East Coast native, global traveler, and impressionistic realist painter Phil Goodrich has always been passionate about surfing, but he would never have pictured himself painting waves. Lucky for us, he gave it a try one day. And as it turns out, he’s damn good. So now he’s finding an artistic balance between his first love, portraiture, and his knack for the more marketable surf art genre. ESM sat down with Phil to get the whole story...
ESM: Give us a little background on yourself, Phil.
Phil Goodrich: I’m 42, and I’ve been living in South Carolina for four years. I grew up in Melbourne Beach, FL, and started surfing when I was 10. I did the whole competition thing from age 14 to 20, but back in the day, Slater was in my division, along with David Speir, Paul Reinecke, Todd Morcom, and a lot of those guys. So, basically, I had a room full of 4th-place trophies [laughs]. I just wasn’t a pro surfer.
In high school, I would do cartoons just to express myself and as gifts for people, but art wasn’t a passion yet. It was more like a hobby. Then my dad gave me the opportunity to go to college at Point Loma University in California, and he didn’t say what I had to major in, so I tried to find something I liked. I signed up to do graphic design, but once I got about a year into it, I realized that I didn’t enjoy sitting in front of a computer. I like the process of art. I like the brushes and the chalk and the pastels and the surfaces. So I switched to studio art.
I graduated in 1993 and lived in San Diego until 2008. I met my wife there, but things weren’t working out for us with the cost of living. She owns a house in South Carolina, so we came here. I live about 45 minutes from the coast now, and that’s both good and bad. It gives me a lot of time to paint, but I surf Carolina Beach the most now, and that’s about an hour and 45 minutes away, so I don’t surf as much as I would like. But I do go to Indonesia every year for anywhere from two to five months. For me, surfing is just a relief. Riding waves has always been my way to express myself physically and get it all out, good or bad.
ESM: Seems like surfing would be a natural source of inspiration for your art.
PG: Actually, no — I’ve only been doing surf art since 2010. Before that, I was really stubborn about doing what I wanted to do, which was painting portraits of blues musicians and women. But portraiture as a profession is really challenging. It’s hard to sell a piece if it’s something you do on your own and not a portrait that someone hired you to do of a particular person. But to me, capturing a moment or an expression in paint always seemed like a noble pursuit. I like the human side of portraiture and the level of skill and practice it takes. It’s undeniable when someone is a great portrait artist. It’s not something that you can just take a couple of classes for and then really excel at. It takes thousands of hours. I always admired portrait artists like John Singer Sargent and Gustav Klimt. They had a somewhat loose style when it came to their brush strokes, but at the same time, it always looked so real.
ESM: What got you to consider doing other types of work?
PG: For the longest time, people would always ask me if I did surf art and if I could paint a wave. But I saw how many surf artists there already were, and the idea of doing that type of painting felt like taking a step back to when I was just a little kid fantasizing about waves in school and sketching on my notebook. So I just wasn’t really into it. But then, in 2010, I did a landscape of South Carolina for my mom as a present because she asked for it. Of course, after they saw that, my wife and my mother were really telling me I should do surf art. So I finally listened to them and tried to do a wave painting. I actually found it easier, for whatever reason, than a portrait. I think maybe all those years of mixing color to try to get every detail on a face translated into being fearless when it came to mixing color for water and light.
ESM: Your background in portraiture definitely makes your surf-oriented work stand out. Could you describe your process?
PG: I’ve always painted on wood, and I use a lot of linseed oil and paint thinner in the oil paint so that it’s almost like a glaze. I like to let the wood grain sort of guide the contours of the wave, so before I start, I’ll flip the wood around a certain way or choose a particular piece because I can tell if it’s going to be good for the painting I’m doing. I’m not the best surf artist, but I feel like having that distinct style with the wood helps me to be recognizable. And when I’m painting waves, what inspires me is good water photography. Matt Lusk is one of my favorite photographers, along with Daniel Pullen. Those are the two guys in the Outer Banks that I work with, along with Matt Clark from New York. I feel like their photos capture the East Coast: the color of the water, how heavy the waves are, all of it. Once I pick a photo and a piece of wood, I soak the wood in linseed oil. Then I start with a pastel sketch straight onto the wood, lightly with just a couple of colors. Then I mix oil paint and linseed oil and put the paint right over the pastel sketch. Finishing a painting can take me anywhere from one day to about 10 days if I’m doing a really big one that has a portrait and a wave in it.
ESM: After the success you’ve had since you started, do you feel any better now about doing surf art?
PG: I still feel like sometimes I’m doing this just because it sells better. But at the same time, I’m happy to sell art, so if that’s what sells, I’m going to try to do it the best I can. And I do enjoy it. It’s what people want. The latest thing I’ve been doing is, when I get on a roll, sell a few paintings, and have some extra time, I try to combine portraits and surf art. I’ll paint a figure, like a woman or a musician, in the foreground and a wave in the background. I try to combine them in a way that’s left open for interpretation. Those paintings don’t sell as easily as an empty wave, but it’s pretty satisfying when they do. I sold a painting the other day of a blues musician in front of a wave. That gets me excited because it was a sale that came over the Internet from someone I didn’t know, so that painting really just spoke to the person. It’s also really rewarding when someone says, “Your work inspires me.” That makes me excited to grab my paints. That’s a reward beyond just selling art, when your work really affects someone and makes them want to be creative too.