Art of the Surf
Riding the waves through Jennifer Griffith’s paintings
By Liesel Schmidt
Standing in front of one of Jennifer Griffith’s paintings, you’re left with little doubt that the person holding the brush is someone who has felt the rush of air between her fingers, the salt spray in her face, the force of a wave under her feet as she rides the pocket on her board. Griffith is someone who connects with waves. The movement, the power, the mystery. They’re all there in her paintings, beautifully captured on canvas and seemingly stopped in time.
Stare at them long enough, however, and you may think you’ve seen them move. It’s a testament to Griffith’s talent, as the self-taught painter has ostensibly mastered the art of expressing movement.
Her waves are anything but static—in fact, you can almost hear the roar and the crash of them on the shoreline, so real is the way she paints the crests and curls and the way the foam looks as it laps the sand.
“I love the movement of water,” she says. “It is a distinct challenge to create something fluid that exists on a fixed surface. To paint a wave crashing or a ripple in the water creates an experience of being in the water, even though it exists, still, on a canvas.”
Generally painting while she listens to a podcast, Griffith works from her home studio in Charleston to create the self-described pieces of “realist-impressionism” that come from her mind’s eye and make their way onto the canvas.
“There’s very little abstraction in my work,” she says. “The viewer can always tell what the subject is, whether it is water, a landscape or a flower.”
Somehow, in all that realism, Griffith manages whimsy—perhaps a consequence of the color palette she’s drawn to, perhaps because she’s someone who is absolutely at home on the water and can convey a sense of fun to be found there.
“I temper reality by using different colors or dimensions than might be found in the ‘real world,” she says. “I love pink. It can be a surprising and fun addition to what would otherwise be an all-blue waterscape. To me, using pink—or any other color—where it doesn't ‘belong’ in nature is the most fun. It’s like the colored horses in the Wizard of Oz. You know it's a horse, but it's extra magical and playful when the horse is purple!”
With a penchant for using surfboards as canvases, Griffith—a surfer herself—rounds out the complete picture of being an artist who eschews any type of “rules” or constructs.
“The first time I painted a surfboard, I fell in love with the process of cleaning and refurbishing the board and the way the finished painting looked,” she says. “It became a portal of creativity. The process is a little grittier than that of painting on a canvas, and I love that—to get my hands dirty, wear a respirator and sand and prep a board. I especially love the way the boards resonate with other people. Surfing is one of the most beautiful and mesmerizing sports in the world, and whether you surf or not, I think everyone who sees the painted boards can appreciate the art of surfing and how much it has built the culture of the coast. Part of my desire for my work is to sustain the feeling of surfing for anyone who has been lucky enough to experience it firsthand and provide a glimpse of it to anyone that hasn't experienced it but can appreciate the sport or the ocean in their own way. Surfing is physically draining, mentally challenging, and dangerous—but it’s also the most physically freeing, mentally clearing, and emotionally humbling activity. I have looked dolphins in the eye, ridden a wave that felt like flying, and built bonds with people in the lineup.”
In addition to painting surfboards, Griffith paints skateboard decks. She also loves to paint florals and foliage.
“I enjoy taking the 'fluidity' of the movement of waves and applying it to flowers, in the wilting of a petal or the cascade of palm leaves,” she notes.
Whatever she paints, Griffith has a style that is recognizable and very much the work of someone who enjoys having a brush in her hand.
“I love creating something from nothing,” says the artist, who has been painting full-time for the past six years. “It is beautiful to create my own ‘world’ and then share it with others, as part of this existing world. I enjoy the process, the messiness, and the final step-back, where I can see a finished subject that started as a blank slate.’”
“Sometimes I feel unstoppable and other times it is beyond difficult to get motivated,” she admits. “I find inspiration in myself and my surroundings. Living in this beautiful place inspires me the most; a walk on the beach or a scroll through my camera roll of Folly Beach scenes or my GoPro footage from a surf session can spark the inspiration for a painting. Most often, it's the walks that get my wheels spinning. Fresh air works wonders for motivation.”
Griffith’s work can be purchased online at jenngriffithart.com. Follow her on Instagram at @jenn_griffith