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The Robert Watts Interview

I recently sat down with concept artist Robert Watts, for coffee and a chat about his career and by that, I mean Robert graciously agreed to be interviewed by email and took time out of his schedule to answer my questions. It’s entirely  possible one of us was drinking coffee whilst typing.

Robert was Lead Illustrator at Ryan Aeronautical during a very interesting time in the company’s history. His former clients include NASA, American Airlines, General Dynamics and the United States Navy. Robert was a Navy Combat Artist during Vietnam, has served as President of the Society of Illustrators of San Diego, and to this day is a highly sought-after architectural illustrator. He is a signature member of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association and teaches at the school founded by son Jeffery.

He is also an utterly charming man.

Did art run in the family?

My mother and paternal grandfather did some art, but I really did little serious drawing or painting before college. I started out in graphic design at Pratt Institute and later decided to pursue illustration at The Art Center School in L.A.

Two very  prodigious schools. Was concept art always the goal or were you leaning towards a fine art career?

I had always been obsessed with aviation, but I didn’t realize there were aerospace opportunities till Joe Henniger (Art Center – Illustration Head) asked if I would be interested in a job at Ryan Aeronautical  (later Teledyne Ryan)  in San Diego… I said yes!

Wow, so straight to Ryan from college?

First big job, though I did some freelance work in L.A. before starting.

Your Apollo artwork is extremely detailed. Did you have access to the flight hardware?

They were obviously all done while at Ryan, and they of course had models and engineering drawings of everything. Ryan Electronics built the Doppler radar landing unit, which was the final vital piece in any landing. My job was to simply attempt a believable depiction of these events. We did work on Skylab during the same period.

How much autonomy were you given?

I had tremendous control over all my work at Ryan. They would simply explain what their intent was and what we should emphasize After leaving Ryan I worked in advertising and had some art direction there. I also did about 3000 architectural renderings after that and my ability to read plans was very useful.  I have always been able to conceive an image in my mind before starting… and that was crucial. I’ve been all over the map in illustration!

Did any of your Apollo era artwork make it home with you?

No… but they were decent pieces so I’m confident someone has them. Piers [Bizony] was kind enough to send me some hi-rez copies! *

Comic book artists love to namecheck Frank Frazetta as an influence. Who inspired you?

I was one of the first to see Franks’ work and continue to be spellbound by anything he did. In aerospace: Robert McCall, Jack Leynnwood. John Steel, R.G. Smith and Chesley Bonestell. In general illustration: Rockwell, Mead Schaeffer, Bernie Fuchs, Dean Cornwell, Bob Peak, John Harris (scifi) David Grove and Drew Struzan… many others too numerous to mention!

You jump effortlessly between media, if you had to paint or draw in one medium for the rest of your career what would it be?

Gouache… it was a medium of emphasis at Art Center and aerospace. I teach it and use it a lot… often on a heavily gesso’d surface for a more textured and painterly feel. I often do the underpainting with casein as well.

Do you still love to paint, or is it just a job now?

It is my life passion… never tire! I teach all manner of illustration topics at my son Jeff’s school: Watts Atelier of the Arts in Encinitas California. I also still do all conceptual work for the world-wide San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. I also sell all types of paintings  at my gallery website.

Would you ever consider a commemorative work relating to the Apollo Program, or has that ship sailed for you?

I always consider everything, it is a subject that is iconic for America, so who knows?

Your signature is present on nearly all of the work from your time at Ryan. Was this contractually stipulated or Ryan’s policy?

The subject never arose.

I love that you’re involved with the atelier. Is there anything you’d like people to know about it?

There are streaming classes of mine and others at the school available at very reasonable fees.

Robert again, thank you for your time.

*. Robert’s 1970 painting of Apollo 13 was used as the cover of The Art of NASA by Piers Bizony.

Image source(s):

Mike Acs

NASA Image and Video Library

SDASM Archives

Buffalo Hunter

Ryan Model 147 at Wikipedia

Image credit: Ryan Aeronautical

Image source: SDASM Archives


Ryan AQM-91 Firefly at Wikipedia

Image credit: Ryan Aeronautical

Image source: SDASM Archives

Compass Cope

Ryan YQM-98 R-Tern at Wikipedia

Image credit: Ryan Aeronautical

Image source: SDASM Archives

Ryan UAV

Ryan Model 147 at Wikipedia

Image credit: Ryan Aeronautical

Image source: SDASM Archives