This California artist pursues an aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to plein air painting.
by John A. Parks
2006, oil, 12 x 9.
Courtesy Red Piano Art Gallery,
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Ken Auster uses loads of thick paint and puts it on fast, building juicy layers with a deft touch to achieve powerful illusions and rich surfaces. His recent work covers a huge variety of subjects including cityscapes, restaurant interiors, beach scenes, landscapes, and still lifes. “If it moves, I paint it,” quips the artist. “I like to say that I have a short attention span. The moment I start to feel that I’m losing interest I look around for something else to paint.” If he’s not painting outside, Auster searches out his subject matter from one of the plastic trash bags filled with slides that lie around his studio. “I never make a painting of a place that I haven’t actually visited,” he says. “Usually if I go out and paint a scene, I’ll also take photos and make some extra sketches so that I have more subject matter to work from back in the studio.” Auster never develops a larger painting strictly from a sketch. “I think you lose the edge of spontaneity when you do that,” he says. “You lose that sense of adventure and searching that you get when you first confront a scene.” Having his slides stored in a completely disorganized fashion means that the artist never knows what images he’s going to come up with when he dives into his collection—something that he feels adds to the general excitement of his day. And excitement is what this artist feeds on. In the paintings themselves, the pure joy of discovery and immediate response is celebrated again and again in brilliantly dashing brushwork that suggests he relishes risk-taking. Colors are dragged over one another, and shapes are pulled and pushed so that the image seems to emerge from an explosive tempest of brushing. Painting, it would seem, is second nature to Auster. So it’s a surprise to discover just how long it took him to take up the art.
“When I got out of art school in the late 1960s, I got involved in silk-screen printing,” says the artist. “In those days nobody had ever really done much with silk-screened T-shirts, and I started making them for the surfing crowd.” Auster was, and still is, a committed Californian surfer. His silk-screen business grew quickly, and soon he was designing shirts and images for major surfboard companies, surfing resorts, and other surf-related enterprises.
Even though the business was very commercial, Auster believes that the experience taught him a great deal about art. “In the early years,” he says, “you couldn’t do much with silkscreen on a T-shirt—you’d be limited to one or two colors. So the challenge was to make them do as much as possible.” The artist discovered how to manipulate color overlays to make images richer. He also began to introduce modulated areas by mixing the color with a squeegee so that a color change occurred across a given area when it was printed. “I did some business in Japan,” he says, “and got interested in the way Japanese woodblock printing used limited color to achieve so much in the way of illusion.”
2006, oil, 40 x 40.
Collection the artist.
Eventually Auster began to do fine-art prints of a more complex nature, still focusing on surfing images. “Silk screen is very limiting in a way,” the artist says, “and I found that I’d live for those moments when something just a little unusual happened, when the registration was just slightly different, and some little accident would add something to the print.” Dissatisfied with the demanding technique of silk screen, the artist began to make collages. “I’d just silk-screen color areas, layering the color in all kinds of odd ways, and then I’d tear up the paper.” Working with torn edges and color that was graduated in various ways, Auster began to construct collaged landscapes. “I couldn’t believe how strong an image I could get that way,” says the artist. “It really taught me to think about building an image by massing shapes and relating values instead of worrying about line and contour. I had to make adjustments by simply moving shapes and building them together. In retrospect it was great training for painting, only at the time I didn’t know it.”
Four or five years after he began working in collage, Auster took up painting. “I had always dabbled with painting a bit, and then one day I went out to do some landscape painting with a group of friends,” he recalls. “Everyone seemed to be having a bit of a hard time, but I found that things were going great. It seemed simple to me. I put on the color and moved it around kind of like I did with collage. Since we only had a couple of hours I couldn’t mess with it too much. Everyone was impressed with what I did, and when I got it home and looked at it I was excited. I guess you could say that chance favors the prepared mind.”
|Merrie Old Souls
2006, oil, 36 x 48.
Courtesy Thomas Reynolds Gallery,
San Francisco, California.
The artist has never looked back. He soon began to win competitions and quickly secured gallery representation, selling out a number of shows. Today he operates his own gallery and also runs plein air painting workshops several times a year, attended by people from all over the world. Auster, an energetic talker, clearly enjoys this part of his life.
Auster also believes that the plein air movement has been very healthy for artists in a number of different ways. “It’s given a social environment to a lot of artists,” he says. “It’s something painters can enjoy together, as a group. And it’s brought a lot more collectors in. People get it right away—they understand what you are doing and they can get involved in looking at the pictures in a very direct way.”
Whether he is working outdoors or in the studio, Auster uses a technique that stays more or less the same. “In the studio, I use paint from quart jars, and gallon jars for the white,” he says. “When I’m out in the field, I just use the big tubes.” The artist favors a brand of paint called Classic Art Oils, which is made by a small company in the San Francisco area. Auster doesn’t use an underpainting but simply begins work with a “big, angry brush.” His canvas is cotton duck, primed with acrylic gesso, over which he paints a layer of outdoor latex house paint. “It makes the surface less absorbent,” he says, “so the paint just sits on the top and looks luscious.”
|Shake It Up Baby
2001, oil, 11 x 14.
Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, Washington.
