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Artist's Urban View Is Winner

* Laguna Beach resident Ken Auster's rendering of gridlock takes top honors at annual plein-air painting contest.


Whether catching waves on his surfboard or catching sunsets on canvas, Ken Auster knows the feeling of perfection.

Auster won the top prize and $7,500 at the annual Plein Air Painting Competition in Laguna Beach, where 50 of the nation's best outdoor artists competed July 10-14.

"I was in the Zone," said the 51-year-old Laguna Beach resident, an avid surfer who also can whip out a brush and finish a painting seemingly quicker than some surfers can catch a wave.

Auster's piece "Diamond Gridlock" captures traffic in Laguna during evening rush hour. The artist rendered the distant headlights and brake lights like small, shiny gems from his perch on Allview Terrace. The hillside spot, surrounded by eucalyptus trees, is at a friend's house.

"I called the painting 'Diamond Gridlock' because the gridlock looked like a diamond bracelet from where I was at," Auster said. "If you are in traffic, it's miserable. But from my spot, it was beautiful. These people sitting in their cars don't realize they're in my painting."

That's the beauty of the plein-air ("open air") tradition made famous by the Impressionists and Laguna's first art colony more than 80 years ago. During the competition, artists worked outside painting Laguna's coastal, canyon, hilltop and street scenes.

The paintings were exhibited at the Laguna Art Museum for a day and made available for purchase.

The lush urban scene in Auster's painting was a contrast to many of the beach paintings of last year, said Ellen Girardeau Kempler, communications director for the museum.

Rick Balzer of Laguna Beach, an art collector and Auster's longtime friend, bought "Diamond Gridlock."

Despite the quick, loose brush strokes in the painting, Auster likes to say the winning piece took him two hours and 30 years to complete because of the years of experience it took to develop his craft.

Auster often cases a friend's house when invited for dinner.

"I'm always looking around to see if there's a place or a good view where I can paint. And my friends love that," Auster said.

He began using the plein-air style only five years ago. He went painting outdoors with some friends and found he had a knack for it. Before that, he mostly worked in his studio creating designs for businesses such as the Chart House restaurant chain, Ocean Pacific and Hang Ten.

At his studio at Gallery 133, Auster teaches 11 workshops a year. He said he finds it difficult to paint when he's in town because he's distracted by day-to-day business. He prefers to work when he travels outside the city, where the surf is high.

Surfboard, wetsuit, brushes and paints in hand, Auster made a career out of depicting the California beach lifestyle and the surfer's world of water and waves.

His surf turf has included San Onofre, Mexico, Costa Rica, Europe and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

"Surf travels take you to a lot of exotic places," Auster said. He can complete up to two paintings a day when he travels, but he still relies on his dependable camera for vacation photos, he said.

"Painting on location keeps you honest, and it perfects your ability to see and capture light in its true colors for that moment," Auster said. "And that comes from being able to interpret light and shadows and shapes quickly."

Auster is considered a forerunner in the Neo Plein-Air movement of contemporary Impressionistic landscape paintings; the style originated in the early 1900s and is finding a resurgence.

He thrives on competition.

"What happens in a competitive format is that painters are pushed to perform in ways they're not used to," Auster said.

"It serves to prove how good you are as a painter, because the conditions are never perfect, and that element of pressure is a good way for artists to build confidence in their skills. Confidence is a prime ingredient for artists, because it allows them to paint things they've never thought of painting and in places they've never thought of."

Winning is secondary to earning respect among 50 of the best plein-air painters in the country, Auster said.

He refers to the competition as a sport that left him wiped out. He went to recover on the beaches of Mexico.

"I was exhausted after the competition," Auster said. "No one goes and paints for five days in a row from dawn to dusk."

Painting, like surfing, is about finding the right rhythm and letting the elements flow, Auster said. "It's all mental."

Auster bought a round of drinks for the artists who competed, but most of the prize money is going into remodeling his house.

"I'm buying fixtures," he said, "a new sink and faucet."

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