Europe Provided the Blueprint for Architect’s Painting Career

If Michael Robinson’s hands were free, he’d be sketching.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

For Michael Robinson, creativity has always been about two mediums: painting and architecture. The latter has economically sustained him for decades. The former has given the reflective side of his spirit an outlet. “In painting, you have to shut out distractions and focus on what you’re doing. Architecture isn’t like that. You have clients, and those clients deserve good work. It’s a business,” he says. 


Robinson, who was born in Mitchell County, only recently reignited his passion for painting, after spending decades focused on architectural work. His specialty is landscapes (mountainous, coastal, and many other settings), and his style resides somewhere between realism and impressionism — “painterly realism, or something like that,” he calls it. He’s less concerned about capturing every minute detail than he is about conveying the emotional thrust of a moment: “I really like to project how I felt at that particular place and time.” 

Summer Palace

One specific place and time that awakened his interest in art and architecture was a trip through Europe during his Army days. He was inspired by the architecture in Amsterdam, original Rembrandts, Brunelleschi’s Dome, Michelangelo’s “David,” and the Parthenon. 


“It was so different from what I grew up with. That whole trip left a huge impression on me.”

After leaving the Army, decades ago, he spent a winter on Nantucket Island, painting watercolors from photographs because it was too frigid to be outside. He’d loved painting during his youth, and even had an opportunity to attend the Governor’s School of North Carolina in Winston-Salem for a summer during high school, where he learned from a “serious art teacher, and students who were doing great work.” But painting fell by the wayside during his college years, as he focused on the practical craft of architecture. 

Black Balsam

He landed his first job in 1981 (at Spaceplan, Inc. in Asheville), and spent 34 years in the field with various companies, in both New England and Western North Carolina. “A lot of what I was doing in architecture was drawing and painting. I felt like I was good at that, but I was never a huge fan of the business side of things. I was definitely in it for the artistic design,” he says. 

In the early 2010s, he rededicated himself to painting, though he’s still self-employed as an architect. Perhaps the most exciting thing on Robinson’s horizon is an upcoming show featuring his pen sketches from various travels. They’re minimalistic, black-and-white pieces that feature a simplicity born from the gentle moments in which they were created. 

Storm Shadow

“I’m always carrying a sketchbook around and having to catch up with my family, or whoever I’m traveling with. Sometimes I’m sitting there with a beer or a coffee, on a bench in Beijing near the Temple of Heaven, or wherever, while the rest of my family is walking off. It’s a pleasant, immersive experience.”

Michael Robinson, Asheville. The artist is represented by Asheville Gallery of Art (82 Patton Ave., 828-251-5796). His show “Reflection and Interpretation: paintings and drawings” opens Friday, Nov. 1, reception 5-8pm, and runs through Saturday, Nov. 30 ( (Robinson is also represented by Blowing Rock Frameworks and Gallery, 7539 Valley Blvd., Blowing Rock, For more information, e-mail or see

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