job to paint boards at Mike Tabelings factory by Dave Carson, at 16. That's how it all started. Surfboards lead to magazines that lead to movie posters and everything else.

What were your first experiences of surfing?

PR: Summer in Jacksonville Beach, at 13, working in my Uncle's deli making cheese balls watching him hit on the hot housewives. I took my uncle's longboard out where it breaks 1/4 mile out and got hooked on surfing little one-footers. That was a fun summer.

I've seen you described as an illustrator, a renaissance painter, a sculptor… How would you describe your own art? And what do you hope to communicate through your work?

PR: Figurative in any medium. I've always been drawn (pardon the pun) to the human figure and the challenge of capturing personalities since I started doing caricatures in high school. I've been very fortunate that my destiny as an artist has always been evident to me. I appreciate being blessed when I see my friends still struggling to find their talents. All I can say is shoot for the toughest challenges you dream of, you may surprise yourself and that's where your answers lie in who you are. I'm stoked with what I was born to do, everything else has fallen into place.

Are there any other artists, individuals or organisations that inspire your work?

PR: Italian Renaissance Masters & 19th century American Illustrators and sculptors. It's impossible to compete with a ghost (who were totally supported to do art by patrons), but they set the bar… and I want to set the bar in 'surf art'.

In your art, what is it about surfing and/or surf culture that inspires you so?

PR: I love surfing, I'm addicted to waves… all I want to do is paint waves and the world around them. Besides the surf community is my family that supported and gave my talent a home and identity.

You started drawing at an early age, got into caricatures, and then figurative/portraiture drawing. You seem to pay particular attention to form and figure, with striking results… How important do you think this level of study/detail is for an artist?

PR: If it's what you want to do, whatever it is, go all the way and beyond… you have one life, one shot… why waste it being mediocre. I will not disrespect my God given talent by taking it for granted, not sharing it and always push it to the limits.

Tell us about your famed 'scientific illustrations' of how a wave works for Drew Kampion's 'The Book Of Waves', a beautiful set of unique, diagrammatic illustrations…

PR: Drew Kampion and the Art Director, Jeff Girard, presented me with the open ended challenge of illustrating the scientific info on waves and that's what I came up with… a slice of ocean & earth. I did a lot of research and yes they are National Geographic inspired (and have been copied by them since). I am still surprised at how far these illustrations have been circulated around the world. I have also discovered the weight of responsibility that goes with pictorialising scientific information even though its still a hypothesis on a phenomenon. College students refer to them, they've been in Encyclopaedias and science magazines around the world… you got to get it right. I had no idea of what I was getting into when I painted them. I'm glad I did my homework. I would like to update them one day. I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity to do that job.

You did the cover illustration for the 'Dale Velzy is Hawk' book by Paul Holmes. What was it like to depict a man such as Dale Velzy, one of the great pioneers of the surf industry, and among the most colourful characters in surfing history?

PR: That was difficult to capture who that man was/is in one picture. I just tried to get into his head and guess how he would want to be portrayed and/or by whom. That's how I came up with the look and painting style of N.C. Wyeth and Frederic Remmington for a western Surf Hero portrait. It's intimidating to portray a legend, I'm going to try again in a less commercial way.

You are renowned as being one of the top illustrators in movie advertising and Hollywood, no doubt a very demanding and rewarding role, how have you found this challenge over the years, and what have been your fondest memories?

PR: Very challenging, hard long hours, brutal criticisms and outrageous over blown egos to deal with (it's not for everyone). You can't help but hone your skills. But knowing my work is in homes all around the world is a fulfilment few artists know. I get letters from kids I inspire. I've seen my work in my travels to China, Nepal, Australia and Italy. And to work in the company of the best talents that Hollywood attracts, other artists, photographers and actors has been a great confidence builder. I've met some great people, and gotten great compliments from piers and celebrities. It's nice company to be in for a surf artist from Florida.

Please share with us your other passion for sculpture?

PR: 3-D is the most challenging art form (for me), you can't hide if you don't have skills. To breathe life into a sculpture portrait is very satisfying. Sculptures last forever. I see myself as a sculptor who can also draw and paint. It's sculpting I love most. I feel it's my gift and my speciality as a surf artist. I want to know for my sculpture portraits of surf legends.

It seems that through your career you have undertaken many commissioned projects… What would you love to do most, given the time and freedom, to work on something more personal?

PR: More of the same! I am doing what I love. I created the commissions I've gotten by coming up with the concepts and getting them in front of the right patrons. Everyone has the ability to create their own success, I listen to my imagination and search out the avenues to make the ideas happen. It's simple… dream it, draw it and send it out. See what comes back to you.

Looking back on a long, successful, varied career, what do you consider to be your biggest achievement(s), what are you most proud of?

PR: The Dec '82 cover of Surfer, The Book of Waves, Pipeline Masters trophy, making Faberge' Eggs, designing surf theme parks for Tom Lochtefeld and becoming one of the top 20 Movie poster illustrators in the Hollywood movie industry. I hear my work may be going to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. And I'm just getting started, lots to look forward to.

So where do those who want to see your artwork and/or purchase your art have to go?

PR: At the moment you can find a few paintings at Steve McKibbens Gallery in Corona Del Mar. The resin surf sculptures i created can be found in surf shops around the country.

What does the future hold for your art?

PR: I'm going bigger… much bigger in bronze.

Thanks again Phil for this insight into your work.

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