Aloha, Ken Auster

January 30, 2016 § 19 Comments

Ken Auster painting on location in San Francisco in 2014.

WE ARE SAD to share the news that the artist Ken Auster died yesterday, January 29, 2016, at his home in Laguna Beach, California. He was 66, and had been battling metastatic prostate cancer for a decade.

Auster burst onto the resurgent California plein-air scene in the mid-1990s and became one of the country’s most respected location painters. Within a few years he had won nearly every major plein-air painting competition and had successive sold-out gallery exhibitions.

“My life in art started when I was a kid,” he wrote in his 2011 book, Intellect and Passion. “I can remember being yelled at for drawing surfers screaming down humongous pen and ink waves at the top of my homework assignments.”

He grew up near the water in Long Beach and surfing was a major part of his life. During his college years at Long Beach State University, he combined his interest in art and surfing and began silkscreening T-shirts. Eventually, after living in Hawaii, he established a successful surf art business and his work was seen around the world.

Despite his success, he decided at mid-career he wanted to be a fine artist.

“A lot of artists start by trying to be painters, then de-evolve into commercial work to make money,” he said. “I started with surf art on T-shirts and worked my way up.”

Painting on location was his breakthrough.

“One day I was invited to go out with a few friends and paint on location at a local beach,” he wrote in his book. “I set up and started painting what I saw. The experience was a turning point in my life. Here was the bare bones of art — no process and minimal equipment, just a burst of passion and paint, with immediate results and gratification. It just happened and it was beautiful.”

Auster’s first exhibition was presented by the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in San Francisco in 1997. It sold out. So did his second and third. His work was widely published, and he went on to exhibit at galleries nationwide. He was also a natural as a teacher, offering workshops around the country and a series of videos.

“Ken Auster was the real deal,” said Reynolds. “He was a terrific painter, a great teacher and a wonderful human being — and he always made it fun, from his clever titles to his endless one-liners that seemed to flow without effort. The world has lost a great artist.”

He is survived by his wife, Paulette Martinson Auster. An aloha style celebration of his life is being planned.


That flicker of gold

April 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Ken Auster | Slide Ranch

Ken Auster | Slide Ranch


One day I was invited to go out with a few friends and paint on location at a local beach. Using an old easel and a few tubes of oil paint left over from college painting classes, I set up and started painting what I saw. The experience was a turning point in my life. Here was the bare bones of art — no process and minimal equipment, just a burst of passion and paint, with immediate results and gratification. It just happened and it was beautiful.

A year and probably 200 paintings later, I was ready to get feedback from people other than my friends. I looked north to San Francisco. For me, San Francisco has always been a kind of Disneyland for adults. My first adventure there was in 1967 during the Summer of Love. There’s still a Jefferson Airplane poster on the wall in my studio. So during another trip to the happiest place on earth, I thought I would stop at a few galleries with some transparencies and see if I could get some response.

The last stop on this spontaneous gallery tour was the Thomas Reynolds Gallery, in a classic Victorian flat a few steps from Fillmore Street. A series of small rooms showing mostly small paintings, each one hanging with room to breathe. I presented my slides — and the owner wanted to see more. It was at that moment I realized that a good gallery was interested in my work.

A few weeks later we scheduled my first show. My original vision was to paint landscapes of Northern California — trees, rocks, ocean and hills, but no city. That first show sold out. So did the second and third. It was the mid-90s at the height of the plein-air painting renaissance and I was right in the middle of it all, painting many of the small towns along the California coast. I won top prizes at the plein-air events that were cropping up, and the surfer-turned-painter story was picked up by several art magazines.

Then came another moment that again changed my direction as a painter. I was driving in San Francisco on California Street late in the afternoon heading into the belly of the city — a straight shot downhill punctuated by intersections and cross traffic with red taillights glued loosely together at the bottom. I stopped at a red light and just stared for a moment at this incredible concrete grand canyon. I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures, circling the block and hoping to hit every red light. Everywhere I looked was a painting. Artists are always looking for the moment that is the catalyst for the next painting — that flicker of gold. I had found the mother lode.

— from Ken Auster: Intellect & Passion

Intellect & Passion | Ken Auster

Radical Revival: California Plein Air

May 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Carol Peek | Spring Bounty


Beginning in the 1860s and continuing until the present day, California has been a center of plein air landscape art. Energetic artists have ventured out into nature to capture the scenic beauty that the state offers in abundance, from majestic sights like Yosemite and Mount Shasta to sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.

The literal translation of the French phrase plein air is “open air,” or “outdoor,” but when applied to paintings, the word has acquired a broader meaning. Plein air not only covers landscapes that were actually painted on location, but also studio works closely based on nature observed firsthand. The term is often applied to California painters of the early 20th century. Plein air paintings capture the appearance of nature passed through an artistic temperament.

