Driven by design

Robert Carter

PHOTO courtesy of Robert Carter

In the early 1980s, London illustrator Robert Carter was touring Northern California on his BSA motorcycle, when it broke down in Chico. He decided to stay, and for the last 30 years he’s painted freelance pieces from his local studio. In recent years, his works have become exclusively automotive themed, with roughly 80 large-scale (6.5 by 4 feet) pieces under his belt. Carter’s brightly colored, stylized paintings showcase famous vintage sports cars reminiscent of Art Deco advertising posters, executed without the use of computers. As his pieces become increasingly sought after, Carter attends automotive festivals, shows and other events nationally to share his work, recently attending the Automotive International Film and Arts Festival in Monterey. For more information about his pieces and prints, visit

How did you get into this specific niche art scene?

My background was in designing packaging in London, when I was a kid … I was about 15. I did an apprenticeship in an art studio. I loved lettering and airbrush work, and the colors, especially on package designs. My work, half of it looks like package designs. It’s just something I fell into. I started painting signs over here—it was a natural progression—and now I’ve narrowed it down to 1950s Italian race cars. That’s where the money is.

Who “discovered” you?

I work with Bonhams. I think they’re third largest auction house in the world. Someone had mentioned to them that I was doing this kind of artwork. It was a fluke. When they wanted to meet me, it sounded like a drug deal. They said something like, “Can you be on the roof of the Petersen Automotive Museum in L.A. at 7 on Friday night?” Like, what are you gonna do, shoot me? I got down there and there was a Steve McQueen auction going on, and I thought it was pretty cool. Bonhams asked me to get some stuff together for the next spring and said they could probably sell them, and that’s who I work with now. They pretty much exclusively sell my stuff, the originals.

Who’s buying your work?

People with private museums who have incredible collections of cars. Some have 100 vintage cars! I’ve also been working for shows in museums like the Petersen in L.A. A lot of the events are about getting kids into the car industry, and getting them interested in doing something instead of just sitting there with their thumbs [makes texting motion].

Any success in Chico?

I do a lot of charity stuff here. I donate prints to places around Chico. Right now Campus Bikes has a piece on display for the holidays. I have eight at Thunderhill Raceway in Willows. But I haven’t sold to any shops in Chico. I don’t think it’s a big car town—that’s more L.A. and the Bay Area.

Any particular style that influences you?

Not really, I don’t want to copy anyone. My stuff is compared to Géo Ham, a French artist from the 1930s. But that was a coincidence. Bonhams told me, “You paint like Géo Ham!” and I said, “Who’s that?” I make all my own stuff up. I love working large-scale. If I could get a bigger door for my studio, I’d make the pieces bigger!