Erik Abel // Bamboo Groove Poster
Artist and designer Erik Abel grew up surrounded by surf culture and eschewed corporate life for an extended travel adventure. While the realities of raising a family and running a commercial and fine art business keep him onshore today, he still keeps his eyes on the horizon searching for that next perfect wave.
The Ventura County coastline is recognized as one of the original birthplaces of California surf culture. Referenced not once but twice in the Beach Boys 1963 hit, “Surfin’ USA,” surfers from around the world pilgrimage to the steady swells at any of Ventura’s seven breaks.
It’s this laid-back coastal town between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara where Erik Abel spent his formative years. From learning to surf at age eleven to his first job airbrushing surfboards at age seventeen, Abel’s connection to art and the ocean runs deep. “I’ve felt a special bond with the sea,” he said. “It’s been my refuge and my inspiration.”
After studying art and graphic design in Oregon, Abel made his way to Los Angeles for an in-house design job at a startup that offered more stock than salary. “Leather shoes and slacks and a button-up shirt and it’s 75 degrees outside,” he recalled. One day, he encountered a billboard that would change the course of his life. It read, “The worst days for those who love what they do are far better than the best days for those who don’t.”
“That hit me like a ton of bricks,” Abel said. He quit his job and bought a one-way ticket to New Zealand. “I just got my backpack and surfboard bag and took off,” he said. “That was the most liberating experience of my life.”
Abel bought a van and traveled around New Zealand, surfing and picking up freelance jobs for brands like Billabong. “I was just living the dream,” he said. “Surfing every day and just exploring.”
As comes with the territory, Abel often found himself surrounded by ocean creatures, like whales and sharks. But he’s far from circumspect about those he’s encountered. “I think that would kinda be the way to go down: fighting a shark in a pool of your own blood, doing something you love,” he said. “Better than fighting off cancer.”
Lured by a job at a fishing lodge in Tonga, an island near Fiji in the South Pacific, Abel left New Zealand to work barefoot and plant banana trees. “I just realized that you can kind of choose your own path and do what you want,” he said. “During this whole trip I had my sketchbooks and I was just sketching away.”
Two years of travel around the world deeply influenced Abel’s aesthetics. “Seeing different cultures and their art and architecture,” he recalled, “was a profound experience.” On his return to California, he mounted a show of his work from the trip that would propel his career.
A friend he knew from high school approached Abel at the show. “He wanted me to do the artwork for the Reef Hawaiian Pro,” one of the most prestigious surfing competitions in the world, recalled Abel. “That’s kind of when I really started to get serious about doing more commercial stuff.”
Abel went on to design skateboards for Sector 9; t-shirts for Billabong, REI, and Patagonia; and a special-edition bottle for Blue Moon beer. “It’s cool to work in an industry that I’ve grown up around,” said Abel. “It was a full-circle, grateful period.”
Despite success as a commercial designer, original paintings are Abel’s passion. “That’s what I love to do, just be in the studio and paint,” he said. Working primarily from memories of his travels and experiences, Abel also draws on reference photos of animals and fish to get the details right.
“It all starts just in the sketchbook,” he said. “These are the most valuable things in my life.” Returning to his sketchbooks time and again for ideas, Abel hones his work by hand, preferring paper over digital. He also dislikes the texture of canvas, preferring primed wood as the substrate of choice for his colored pencils, markers, and acrylic paint. “I want to see a little brush stroke in there,” he said.
Color, too, is an iterative process for Abel. “Any given color you see in my paintings, it’s been painted over three to five times,” he said. “Most of the time it’s just making color decisions on the fly,” until he arrives at what he calls, “The good stuff.”
Artist as Entrepreneur
Even this consummate fine artist can find himself drawn to digital workflows. “When I was nineteen, a good friend encouraged me to get a computer and learn the Adobe design programs,” Abel said. “That opened up a whole new realm for my art.” Working principally in Illustrator and Photoshop, he has a select set of digital brushes and shapes that yield the analog feel he loves.
His digital workflow also opened Abel up to the possibilities of selling his work online. “Online sales are a significant portion of our business,” he said. His streamlined website features 9˝x12˝ digital prints of his work, promoted through social media and email campaigns. There’s really only one issue, he finds: “You’re not really just an artist anymore. You’re an entrepreneur.”
Aided by assistants—his two children—and his wife, who keeps the books and manages the business, Abel now works out of his Oregon garage. He finds motivation in his family and recognizes that it takes discipline to focus on his work and business. “I’ve said no to a lot of fun parties,” he recalled. “It takes being able to say no to those experiences in order to focus on your work.”
Abel’s self-discipline has resulted in prolific output, “Probably 700 originals and lots of illustration graphic stuff,” he says. “You just kinda keep moving.” He recognizes, however, that the graphic techniques he has developed into a signature style can be limiting. “It’s a tough thing because I built it up to where my career depends on it and my fan base and collectors expect this ocean-related art,” he said. “I definitely need to explore a new direction.”
Recently, Abel began a new passion project he calls Abstract Pursuits and which, naturally, came from a return to sketchbooks. “I was doing these little drawings that just showed up in my sketchbooks,” he said. “It was pouring out and I was so thrilled with it. I just couldn’t stop throwing up sketchbooks.”
Along with his established fine and commercial art businesses, his online store, and his passion projects, Abel also works with ocean-related nonprofit organizations like Save the Waves and Heal the Bay. “I’ve always thought being an artist was a rather selfish endeavor, because you get to spend more time than most indulging in your passion,” he said. “Creating programs with [nonprofits], I was able to make art that would help them fundraise.”
Asked what’s over the horizon for this surf artist turned traveler turned entrepreneur, Abel pauses before responding. “I’m just trying to keep the tribe together and keep the boat above water,” he said. “Trying to stay relevant with my work and, at the same time, explore new things.”
SURFER, ARTIST, AND DESIGNER ERIK ABEL BRAVED WINTER WEATHER TO JOIN SMARTPRESS FOR AN EXTENDED LIVE INTERVIEW IN DOWNTOWN MINNEAPOLIS.