Robert Gratiot's craftsman bungalow in historic central Denver is a cabinet of curiosity, clearly an artist’s home. Most of his house—not merely one room—also functions as his studio and personal gallery. Room after room is chock-full of dozens of his complex canvases, a school of his wood-carved fish painted in tropical colors and fitted with metal fins, and about 70 bas-relief ceramic tiles stamped with witticisms such as, “Many delusional therapists feel forever Jung.” A multimedia artist, Gratiot (GRAH-she-oh) also has painted thousands of watercolors and tried his hand at printmaking, too. Gratiot’s artworks exhibit his sense of humor and whimsy, as well as his astonishingly focused and prolific nature. Gratiot lives with two well-mannered small dogs, one of which, due to illness, has no eyes, the lids sewn shut — an irony given that Gratiot’s eyes see more than most. Way more. “I always keep my eyes open,” says Gratiot, known primarily for his photorealistic paintings. The artist is both a contemplative, reflective individual and a painter with an eye for reflections. In fact, he titled his book, published in 2018, “Reflections.”
Gratiot’s paintings capture highlights, shadows and mirrored images reflected on a range of seemingly impossible subject matter: clusters of colorful agates, foil candy wrappers or blown-glass Christmas ornaments. He painted dozens of wire-rimmed “John Lennon” sunglasses in a bin and scores of antique glass marbles. And as if that weren’t enough, he painted the marbles in plastic baggies and the sunglasses in cellophane packaging with a galaxy of reflective surfaces. He paints dazzling storefronts with light bouncing off the architecture’s shiny brass, polished chrome and gleaming window glass.
“One thing I enjoy is seeing things on a lot of different levels, things indoors and behind us and off to the side,” Gratiot says. “Almost all the city scenes combine a lot of abstractions that start and stop, disappear and reappear. I put abstractions together to make the realistic whole.”
For the painter, art is essential for his own wholeness. He paints diligently, practically every day. Gratiot describes what he calls a “soul kick”— the heightened sense of awareness he feels when seeing something he wants to paint: “I can’t ignore it. It’s screaming at me,” he says. “I’m not an adrenaline junkie, but it’s like I’ve got to have this. I get so excited.”
Gratiot’s artistic excitement took root as a boy watching his father, a surgeon, as he painted.
“My earliest positive influence was my dad, and he had some excellent artist friends who were very nice to me and not scary, but gentle. I remember the smell of my father’s paints, especially alizarin crimson,” says Gratiot, who grew up in Monterey, California.
“I remember being on the floor on elbows and knees, drawing. I drew a lot of scenes with a line as the ground, and sky, and lots of tunnels under the ground. And I had paint-by-number kits,” says Gratiot, who noted that art provided him a haven at a time when he struggled with stuttering.
“I think I felt safety when drawing. I got lost in my drawings in my own room,” he says.
The budding artist started his formal art studies with lessons as a boy, earned his BA in Art at the University of the Pacific, went on to study at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, and earned his Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Denver.
Gratiot began painting with oils, but switched to acrylics to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals. “It was a health thing and not an aesthetic thing or about the feel of the paint,” he says.
“I’m working most to please and impress myself. I want to prove myself every time,” he says.
Gratiot also has proven himself as a teacher, having instructed thousands of students at the Art Students League of Denver over the past 30 years.
“Some of them are just learning which end of the brush to use. A lot of them have been with me for a long time. I love them,” he says. “I don’t care about their skill level. I do care about their enthusiasm level.”
One of Gratiot’s longtime students, C. Shields said, “Rob has always helped people find their own way, their own style, and their best way of painting. He can look at a painting and zero in on just what you need to do to make it better.”
For Gratiot, the gratification from his giftedness never fades. Nor does his appreciation of the meditative state induced during his work.
“I’m a moody artist. Sometimes when I look at my work I think, ‘I should have been selling shoes.’ Other times I say, ‘This is amazing!’ And I can’t even believe I’ve done it,” he says.
“When it’s going well, it’s a beautiful, pleasant high without alcohol or other drugs,” says Gratiot. “Other times, in a fit of pique, I have broken my brushes. And I have cried when finishing a painting.”
Maeve McGrath, an art consultant since the 1970s, described Gratiot’s paintings as “unparalleled in my experience.”
Gratiot, 73, says, “I love it when people like my work, no matter how old I get. I’m not painting to make people happy, but there is an undercurrent of playfulness. Inside of tight structures, there’s humor. Hopefully what carries through is some sense of strength and quality and dedication. Determination.” he says.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’ll never look at the world the same way after seeing your paintings.’ Or they say, ‘I wish I had your eyes — just for a day.’ ”
Colleen Smith, a longtime contributor to the magazine, is an award-winning author, art director and filmmaker based in Denver.
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