Robert Johnson was born in Hopewell, VA, into a family that included a mother who loved to paint and an older brother who devoted his life to art. His older brother, Ben, became a worldwide respected art conservator, connoisseur as well as an accomplished painter. He became Director of Conservation at the Los Angeles County Museum and advisor to many major collectors in assembling their private collections. Robert remembers as a young man watching for hours his brother form recognizable objects, and the illusion of space emerging from a flat canvas which he says “fascinated me then and has never ceased to excite and amaze me- even today".

A love of athletics took him to Duke University on a football scholarship, and later an interest in law led him to Duke Law School. After graduation his life took an unusual turn as he went to live in Europe where he spent two years in a small German village traveling extensively, learning a new language, seeing and appreciating the best art in Europe and at the same time drawing and painting on his own.

Upon his return to the U.S. he began his serious studies at the art Student's League of New York painting with David Leffel, drawing with Robert Beverly Hale and Michael Burban, and learning sculpture with Barney Hodes. He later had the privilege of painting and studying in the studio of Hungarian-American master Lajos Markos.

His brother was a knowledgeable and caring mentor. When Robert asked him what he should do to become a real artist Ben advised him to "learn to draw and compare your work only to that of the masters". A love of drawing has been present though out his career. He feels that "Drawing is the foundation of all we are trying to accomplish as artists. When our drawing skills improve, the quality of our paintings mysteriously takes jumps forward."

Since becoming a full time painter in 1987 Robert has won first place national juried awards in The Artists Magazine and Salmagundi Club of New York and numerous other awards- including six awards from the Oil Painters of America among which is the American Art Collector Magazine fourteen thousand dollar Award of Excellence. He has had twenty one-person shows in private galleries throughout the U.S. He teaches painting workshops throughout the U.S. and Canada and has produced seven instructional videos.

He is the author of On Becoming a Painter published by Sunflower Press in 2001 in which he explores his experiences in becoming an artist and his thoughts on the fundamentals of the painting process. His work has also been featured in the Best of Flower Painting II published by North Light Books and The Simple secret to Better Painting published by North Light Books in 2003. He was most recently a featured artist selected to be included in the book Oil Painting with the Masters by Cindy Salaski published by North Light Books in 2014.

His work has been featured in numerous magazines including American Art Collector, The Artist Magazine, Southwest Art, American Artist, and Art of the West.