Tyler Warren, decorating one of his handshapes. Photo by Burgess
Tyler Warren, decorating one of his handshapes. Photo by Burgess

Showcase: Tyler Warren

Surfer, shaper and visual artist Tyler Warren captures beach culture’s most idyllic form on canvas

Tyler Warren stands in the back of his San Juan Capistrano, California, garage-turned-art-studio, holding a painting of a woman in a vintage bathing suit. She's adrift in the ocean, lying comfortably on a longboard as a spire of surreal cumulus clouds climbs up from the horizon behind her. The woman's closed eyes and calm face paired with the strange cloud formation gives the painting a dreamlike feeling, as if the colorful world she resides in is one of her own invention.

"I really like trying to fit it all together -- the composition, the colors -- to create these perfect moments in time where everything just feels right," says Warren. "I want it to feel like when you're at the beach and it's sunny and glassy, not a drop of water out of place, and then build on that feeling."

Most know Warren as a professional surfer, gracing movies and magazine spreads while riding everything from oversized gliders to tiny twin-fins in his stylish fashion. But Warren was a visual artist before a sponsor's sticker ever made it onto the nose of his surfboard, constantly drawing and tying his art back to his love of surfing.

"I started drawing on surfboards when I was in high school, and then I started making T-shirt graphics, printing them out and selling them out of my truck," he says. "A lot of my early influence came from my Uncle Drew who used to follow the Grateful Dead, screen-printing shirts and making stickers to sell at the concerts. He sent me a disc with all these psychedelic posters from the '60s, and the more you looked at those illustrations, the more you saw."

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After high school, Warren worked as an apprentice under his other uncle, illustrator Kenton Nelson, while studying art at Saddleback College and creating commissioned pieces for brands and collectors alike. But his unique blend of surf skill, artistic inclination and craftsmanship -- Warren's handshapes are highly sought after in the alternative-surfcraft scene --
eventually caught the eye of surf megabrand Billabong, which asked him to join its team roster.

Today, Warren's life is a balancing act split between chasing swells and art shows around the world, local surf sessions around San Onofre and Trestles, working on new oil paintings in his studio and mowing foam in his shaping bay. But, according to Warren, the benefit of being a jack-of-all-trades is that you find inspiration everywhere.

"The clouds in that painting came from one session in Indonesia," says Warren. "I was just looking at these really strange, beautiful clouds on the horizon and thinking, 'I've got to paint these.' And from there I might take a photo of one of my friends or a car or surfboard that I like and mix it all together. Those images might have a familiar feel, but in the end it's an idealized version -- something dreamier than anything we actually see in real life."