What is ‘surf art’?

What is ‘surf art’? A tough question, even for ‘surf artists‘ themselves! We put this question to the artists featured on this site to get their view on it, and below are some of their responses (in no particular order):

Surfploytation by Damian Fulton
Surfploytation by Damian Fulton

Either you get it or you don’t.

Damian Fulton

Ron Croci

Surf art is the contemporary evolution in the long history of marine painting and sculpture. For hundreds of years, marine painting has primarily been crashing waves, vessels, fishing, and beach scenes. However wonderful, never before has the perfect point wave been portrayed, or the act of riding one. Our era begins in the early 20th century. However, surfing art is more, because it has a quality that is unusual in painting, and that is the positive nature of the genre. Some surf art is equal to great seascape painting, and some, is simply fun, but all have the effect of creating in the viewer, a sense of happiness.

Roxy Jam Biarritz poster (2007) featuring surf art by Ron Croci
Roxy Jam Biarritz poster artwork by Ron Croci

Howard Kirk

I would say that surf art comes from an intense passion for surfing revealed through a physical medium for others to share a glimpse of the joy that surfing is.

Peter Pierce

Surf art to me, is any work inspired by the actual act of riding quality waves. Likewise, the true ‘surf artist’ understands the rareness/value of quality waves via living life passionately devoted to the pursuit of such waves… I’ve seen plenty of paintings of lighthouses, boats, etc. with onshore/blown out conditions. Excellent pieces at that, but not what I would think of as surf art.

Maria Brophy

Surf art is any creative expression from an authentic surfer which depicts the surfing lifestyle and anything related to it. Surf Art includes paintings, sculpture, and even t-shirt designs and product packaging. The surf industry wouldn’t exist without surf art and it’s an expression of the unique feeling of surfing. My ongoing drive is to continue the movement to elevate surf artists to the respect level of designers and musicians, where they are revered for their contributions to surfing, the surf community, and the industry.

Sunrise by Drew Brophy
Sunrise by Drew Brophy

Robb Havassy

It’s a conversation that comes up a lot. The straight answer is not so straight… Surf art is an art or artistic expression that reflects surfing or the surf culture either directly or literally on down to art that expresses those ideas and themes indirectly or abstractly… How’s that? Hah! What it truly means is that surf art is in the eye of the beholder at any one specific time or place, and not necessarily overtly apparent to everyone anytime… confused yet? I guess it means that surf art is only truly definable when we can lock it into aesthetic boundaries and rules for all. It’s like what it is to be a surfer… it means different things to different people.

Jesse Miller

To answer the question of what is surf art, I have to start by saying this definition is only for me and my work because I see other art that doesn’t fit this definition, but clearly is surf art. That being said, I think surf art is something that takes a look at the surf culture. My work tries to show what it’s like to surf, from buying a board, to getting it ready and going for a surf. I also paint things that surfers do, like getting to a spot, being in the water, and hanging out after. It shows a lifestyle and the things that surfers see and do all the time. When I paint a landscape or seascape even, I don’t consider that surf art unless there is an aspect of the culture in it. A perfect peeling wave at Blacks is a seascape, but when there is a hint of riding it, or getting to it, or missing it — some aspect of surfing – to me it becomes surf art. I think it should show people what it is like to surf, and why it is so appealing.

Pete Tillack

Work that stimulates that of all surfers and is related directly to the passion of surfing.

Spencer Reynolds

I struggle with the term ‘surf art’. I use it when I am feeling lazy about explaining my artwork and for my website search engine purposes. But the term is limiting, putting a box around artwork that is expressing so much more. I am trying to capture human interaction with something that can’t be controlled. To me, the ocean and the surfer are a metaphor for life. Joy, love, beauty, and fear are some of the themes that I attempt to portray in my ‘surf art’. In capturing these I hope to cross boundaries of classification, engaging surfer and non-surfers imaginations and emotions.

