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Artist can’t help but make waves

Laguna Beach artist Todd Kenyon is not offended if you call him the "wave guy." He prides himself on his realistic paintings of waves.
(David Hansen / Coastline Pilot)

Some art seems more real than reality.

That’s the work of Todd Kenyon, who paints the waves of Laguna Beach with so much authenticity that you can almost feel the movement and smell the salt.

Combine that with a clean, natural point of view, and it’s not surprising that viewers are immediately drawn in. See his work at purelagunabeach.com.

For Kenyon, 52, who moved to Laguna in 1998, the beauty here is enough.

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“Why wouldn’t somebody want to paint it exactly the way it looks?” he said. “Why does it have to be enhanced with dolphins and stuff? It just looks hokey.”

To develop his artistic niche, he has spent many hours looking at the ocean to better understand its allure and power.

“It’s the color. The color is so amazing,” he said. “I’ve been everywhere in the world, like Beaulieu-sur-Mer in the south of France, Egypt and the Red Sea, and there’s something here about the color of this ocean. It’s that gradation from where the surf is all the way back to the horizon — that blue, green, purple. You don’t get that anywhere.”

When Kenyon recreates this complexity, he keeps it simple by not oversaturating the painting. There is an understated, watercolor-type approachability. He uses oil but in really thin layers, which add to the evocative restraint.

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“It kind of has that translucence of the water itself. The trick is not to put any reference in it,” he said, which is why there is very little except sand, surf and sky. “It’s really soothing. There’s probably some color psychology going on there. People just feel a sense of calmness.”

He, too, finds serenity in the act of painting. The New Jersey native took design in school and initially worked at an engineering firm doing renderings. Eventually, he made the switch, thankful for the background in business.

“I learned how to approach art and my talent as a business,” he said. “So in 2000 when I went and did it full time, I had the skill set to know what marketing was and how to brand yourself. I had the capital to start a gallery and really do it right, instead of being a kid walking around banging on the gallery door going, ‘Do you want to see my drawings?’”

He exhibited in the Festival of Arts for a few years before realizing he didn’t need to do it anymore to earn business. By then he was also getting useful advice from some of Laguna’s more talented artists and gallery owners, such as Peter Blake, who noticed Kenyon at the festival.

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“Peter goes, ‘Dude, what are you doing here?’ That’s what he said, and he was right. That kind of stuck in my head,” Kenyon said.

It took some time for Kenyon to navigate the sometimes murky waters of Laguna’s art politics. He said he saw things that just made him shake his head.

“There’s a group of people who have been here forever, and they don’t want things to change,” he said. “They want it the way they want it. And they somehow control the rest of it. There’s a network underneath the surface, and they all kind of look out for each other. It’s interesting to see it in action. You’re like, wow, this is like small-town USA.”

Like most outspoken artists in town, he feels the time is right for Laguna leaders to step up and help improve the overall quality of the city’s art reputation.

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“The city needs to adopt a better approach to elevating the art scene here,” he said. “There are these little galleries showing really bad art. I hate to say it, but some of the stuff is, like, wow. I mean, what woman is going to let a guy put a painting of the five presidents playing pool in a wavy frame above the fireplace? Who’s buying that stuff?”

In his experience, the weekend partiers are not contributing to anything except bar bills and mayhem. It’s the well-heeled clients in the expensive hotels who buy art.

“They’re buying artwork,” he said. “They are going to the higher-end restaurants. They’re the people that the city should cater to — not these 20- and 30-year-olds coming in to party and ending up at the Dirty Bird at 2:30 in the morning. That’s what’s making this town janky.”

Kenyon believes there is so much potential here if people would just own up to the reality. Not unlike his approach to paintings, it helps if you strip the artifice, keep it simple and be more real.

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He pointed to Santa Ana as an example of opening up the aperture and allowing mixed-use zoning, suggesting that if Laguna did the same, maybe Laguna College of Art + Design students could actually afford to stay here.

“They have a huge amount of talent in that school,” Kenyon said. “Laguna needs to do more of what Santa Ana does where they have that big area dedicated to live-work studios.”

In the meantime, Kenyon is content to stick to his waves, which are in demand all over the world. He only exhibits in one other gallery outside of his own, and that’s the acclaimed Gallery Henoch in New York, which is considered the premier gallery for hyperrealism.

“It’s like therapy,” he said. “I feel like when I’m doing them I’m taking a walk down at the beach. There’s some kind of calmness to that. It’s the rhythm of the ocean, the color — it allows me to think. So when I’m painting I just drift away.”

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DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.


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