As a Photo Realist, Robert Cottingham reexamines and manipulates words, images, and symbols of American life which have become a part of the modern subconsciousness. Robert Cottingham is known as a Photo Realist because he uses photographs as a tool in creating his paintings. While some composing is done with the camera, Cottingham further crops and composes in his studio to obtain the effect that he desires. In this way he differs from many of the Photo Realists who are more faithful to the photograph. Cottingham says that he is not interested in being realistic and therefore does not include every detail such as rust and other imperfections.
Cottingham became an artist in the early 1960s after being an art director in advertising. His work in advertising is an important influence in his compositions which stress the geometry, shape, and color of urban surfaces.