Pop Realist Robert Townsend Offers Us Candy, Insight Into His Life

[Editor's Note: We chat with Los Angeles-based pop realist painter Robert Townsend to talk candy, career and his affinity for “Mid-century everything”]

“Would you like some rejected jellybeans?” Townsend asks, extending a large glass jar toward us. “They're irregular,” he adds matter-of-factly, in attempt to make the candy seem more appealing.

Townsend just returned from his gallery show in San Francisco and couldn't resist visiting the Jelly Belly factory. Jelly Belly sells imperfect candies, meaning their shape or color is somewhat off, at a discount.

Ironically, being in Townsend's loft is a lot like being in an 'irregular' candy store. The colorful ice cream cones of Counting with Wayne Thiebaud (Townsend's favorite artist) tops one of the stacks of art books that flank Townsend's television. In lieu of a fruit bowl, a melted record bowl houses Townsend's vintage candy-colored matchbook collection.

If you look around closely, you will find a variety of sweets both painted on canvas and in real form–giant novelty lollipops and Bit-O-Honey taffies, mostly. Townsend usually keeps an arsenal of fresh sugar cookies in his kitchen, and cupcakes too, if he happens to be painting a giant watercolor of them.


While we chat, Townsend is wrapping up a day's work on a large oil painting based on a vintage 1950s Kodachrome slide of a women's bowling league. Their beehive hairdos and cat eye glasses make the scene easy to date.

“If you're going to take photos of me painting, you might want to hurry because I'm about to stop soon,” Townsend says.

Townsend has put in 150 hours of work on this piece so far and has 100-150 more hours to add until its completion.

Growing Up Googie

Townsend was born and raised in Downey and shied away from L.A. until moving there five years ago. As a kid, Townsend would attend car hop nights with his brother at Johnny's Broiler (now Bob's Big Boy). Growing up near one of the finest examples of Googie architecture seems to have rubbed off on Townsend, who is into “Mid-century everything”. Townsend still frequents Bob's Big Boy on a weekly basis to grab a strawberry milkshake and visit an old friend.

Judging by his talent and eye for photorealism, you would assume Townsend encountered success from an early age, but that wasn't the case. Encouraged by his high school art teacher, Townsend started earning commissioned jobs painting murals around Downey. To make ends meet, Townsend worked in the shipyard at Huntington Beach for five years before pursuing painting full-time.
“When I left [the shipyard], I knew I didn't want to go back unless I had to,” Townsend says. “So I knew that I had to work nonstop on my paintings to give myself any chance [of success].”

Townsend worked nonstop until he reached a level of confidence and comfort as his paintings started selling regularly.
“It matters a lot to me to be able to create–it probably matters more to me than most people–strictly because I had to work those shitty jobs on the shipyard for years where I just felt like I was spinning my wheels and getting nothing done.”

More Room For Candy

This year, Townsend is focusing on creating large oil paintings measuring 5 1/2 feet by 8 feet. An 8-foot long watercolor of one of his favorite (and reoccurring) subjects, vintage matchbooks, will follow.

Townsend uses subjects he holds a personal affinity for, like vintage cars and kitschy snapshots. Most of his work is based on images he shoots of items he collects from online auctions and vintage shops. Despite his love of sweets, Townsend wants to focus more on vintage portrait scenes.

“I want a life where at the end of the day, I feel like I got to do something that really means a lot to me,” Townsend says, breathing new life into an otherwise forgotten bowling league.

You can view more of Robert Townsend work at www.freecolortv.com and on his blog.

See also:
10 Jazz Albums to Listen to Before You Die
25 Greatest Orange County Bands of All Time
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