From art director to artist: Josh Robbins
You were an art director and then creative director for many years. Can you talk to us about your experience of the advertising industry?
Pretty fun for the most part. I was lucky enough to work at some good places at the right time. My time in NZ was probably the best. Great bunch of people and clients.
What prompted you to leave advertising?
Probably grumpiness. And not really getting to make much stuff. Which is always the fun part. The process was taking longer and longer. More and more research. And weirdly when I started in advertising I had a loose idea that I’d do it for around 15 years or so and then I’d paint, and that’s sort of what happened. Oh, and being sacked.
Did you come into advertising through art?
Sort of. I was doing art/design in year 12 and then TAFE. Then I got into RMIT, which (way) back then was an advertising course.
Had you always practiced painting on the side?
Yeah pretty much. I was always dabbling around at something. Most of my mates were into it as well.
What was it like to turn a hobby into a profession?
I guess it just felt right. In 2007 I took 6 months to paint my first show and I really enjoyed it. Having the time and space to give it a proper crack gave me the confidence to think that I could probably do it full time. And naivety can go a long way. But as I mentioned it was something that was always in the back of my mind so it didn’t feel like that big of a jump.
What is a day in your life like now?
Pretty much what you’d expect from an artist. Wake up whenever. Shoot up. And see what happens.
How different is it to agency life?
I had to wake up at 7am to be at the agency by 9am.
What do you love about it?
Creating what I want to create, or, at least trying to is a pretty luxurious position to be in. Having the thought of ‘I wonder what that would look like’ and then finding out is cool. Having a show and getting positive feed back from people is always ace. And having me as a boss is also pretty good.
What’s your artistic process like?
There’s a quote from Chuck Close that I really like and try to follow as much as I can. “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
When I’m painting for a show I try and do 3, 3 hour sittings in a day depending on what else I have to do. But this year I’m studying at VCA so my routine is pretty all over the shop at the moment. Which is both good and slightly frustrating. I do like getting into a flow with painting. There’s the beautiful space where you can really just be in the moment. Where time doesn’t exist.
What inspires/excites you?
How has your experience as an advertising creative fed into your experience as an artist—has it helped you?
For sure. But probably at first in an opposite way. When I first started painting I didn’t want anything to do with ideas or conceptualization in my paintings. I’d had enough of it. The judgement that goes with it. I just wanted to create 2D visual art. Pictures that were beautiful and were just what they were. Joyous things. Respite from trying to be clever or funny or ‘genius’.
Then there’s more practical things like, knowing when something’s working or not. I guess sort of the production side has helped too. Having an idea what might be involved going into a project or having an idea and then knowing it might be a bit beyond my capabilities at the moment. The last few shows I’ve had involved getting a sound tracks made so having those connections from the ad world have definitely helped.
Working in advertising and looking out at someone in a non-commercial creative field — it looks incredibly enviable! But I’m sure there are challenges along with the freedom. Can you talk to us about those?
Yep it is pretty sweet. One might even say, completely self indulgent. But as humans we always manage to find the shit brown lining in something. Ad agencies are generally really fun, social places (except that stupid table I was at, at the end, that wasn’t fun). So, probably the biggest thing for me has been the isolation. I now spend 90% of my life in a small room in Mt. Waverley. With me, as the only company. And anyone who knows me, knows that’s gonna be pretty fucking excruciating.
You have a young family—does being an artist allow you more time to spend with your kids, than you would have had as a creative director?
Yeah for sure. My studio is out the back of the house so I’m here. Being around definitely helps take the pressure off the major bread winner in the family. (Josh is married to M&C Saatchi ECD Emma Hill.)
How does the work-life balance compare to being in the advertising industry?
Yeah that’s a tricky one. Both things can be really consuming. The last 6-8 weeks before an exhibition deadline can be pretty nuts. I’m usually averaging 14 -16 hour days. But as I mentioned being around is a big plus. Probably the best thing is not feeling guilty or like you’re being watched if you need to leave early or work from home. That stuff can really wear you down. But I think now I’m lucky enough to be doing something that isn’t ‘work’ in the traditional sense. It’s now what I do / who I am. There’s no retirement plan. It’s just art. Then I die.
Have you noticed a change to your mental health, or general health, on leaving the industry?
I just asked my wife. She said:
I now drink less beer (I’d debate that one. Sometimes my job requirements are to actually drink beer before anything happens.)
I eat less chips.
And take less coke.
Finally, what’s the thing you miss the most about working in advertising—and what’s the thing you love the most about not working in advertising?
A) Probably the social aspect of an agency. Talking shit and having a laugh. And Business class.
B) Being more honest. Impacting people’s lives in a positive way. And never ever again having to have any sort of conversation about whether a pyramid or an onion best represents some ass-piss brand.
You can see more of Josh's work at joshrobbins.com.au