Portrait of RobRob Anderson
June 4, 1953 – May 24, 2014

Artist Rob Anderson was an American painter and teacher who captured the vitality of his subjects with sensitivity and wit. Seeking to express, “the unique life force that is elusive in a snapshot,Rob painted from life, rather than photographs, and produced portraits, nudes and still life paintings of contemporary subjects created with classical techniques.

His death in May 2014 was the same month his most challenging oil painting was unveiled at Yale University, where it hangs at Jonathon Edwards College. Rob’s double portrait of Gary and Sondra Haller, former co-deans of the College, combined complex textures perfectly suited to his meticulous approach: Gothic Revival architecture, wood grains, finials, tiles, reflections on glass, hairstyles and a variety of fabrics.

His love of drawing began when Rob discovered pencils at age two. It became a constant in his childhood of relocations that followed the military postings of his father U.S. Navy Captain James Anderson. The family of four, including his mother Lillian and sisters Diane and Susan, finally settled near San Diego in Bonita, CA, where Rob completed high school.

Though he planned to study architecture while at UC Berkeley, he switched majors and received his bachelor's degree in design in 1975. “I discovered printmaking in college when I passed by a design class and saw a two-color print of a telephone pole with wires silhouetted against a background. It was one of those, Aha! moments. I dropped architecture and didn't look back.”

Following graduation, Rob continued working with silkscreen prints and graphics. He was a co-founder of the William James Art Co. in Berkeley with photographer Bill Hannapple, where he created the iconic poster for the 1982 Gay Olympic Games. It is now called the Gay Games, after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed the Olympic Committees could reject the use of Olympic for this event. Rob’s image, adapted from classical Greek vase painting, became an artistic and political statement seen and collected internationally.

Expanding beyond his love of graphics, Rob concentrated on portraits and figurative art in the mid-1980s. He studied anatomy with artist Vincent Perez and drawing and painting with David Hardy, who later founded the Atelier School of Classical Realism in Oakland. Rob became an instructor at both the Atelier and the California College of the Arts, teaching traditional painting methods with a modern vision.

In 2011, he opened the Rob Anderson Studio School in the Mission district of San Francisco. As a teacher, Rob’s approach was both gentle and exacting, especially when he’d fine-tune his students’ figure proportions to a fraction of an inch. He was also very encouraging, guiding their progress with his philosophy: First draw what you know. Refine it down to what you see. Distill it further to what you feel. Continue on until it's what you are.

He accepted a variety of commissions for people of all ages, including a portrait of the Very Reverend Alan Jones on view in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. A request for a mural in a private residence sent him to Berlin where he spent nine months at the Pergamon Museum. Rob’s on-site sketches were of the Great Frieze of the Pergamon Altar, the ancient Greek monument that depicts the battle between the giants and the Olympian gods. These drawings were later exhibited at the Museum and published in a full-size portfolio by the German publishing house of Philipp von Zabern.

In his last decade, Rob worked intently on an ambitious project he hoped would uplift all those with life-threatening diseases. Combining portraits, audio, and sculpture, Rattlesnake in a Moving Car: Life with HIV is an expansive multimedia installation that explores the diverse lives of 20 long-time HIV-positive men and women and their will to survive.

Rob was one of the rare individuals who had contracted HIV, but was symptom-free. Having remained healthy without medication for over 35 years, he was noted in numerous scientific journals and profiled in major media, including CNN, Time and Vogue. Throughout the years, he retained a wary optimism about his condition saying, “Yeah, my blood has been to more places and countries than I ever have!”

The Rattlesnake installation was designed to inspire hope and courage, a theme that perfectly reflected the man Rob’s friends and family knew. He treasured people, insightful conversations and always, humor. Rob also enjoyed designing and woodworking for the homes in San Francisco and Guerneville he shared with his partner Rex Jones.

When Rex died in 2007 after 14 years together, Rob redoubled his efforts to complete the many art projects that gave him joy. He savored a challenge and never wavered in expanding his consummate skills as an artist. Despite his technical mastery, it was subordinate to content in his portraits. His intent was, no less than to describe the soul of the sitter by searching the map of the face for signs of joy and pain.”

Actress Marianne Muellerleile experienced Rob’s dedication firsthand when she asked how long he would take to complete her portrait.

“Well, maybe 15, 16 hours of sitting for it,” he said.
Could I do it? Well, I guessed I could sit for that long, broken up, of course, over many months. So on hour 35, I said, “Rob, why did you tell me 15, 16 hours?”
“Well,” he said, “if I had told you the truth, you'd never have done it.”
And he was right. Yet, today I have the most amazing portrait of myself by the great artist, Rob Anderson.
Boy, am I happy he lied to me.

[ Photo by Trish Tunney ]