Interview with Colleen Gnos

Colleen Gnos is an artist and surfer in Central California. She grew up painting and studied art with the best in Italy. Upon her return to Northern California, Colleen discovered yet another passion, surfing, and quickly made the connection between her two loves, painting surf inspired works of art after her daily sessions in the Santa Cruz surf line-up. Shortly after graduation, Colleen began to work as a scenic artist for professional theatre in Hawaii. After painting backdrops commissioned by various Waikiki hotels, restaurants, and set companies. She also airbrushed surfboards for professional surfer and shaper, Larry Bertlemann.

Today, Colleen works primarily in her studio with oils and divides her time between painting in her studio, hanging out with her baby boy and husband, and of course, surfing.

Describe your art and your process

CG: It all starts from my sketchbook. I have a million ideas and they all revolve around the ocean. Most of the time these ideas come to me when I’m driving and I have to pull over to the side of the road and sketch it out before I forget. My kids hate it when I do that. I’ve been painting waves for so long, that it just comes natural, but when painting the human form, I like to have a good drawing before I begin. I typically like to paint loosely with thick brushstrokes but I also like to render skin tones and water in the form of glazes; it gives a stained glass appearance to the waves. I paint mostly in oils, so I have to wait for the glazes to dry in between coats. Often I am working on about 4 different paintings simultaneously.

Surfing and the ocean are the main focus in your work…

CG: Surfing keeps me sane. Art keeps me sane. So when I’m surfing, I’m thinking about my next painting, and when I’m painting, I am thinking about surfing. I paint a wave in just about every painting I do, whether it’s a painting of a mermaid or Godzilla, I always see a perfect right and left in every composition. The ways of painting a wave are limitless, and it’s very fun to render a wave in different lighting conditions.

Not too many people can look at the ocean and the waves the way a surfer does. We see things that I believe other people do not. This enables me to create paintings that show the viewer swell and water conditions, lighting and reflections that they normally would not notice (plus I take a bit of artistic license). I think it helps the viewer connect to the ocean, to be in awe of its power and beauty. It makes you feel that sense of wonder you had when you were a kid.

Sirens and female surfers are also popular subjects for you?

CG: Is there anything more beautiful than a mermaid or a surfer girl? I’ve really gotten into painting the female form lately. The curves of a female seem to emulate the curves of the waves; she’s Mother Ocean, after all. I enjoy painting the human body; it’s amazing how many colors are in skin tones. Skin seems to reflect and absorb all colors in the surrounding environment, so it’s exciting to glaze in tones from the water, sand and sky and watch the figure come to life.

Your canvases include surfboards and walls (murals)…

CG: I enjoy painting on anything with a relatively smooth surface. I did murals for about 10 years, but now I’ve morphed into more of a studio artist. Surfboards are particularly fun to paint. The best part of all is after you’ve painted the board, and go pick it up from your glasser and it has that gorgeous glossy clear resin over it, like a wet popsicle. It’s so amazing to see how 3 dimensional your artwork becomes when it is buried under all that clear. My favourite board I painted was a 1960 “Pismo Beach” pop-out that I bought from my aunt who had a board rental stand in Avila Beach from the 60s through the 90s. It was in terrible shape. I had my friend, Jeff Malmen restore it so I could paint on it. It was so beat up that the whole thing was a dark brown, almost the colour of wet sand. I painted a lovely mermaid directly on the bottom of the board. I antiqued her, added some rough gold leaf to give a classical feel and just some ripples of water around her, but I didn’t paint a background. It looked like she was laying on wet sand!

You studied art in Florence, Italy at a school originally founded by Michelangelo?

CG: I spent my third year in college abroad at L’Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. It was so different than an American art school. The entrance examinations were a week long and very intense. I loved their style of teaching: if your drawing was crap, the professor would tell you exactly that: no caudling, like the real world. It was an amazing year where I would sketch statues I had previously only studied in books, I could pull out drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci at the Uffizzi and sketch them in a special room. We (the art students) had tours into underground chambers at monk cloisters to view 500-year-old frescos. My friend’s apartment had a portion of a Giotto fresco in it. I was surrounded by great art wherever I went. I encourage every artist to go abroad to art museums such as the Uffizzi, Prado and the Louvre. Textbooks and slides just don’t show the beauty of seeing a Botticelli in person; it will make you a better artist.

You used to airbrush surfboards for Larry Bertlemann?

CG: Yes, it all happened when I lived in Hawaii and my husband and I had only one car. He worked at a lighting company in Kalihi, which was next door to “Iwi Nalu” surf shop. I just swung by one day to scope out their used boards and Larry was shaping up there. He ended up shaping me a board, and I painted a Japanese style dragon on it. They liked it so much that they let me work off the cost of my board by airbrushing and hand brushing boards for the shop. After that, they hired me whenever someone wanted a custom paint job.

You designed the poster for the 2002 Women’s Triple Crown of Surfing?

CG: That was a fun project, I actually landed it right after I moved away from the islands. After meeting Randy Rarick a week before I moved back to the mainland, I submitted designs for the men’s event, but my designs were decidedly too feminine, so Randy asked me to submit for the Women’s Turtle Bay event. He ended up using my artwork for the overall Women’s Triple Crown event. I really respect Randy for supporting artists, instead of just using the “cut and paste” method for poster design. There have been some amazing fine artists that have made posters for the Triple Crown, some of them being my favourite artists in the Surf Art genre, so it was an honor to have been chosen.

Tell us about this community art event painting trash cans you’re involved with at the moment?

CG: In my city, we have never had garbage or recycling pick up along the main street. The local improvement group salvaged some garbage containers from the local dump and wanted to have artists paint them, to make the city look great. I got involved because the project was at a standstill, the artists did not want to paint them in place.

Having done public art projects before, I remember how they were sponsor-driven, with the artists receiving a small stipend for materials and having their project dropped off at their studios and then picked up and put in place when it was finished. The sponsor gets their name on a plaque on the can. I got the prospectus from one of my projects directors and formatted it for the ARTcan event. We became organized, came up with a theme, “Sand, Waves, and Caves” and found 12 local artists (many being surf artists) and the 4th grade class at the local elementary school, who were willing to paint the cans. The president of the Improvement Group, Paul Schiro (a surfer too), pounded the pavement to find sponsors, which was really hard in this economy.

I organized a first annual ARTwalk to unveil all the cans. The businesses displayed artwork, served wine, had live music. There were also “strolling musicians” who roamed the main street and played bluegrass in front of the ARTcans and businesses. The entire community came out to appreciate their first garbage and recycling cans and admire the beautiful artwork that adorns these trash receptacles. It was an amazing night, I felt like we opened the public’s eyes to the importance of recycling and caring for our environment while also showing them some beautiful art in the process.

Where can people go to see your work and purchase prints or originals?

CG: I show my work close to home, on the central coast of California. I post my events on my website, which is a good way to view my latest paintings and purchase originals, prints, and giclées. It’s best to get on my mailing list for the latest updates – just send me an email to [email protected] to join.

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