As he gets going with a painting, Auster is very conscious of looking for a clear abstract design in his subject, and it is this that he paints first. “I say to my students that underneath every great painting is a great abstract painting,” he says. “I’m looking for a bold, clear structure.” Generally the artist will have the whole canvas covered within a half-hour. “The paint is pretty thick even at this stage,” he says, “although I tend to keep the darks a little thinner than the lights.” Auster will then begin to work back on top of the image, dragging and pushing the paint into thick, wet layers. “I never add anything to the paint,” he says. “Sometimes I mix colors with a palette knife, but often I dip my brushes right into the jars and simply mix it on the canvas.” Keeping the paint as it comes out of the tube or jar instead of adding a medium means that the artist always knows what consistency he is dealing with—knowledge that he finds aids his very physical approach. “It’s important to keep down the number of variables,” says the artist, “so that you can concentrate on the important stuff. If I know my paint and know my brushes then all I have to worry about is me.”
Auster will keep building the painting wet-in-wet until the picture is finished, often engaging in spectacular manipulations. “A painting is done when it does what I wanted it to do,” he says. The artist admits that he is very interested in how paintings can appear to be merely paint strokes at one distance and then take on powerful illusory properties from just a little farther away. “I love that back-and-forth between paint and image,” he says. As for studio practice, Auster admits that he’s not much for organization or cleaning up. “Cleanup just isn’t in my vocabulary,” he says. “I never wash my brushes—I just have them sit overnight in a bowl of turpentine and then I start in with them the next day. My studio is covered in paint.” The artist uses sheets of wax paper for palettes, simply discarding them once they are awash in too much paint and starting over. “Some artists will tell you that you’ve got to look after everything and be organized and so on,” he says. “But me? I take the cap off a tube of paint and just forget about it—it’s already lost.”
2006, oil, 76 x 56.
Collection the artist.
Auster believes that his years as a silk-screen artist aided his sense of design and his understanding of color, but he believes that painting is a “dance between passion and the intellect.” Both of these qualities must come into play to make a painting succeed. This idea can be seen at work in Cat’s Paws, a street scene in which an enormous shadow divides the canvas on a diagonal, and is supported on either side by illuminated buildings. The powerful perspective leads to a view out over the harbor bathed in soft sunlight. Against all this intellectual order, the brush works as an exciting and challenging force conjuring the metal panels of the vehicles and the heavy asphalt of the road out of the very stuff of the paint itself. A further, poetic touch is added with the brilliant red brake lights of the receding cars—spotted onto the canvas in thick wedges of paint. Again, in California Dreamin’ the artist constructs a very intellectual design in which a huge shadow takes up the front of the scene while a line of buildings recedes in a soft light toward a glimpse of the girders of the Golden Gate Bridge. Here the artist toys with the scale of the small streetcar making its way through the cavern of buildings. Again, the architecture of the painting is infused with a dynamic energy as the brush magically whisks and drags the paint until it takes on a variety of illusions. The glint of the streetcar tracks, the weighty grays of the asphalt, the weathered brick of the buildings, and the moisture-filled veils of the harbor are all brought to life by the action of the brush and the artist’s energetic manipulation of the paint.
|I Think Your Wax is Melting
2006, oil, 7 x 12.
Collection the artist.
Auster chooses his subject matter based entirely on whether or not it presents an itch that needs to be scratched. “Generally I like scenes with figures,” he says. “I’m drawn to the human drama in a landscape or an interior.” Auster believes that too many artists start out by painting pretty or pleasing subject matter. “Paintings are much more interesting when they have ugly subject matter that’s beautifully painted,” he says. “Sometimes, driving around a city, I love to stop at a red light and take a photograph of some scene that nobody would ever think could merit a painting.” Not surprisingly, Auster is a great admirer of the Ashcan School—of painters such as John Sloane and George Bellows, who painted vivid and painterly pictures of the nitty-gritty of city life. Among his other influences Auster names the veteran California painter Dan McCaw, who also enjoys manipulating luscious surfaces into dazzling illusions.
As for the future, Auster says that he is going to be painting much bigger. “Bigger really is better,” he laughs. “A larger painting has so much more authority and gets a lot more attention.” It also presents more challenges. “I think that almost anything can work small,” he says. “When you get to a medium size, you have to use a little more intellect. But when you get big, you really have to think about it.” When he first got up to seven or eight feet, Auster was surprised to find how much exercise he was getting walking back and forth to get a good sense of the painting. “It’s not quite as bad now,” he says. “I’m beginning to find out how the painting looks from 15 feet away even while I’m still close-up.” One of the advantages of large paintings, he feels, is that they don’t sell quite so quickly. “They’re hanging up in the gallery longer,” he says, “so more people get time to see them. And I think that’s great.”
About the Artist
Ken Auster grew up in Long Beach, California, and began surfing at an early age. While he was attending Long Beach State University, he built a successful business silk-screening T-shirts for the surfing community, inventing images that would later be considered emblematic of the surfing culture. In 1967 he moved to Hawaii and began making designs for surfing equipment companies, as well as designs for clothing and accessories. In the early 1990s he took up plein air painting and quickly achieved success in the form of prizes and sold-out exhibitions. Today he makes his home in Laguna Beach, California, where he paints, runs an art gallery in nearby Laguna Canyon with his wife, Paulette Martinson, and gives plein air workshops. Known for his thick paint and lavish surfaces, he is currently working on much larger paintings. Auster has finished a DVD on his technique; for more information, e-mail the artist at [email protected].
John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and is a frequent contributor to American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines.