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Ken Auster

Ken Auster is a born and bred Southern Californian who is most comfortable with a brush in his hand or a board beneath his feet. Painting is his passion; the surf is his sanctuary. He’s smooth and successful at both, the crème of the contemporary California impressionist crop and a legend in the surfing industry. In his early sixties, he still wears a smile well, his body is in good shape and his bald spot gives him wisdom. “Business takes the fun out of art and employees take the fun out of business. You can be book smart and the street smart guy will take all your money away from you. The harder I work, the luckier I get.” He chews up and spits out insight, but most importantly, he’s a man who practices what he preaches.

His art career is no accident, an evolutionary process that stemmed from a revolutionary idea. During a summer’s break from Long Beach State in 1967, Auster went to Waikiki and took a job with Crazy Shirts – the brand made famous for its wacky sayings and animated graphics. Ken watched as the company made money hand over fist. He learned all the elements of shirt design, silk-screening and how to run a business in Hawaii. Back in college, he took classes on illustration and graphic design and quickly found a way to spin what he did best into an art career.

“You do things that you like to do. I like to surf and I like to draw. So instead of doodling on homework, I doodled on acetate and made silk-screens out of them. Then I printed the doodles on the back of shirts and people bought them. I was making money in my garage, sometimes more than my friends were making working eight hour shifts. The whole thing took off from there.” During the ’70’s he added printmaking to his repertoire – silk-screening his surf images onto paper. The original prints became the fine art of beach culture while surfers from Belmont Shores to Hawaii to Mexico were wearing it. His shirts became icons in the surfing world, and he rode the wave as the sport transitioned from something people did into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Shirt and printmaking are very process-oriented skills that taught Ken the importance of composition and design. But deep down, he is an in-the-moment type guy. The whole set-up and clean-up thing wasn’t working anymore. So after 25 years in the shirt business, Auster gave it up in 1995 to become a full-time painter. The immediacy of oil allowed him to delve deeper into his passionate side. It expanded his horizons and his world has never looked so amazing.

When Ken chose to ditch the tedious details, he really meant it. It looks like all of Mardi Gras exploded inside his Laguna Beach studio: a sea of blues, reds, yellows and beyond make the floor look like a Twister board. There’s paint on the walls, canvases everywhere and oh his poor brushes. Globs of crusty color protrude several inches from the bristles. Streaks of paint look like dilapidated decorations on the handles. They’re overworked, bloated and sad looking, suffocating under years of neglect. “People who see my brushes are horrified,” he admits.

But those skipped steps of preparation and clean-up are what set his art apart. If he goes for blue on the palette and a little red streak tags along for the ride… “Who cares?” Auster says. “It gives my work texture, because I’m literally pushing a mop around, and the paint just goes where it wants to go. Controlled chaos, if you will.” And there on the easel, is the reason everyone should go see Ken Auster’s mess. The chill of an early fall in New York’s Central Park in vivid purple, white and gray. The values literally make you shiver. His ability to play with light adds character, putting the viewer directly inside the hustle and bustle of the city.

From far away, his art has the wow factor! His landscapes, cityscapes and restaurant scenes feel like places you’ve been or always wanted to go. You step closer because you can’t help yourself. Along the way, you get twenty different reads on the same painting. Auster’s big, bold brush strokes and thick texture create an experience that excites all senses. He’s a master of atmospheric perspective, a technique where subtle changes in color create intensity and manipulating grays add depth and distance. As a result, the foreground and background seem to blur in abstraction as the main subject comes into focus. “People don’t see details,” Auster explains. “We see abstract shapes, and when they all come together in context, they create something that we understand.” Each painting represents a moment in time, like a wave suspended in animation. Auster’s technique, however, creates narrative drama on the canvas: form, perspective and atmosphere so perfectly executed on the riptide, that you can almost hear it crashing.

Auster’s success stems from what he calls a “passion sandwich.” It all starts with a concept: a street scene in San Francisco, a cliff in Orange County, a cafe in Venice, surfers in Baja, Mexico, something that will generate a response. “The sources for my inspiration are everyday occurrences that all of us take for granted,” he explains. “Ninety percent of bad paintings are bad because an artist picked bad subject matter. The key is you have to think about it before you paint. ‘What’s my idea and how am I going to attack it and approach it?’ Once you figure that out, then you start painting passionately. At the end, you bring the intellect back and tweak it a little.” In other words, passion is sandwiched between intellect.

Auster paints quickly and intensely. “It took 45 minutes and 45 years to paint this one,” he jokes. “The faster the painting, the better it is. The longer it takes to finish a painting, it means you’re having problems. It’s not the time you put into it, it’s that moment and the experience you had leading up to that moment that make it a great painting.” After years of practice, Auster is confident he can paint anything, anywhere. He does his best work on location and is a signature member of the Plein Air Painters of America and a founding member of the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painters Association. “If you think you’re a great painter and your peers think you stink, then you stink,” Ken quips. “But on the other hand, if you think you stink and your peers think you’re great, you’re great. It’s your peers who really decide.”

Auster is at the top of his game because he gets it. He puts the fun in fundamentals, and for the last decade he’s been passing on his secrets to hundreds of students who’ve traveled to his workshops in Laguna Beach and Carmel. He also goes around the world teaching: Bermuda, Hawaii, Chicago, Boston, even New Harmony, Indiana. Anyone can simply call Ken up and say they like his stuff and he’s off on a five day painting seminar. What he’s found over the years is that beginning artists paint with passion, but somewhere along the line, they let their head screw everything up. “They get to that point, paint themselves into a corner and then ask, ‘What do I do next?'” Auster says. “The answer is simple: passion and intellect don’t mix in painting. They have to be separate. Just like you can’t be making love to your girlfriend and be talking on the phone at the same time. It’ll get you in trouble.”

If ever in need of inspiration, all Ken has to do is grab his surfboard. Laguna’s wonderful weather, towering cliffs and beautiful beaches always seem to do the trick. Ken’s nowhere near as crazy as he once was on the water. “We go on gentlemen’s surf trips. Most of the guys I go with are in their late-60’s and middle-70’s. The waves we hit are pretty user friendly. If I went with a bunch of 18-year-olds that are getting towed out into those 50-footers, I’d either be sitting watching, or peer pressure would force me out, and I’d probably kill myself.”

In many ways, it’s a younger, hipper town these days… tourists, traffic and MTV have taken over Laguna. Any “X-gamer” with a surfboard thinks they’re Laird Hamilton out there. Auster knows better. “What I have is the residue of really good memories and the satisfaction of knowing that I got to experience surfing the way the newer generation will never see it. I was here when it started. It was just me and the ocean.” It’s that simple serenity that Auster cherishes most. It’s there in every brushstroke in every painting – a world that invites you to slow down and enjoy every second.

www.kenauster.com
Written by: Ben Bamsey

One Comment

  1. David Akullian says:

    are any of Ken Auster’s paintings for sale? thanks David Akullian

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