No half-way measures for this artist: Hugo Rivera is at all 3 Laguna festivals

In an open-air studio at the Sawdust Art Festival earlier this month, Hugo Rivera addressed a dozen children and adults who had gathered to take a half-hour painting class. Each place at the U-shaped table had a canvas, a wide brush, a cup of water, two Popsicle sticks and a paper plate containing dollops of black, white, red, blue and yellow.

"We're going to create three families of colors," Rivera explained, holding up a pair of finished canvases that featured three tiers of streaky hues. "Colors have families too."

Rivera, for that matter, has a supportive extended family of his own this year. The Laguna Beach resident is the only artist with booths in all three of the city's summer festivals — Sawdust, Art-A-Fair and the Festival of Arts.

Making all three festivals isn't simply a matter of brilliance. It also involves the right set of particulars. Sawdust requires artists to live in Laguna Beach, while the Festival of Arts requires southern Orange County residency. Art-A-Fair applicants must make it past a jury panel to win a spot.

Mike Cahill, the president of Art-A-Fair, said a triple showing like Rivera's is a rarity, even in a city with three festivals clustered on the same stretch of highway. The last time it happened, he believes, was around five years ago. The reason for that, he said, has more to do with the work involved than the difficulty of getting accepted.

"I think it's such a load on a person that most people are probably sane enough to say, 'I'm not going to try that,'" Cahill said. "But Hugo's young, and he had a lot of energy."

Rivera, 49, who is married and has a 1-year-old son, visits all three festivals each day when his schedule permits. On a typical morning, he stops at his Festival of Arts booth and cues up a four-minute video of himself working on a painting. The video plays on a loop all day. After noon, he heads to the other two festivals — located agreeably across Laguna Canyon Road, which negates having to vie for a parking space.

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Have sketchbook, will travel

The artist has a total of 10 paintings at his three booths. His art is heavy on human subjects — particularly close-ups, which Rivera renders with vibrant splashes of color and sometimes abstract touches. One piece at the Festival of Arts, "Analytics," shows a woman with a pensive gaze and numbers transcribed on her face.

Rivera often carries a sketchbook with him as he makes the festival rounds and keeps an eye out for intriguing faces. It's a way of laying the groundwork for paintings, but it also taps into the artist's roots. As a child who split time between his grandparents in Mexico and his parents in Orange County, Rivera made his own drawing portfolios from an early age, and his father, an engineer and topographer, provided an impromptu set of materials.

"He used to have, at home, so many things all there," Rivera said. "I think I was so fascinated with everything he was putting out there. And, of course, paper was always in his office. He was always having those big sheets of paper, transparent paper to do those blueprints. And ink and rulers and time plates for letters, and, I think, business cards.

"I remember seeing those things out there, all over."

Rivera studied civil engineering in college and briefly pursued a career in Mexico, but he grew restless and moved back home. In the early 1990s, he applied for ESL (English as a second language) classes at Orange Coast College, and that's where he discovered painting.

While heading to his car from his classroom building, Rivera would pass the college's art department. And he would find himself standing rapt, sometimes for hours, watching professors and students fill their canvases. One day, a professor approached him, and Rivera prepared to make a sheepish exit.

"I thought he would kick me out of the door," he said. "And I was surprised — it was the opposite. He said, 'You know, you can come over and take the class.'"

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On the gallery scene

Rivera signed up, and he soon got his first art job designing murals for a local company. Later, he founded Al Fresco Illusions, which created wall and window art in homes. Even as his art career gathered momentum, he continued to hone his skills by taking classes at OCC.

Instructor Holly Topping, who has had Rivera in several painting courses, was struck by his unassuming nature as much as by his skills.

"The fact that he starts in a very open, humble place really adds a lot to his work," Topping said. "The sensitivity of his work is really exceptional."

When the recession slowed his business, Rivera created a flier showing his paintings and distributed it to art galleries around town, hoping for at least one interested party. He found one in Shane Townley, who ran the now-defunct Townley Gallery on Pacific Coast Highway. Townley was intrigued by the reproductions on the flier, and he asked Rivera to bring his works to the gallery.

"The colors were intense," Townley said. "They were large pieces, which is unusual for Laguna Beach artists. So as soon as I saw his work, I said, 'We've got to have a show.'"

Townley represented Rivera until the artist opened the Hugo Rivera Gallery in 2012. Even with the summer festival schedule, Rivera still paints there every Friday and earns a living from sales of his works — which typically sport price tags around $10,000.

Rivera, who applied to all three summer festivals for the first time this year, plans to do so again in 2016.

"You never know if you're going to be accepted out there again," he said. "So I have to at least be in two."

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