Torrent by Spencer Reynolds
Torrent by Spencer Reynolds

Matt O’Leary

I think there’s a tagline somewhere out there… “only a surfer knows the feeling” (If not, then there should be). Well in reference to your question, I think surf art has to convey the FEELING of surfing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be created by a surfer but I think that goes a long way in being able to express that emotion, thrill as well as the mellow vibe that I associate with surfing. Therefore I believe that art that best expresses those feelings qualifies as real, authentic ‘surf art’.

David Bogart

Save the fancy theories and big words for the art appreciation class. Surf art is simply art focused on the act of surfing. In my mind, if you can look at the work and it makes you want to paddle out, it’s surf art, period. If you’re stoked, the surf artist has successfully done his job.

Rick Piper

Surf art… I suppose it can only be produced by a surfer living the ‘lifestyle’. The fact that surf, the physical interaction of waves on shorelines, is a mesmerizing 3-d expression of pure natural energy that can’t be witnessed in as grand a celebration for the senses anywhere else in life, is unimportant. Even though this age-old collision of ocean, atmosphere and continents has been a continuum for billions of years before we existed, there’s no real surf art until it is validated by a flat-bellied, bronze-skinned board rider who sketches it down on paper. The spiral curves of this transparent reflective, refractive medium that has a universally intriguing visual effect on all of humanity, as some common primitive like staring into a fire… meaningless. Just because any given person that has ever waded into the surf has experienced the magical qualities of being the object of the expression of that energy, pushed forward and downward being propelled by a force of nature, looking parallel to the curling face of water around him, electrified by the feeling… certainly couldn’t give them the right to produce surf art. It’s obvious that pedigree could only belong to one with the right board and right baggies that can rip the currently hip move on the water. It couldn’t be about the art it must be about the surfer. Hmm, that’s odd, I don’t surf.

Plunging Peak by Rick Piper
Plunging Peak by Rick Piper

Tony Spineto

Surf art is an unfortunate title. In terms of art criticism and the methodology of evaluating art, the title surf art falls short. Before I am written off as a pretentious know it all, I need to define where I am coming from. There are several different ways of approaching this topic. I will approach this as an artist first and a surfer last. In the art world, seldom will a trained artist give themselves a title that comes from anything except an art movement in history. For example, I would consider my work impressionistic. When you give yourself a title like Surf artist it is unrecognizable in the fine art community. For example, an artist who paints sailboats as his subject would not call himself a sailboat artist. Depending on the style of art and technique he employs, he may identify himself as an impressionist whose subject is sailboats. I am not splitting hairs, but rather defining schools of thought.

Secondly, one must ask oneself, what is art itself? It’s a very subjective question. However, there are rules of art that must be used to evaluate what is considered art. You may disagree, but that’s the norm in the fine art world. If your works stand up to this scrutiny, you will be considered a fine artist. For example, does the work have a focal point, strong value contrast, correct edges, the correct usage of intensity, color, elements of art, and are the principles of design used correctly? If your subject is surfing, that’s great, but what movement does your style fit into? Are you an impressionist, figurative, postimpressionist, surrealist, abstract and so on? Define your style first, then explain that surf is your subject. Now, if you’re stoked just doing what you do, do it. If you don’t care to have your work criticized in terms of the evaluation and standards above, do it. But, please, be familiar with the technique and the proper handling of the artistic method first, then surf art will define itself.

So, back to the original question, what is surf art? As a surfer, in its simplest form, it is our form of communicating our emotions and our tangible experience of the surfing life, no matter what art camp you fall into.

Bruno Turpin

Surf art is live art. Defined as the expression of surf lifestyle through mediums, surf art reveals the universality of the open-minded and forever young spirit of the surfing community. This universality of values has the ability to talk to people. Surf art shows the essence of life.

Bob Penuelas

Take two of the most misunderstood types of people in the world… surfers and artists, and combine them together, and what do you get? A surf artist. Being a starving artist just wasn’t good enough for me, I just had to compound the problem by becoming a starving surfer too! It’s the old double whammy and at the same time, it’s the best of both worlds. Not only will I cut off one of my ears, but now I’ll have the privilege of getting Surfer’s Ear in the remaining good one. Haha.

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