It should come as no surprise that water is Eric Zener’s muse, the medium through which he expresses life’s journey. Having grown up on the beach in San Diego, he spent his formative years seeking adventure on his surfboard—a pursuit that every surfer knows comes with danger lurking just below the surface. “It’s that vulnerability, realizing how small we are compared to the abyss—it touches the voyager in all of us,” says Zener, a self- taught painter who still gazes at the water from his Sausalito studio in a former World War II shipbuilding warehouse overlooking the San Francisco Bay.
Being poised for change is the common thread through all of his artworks. “They are about transformative experiences, or even just temporal feelings,” the artist says. That’s why so many of his photorealistic paintings depict swimmers, including himself, standing on the edge of a diving board or mid-flight as they jump. Many others show men and women flowing through the water, sometimes in a cloud of bubbles, sometimes suspended in marbled sunlight. In each case, he says, water is the portal from one state to another.
Zener has been painting for fun as long as he can remember, encouraged by his grandmother, an “obsessive” amateur artist who would paint with him for hours on end when he visited her in Sun Valley, Idaho. Shortly after graduating from UC Santa Barbara, he took off to travel the world for 18 months. “On that journey, I made the proverbial leap of faith to paint as a profession,”
he says. That leap has informed his work ever since.
The artist has been looking inland more recently, portraying intricately tangled treescapes. “They’re very visceral, and it’s a nice break from photorealism,” he says. Whereas his swimmer paintings are highly disciplined in their execution, Zener intentionally loosens up with this scenery, often painting with both hands, sometimes turning the canvas upside down, or even looking away while he applies the oils. “Your brain tries to arrange things in patterns. By turning away or using the wrong hand or flipping the canvas, it breaks the repetitive pattern, and it gives me this working mess where happy accidents can occur,” he says.
Zener has been painting consistently through the pandemic shutdown thanks to an uptick in private commissions. And while his subject matter has stayed the same, he reports that the meanings have changed. He’s named a recent painting depicting a man swimming lazily through the water Quarantine in Blue. “The narrative of how we look at things can alter,” he says. “Art is a mirror for what we’re experiencing in the world.”