A Horse of a Different Color
The paintings of Tyler Robertson provide a fresh look at the world of horse racing.
Written by Bridget Williams | Photographs courtesy of Tyler Robertson
Given the predominance of equine-related subject matter in Tyler Robertson's portfolio, including being chosen as the official artist of the Breeder's Cup in 2018, one would be quick to surmise that the artist grew up around the pageantry often associated with the industry. However, while he did grow up on a "retired" farm in New Castle, Indiana, it wasn't until his college years, when a moving day coincided with Derby day in Louisville, that piqued his creative interest in the subject.
Describing himself as a "kid who was always drawing," Tyler admits that he was not quite sure how he could translate his talent into a career. Enrolling in art school at the University of Evansville didn't provide the direction he sought. Tyler remarked that the soul-searching dig for deeper meaning that seems to be a mainstay of collegiate art classes wasn't for him. "I knew I had a talent for making things that looked good, and that was enough for me," he explained.
At the end of his freshman year, he followed his college roommate, a Louisville native, to the University of Louisville, where his circle of friends included people enrolled in the equine program. Getting to experience the pomp and circumstance of horse racing and Southern culture from what he deemed "a more refined perspective" prompted him to create horse paintings as gifts. His college-student starving-artist budget meant that the "canvas" was often a piece of cardboard.
Buoyed by the overwhelmingly positive responses his early works garnered, Tyler persisted with the subject matter, selling his first horse painting at a pop-up show hosted by a restaurant near his home. He recalls the buyer remarking that it was the detail in the horse's eye that drew him in, and to this day, Tyler says that the eye often remains his starting point when painting a horse.
With noteworthy commissions from businesses and art collectors scattered around the globe; a licensing deal with Château du Cheval (chateauducheval.com) that put silk scarves, pochettes, ties, and bags printed with his artwork on well-heeled equestrians from Saratoga to Paris, France; and, the distinction of being the youngest artist to be represented in the prestigious Cross Gate Gallery Sporting Art Auction at Keeneland Racetrack (this year's auction is scheduled for November 22nd, more information at crossgategallery.com), it's hard to believe that Tyler's official debut into the art scene happened less than a decade ago.
Today, Tyler works in a light-filled studio located in the basement of a church nestled up to a greenway in a tony suburb north of downtown Louisville. Other than a concrete floor splattered with paint, the setting is exceptionally tidy. During my visit, a sizeable work-in-progress canvas rested on an easel next to a table lined with neatly arranged brushes and palette knives of various sizes. That day, a record player provided the soundtrack; Tyler said he'll paint with movies he's seen over and over, like Breakfast at Tiffany's, playing in the background to break the studio's silence and break through the inevitable creative block.
Completed works line the studio walls, many of which span the floor-to-ceiling expanse. The pieces include a horseracing scene selected by Maker's Mark, in partnership with Keeneland Race Course, for a commemorative bottle label. Tyler is one of three artists chosen for the three-year series benefitting LexArts initiatives, including the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden in Lexington, Kentucky. When complete, it will be the first park in the United States to honor African American jockeys, who were the earliest Black professional athletes.
Tyler's canvases are typically grand in scale. He chooses to work primarily in acrylic and traditional house paint because their drying time keeps pace with his expeditious and multi-layered painting style. In recent years he often commences the creative process on his iPad, painting digitally in the same fashion as he does on canvas, which has proved to be tremendously valuable for commissioned pieces, which form the bulk of his work. "It helps to come up with a plan, allow a client to visualize the finished piece in their space, and adds a modern touch to the whole process," he explained. Amazingly, after the details are decided digitally with the client, Tyler said he typically finishes a commissioned painting in about a month.
During my visit to his studio, I inquired about the towering canvas on the easel, an abstract amalgam of dripping color. While he was still trying to suss out the finer points, Tyler said he intends it to be the centerpiece of a show in Dubai staged by a gallery in London who discovered his work via Instagram. How very sheik!