The revival of interest in early California plein air painting has had an interesting side effect — the rise of California landscapes in the same general style by living artists. Over the last 20 years or so, a culture has grown up that has supported the movement back to traditional art.

Without setting out to do so, Carol Peek [and other contemporary painters have] revived the landscape tradition made popular a hundred years ago. An animal lover from childhood as well as a prodigy in art, Peek naturally gravitated toward creating beautiful images out of the rural vistas she so enjoyed. Peek’s authoritative draftsmanship creates an image of almost surreal clarity. Her composition alternates strips of dark and light, from the shadowy immediate foreground to the brighter middle ground where the cows graze, then dark again in the oaks giving way to the lighter distances. She has reduced her palette to related shades of green that appeal to the eye in a way that a chord in music appeals to the ear.

We can dismiss these artists as reactionary practitioners of an outdated aesthetic. But perhaps we should consider another way of judging them. Like the original French impressionists, they are rebelling against an establishment that controls museum life and the mainstream media. Plein air painters ignore increasingly academic modernism to create paintings of considerable virtuosity out of the actual visual world.

The last several decades have seen a marked increase in the movement to conserve what is left of unspoiled nature. We may not be Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau; nor are we Victorians. But whether we were back-to-nature freaks in the 1960s, backpacking zealots in the 1970s, or are merely entranced by the views from the Ahwahnee Hotel’s dining room, most of us still seek out natural beauty for pleasure and enlightenment. Our plein air artists satisfy this deeply human desire, and they create art of our time.

— Excerpted from Antiques magazine, May-June 2012.

Paint-out at Alta Plaza

April 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

A GROUP OF architects and artists who paint together en plein air once a month gathered at Alta Plaza Park on Sunday afternoon, April 10. The group started painting together 30 years ago, led by architect John Kriken and former San Francisco planning director Allan Jacobs.

Master watercolorist Michael Reardon, who has been a part of the group for most of its history, brought the watercolorists to Alta Plaza, a favorite neighborhood park at the top of Pacific Heights with magnificent views and outstanding architecture. Reardon’s work has been honored by the California and American watercolor societies and the California Art Club. He is exhibiting his series, “The Fountains of Paris,” nearby at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery.

The California Art Club comes north

December 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

 Michael Reardon | Bartholomew Park Winery

Founded in 1909 in the studio of Franz Bischoff in Los Angeles, the California Art Club is one of the oldest and most active fine arts organizations in the United States. With conditions in California ideal for outdoor painting, the club gave birth to a new artistic movement now known as California Plein Air, or California Impressionism.

The California Art Club became the organization for artists in Los Angeles, but it didn’t reach very far north in its early years. Many Northern California artists — Xavier Martinez, Gottardo Piazzoni, Percy Gray, Arthur and Lucia Mathews — never became members. One of the few Northern Californians who did was William Henry Clapp of the Society of Six.

Still, the club almost from the beginning established a presence in the Bay Area. In 1910, the club held its first Gold Medal Juried Exhibition — an annual event that continues today. The second exhibition in 1911 traveled to San Francisco and Sacramento. The exhibitions in 1912 and 1913 also came to San Francisco. But it remained a club primarily for painters in Southern California.

In recent years a resurgent interest in California plein-air landscape painting has revived and reinvigorated the club. Its programs, paintouts and other activities since then have been extensive — but mostly, as before, in Southern California. Upon its centennial, the club has directed resources toward greater activity in Northern California, and especially in the Bay Area. The exhibition “Then & Now: The California Art Club in Northern California” at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in San Francisco is a celebration of the club’s 100th year and an enthusiastic endorsement of a stronger and more active presence for the club in the visual feast set before us in Northern California.

An inside move

January 4, 2000 § Leave a comment

Ken Auster | Two at the Counter

In three short years, Ken Auster has firmly established his position in the front ranks of contemporary plein-air painting. And like very few other artists, he has proven himself as adept at capturing the frenetic energy of the urban cityscape as the bucolic splendor of the California landscape.

Now, in a new series of paintings, he moves inside to more intimate quarters.

“The interiors are a natural progression of my urban paintings,” Auster says. “On the inside, you’re confronted with a more intimate approach to the city. Outside, you’re in a rush to get someplace. Inside, you’ve arrived. You stop and smell the coffee.”

Auster’s fascination — and ability — with light finds new stimulation inside. “Inside,” he says, “you have the advantage of two types of light — the natural light from outside, plus lamps and deli counters and chandeliers. It’s almost like having two suns.”

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