The stoney Tolkien references, the black springsuits, the diamond tails... Sharp defined peak Santa Barbara in mic-dropping fashion.
Words by Chuck Graham | Artwork by Rick Sharp
Light / Dark
There was barely enough elbow room to wiggle inside Rick Sharp’s makeshift loft holding a career’s worth of his surfing art. Headlamp turned on, we carefully maneuvered beneath a low ceiling of cobwebs squeezing between cardboard boxes and frames within his “forgotten archives.”
Several weeks before, Sharp stopped by my lifeguard tower to show me one of his old pen-and-ink drawings that appeared in a 1970s advertisement in Surfer magazine for a then upstart surfboard company called Channel Islands Surfboards.
“I started with Channel Islands,” said Sharp that day. “They were the first people I did art for around Santa Barbara. Most likely it was art for a surfboard.”
I’ve been aware of Sharp’s contemporary acrylic paintings of vintage-styled Hawaiian art and classic Southern California surf breaks, but it made me curious as to what other works might be hidden away. I started hounding him about what else he had drawn or painted during that era, but it took some coaxing at first because he was reluctant to dig inside his loft.
“I’m going to have to put my miner’s cap on and move things around in my loft,” said Sharp, not at all enthusiastic about sifting through his previous works. “You’re asking a lot now. I can barely squeeze in there to get to anything.”
Soon after, he received an e-mail from a girl from, of all places, China. She asked Sharp if he had any more “1970s Channel Islands art?” She sent him an attachment of a pen-and-ink drawing, a Channel Islands’ ad in a 1970s Surfer magazine. The drawing was of a surfer waxing his board on the bluff overlooking the lineup at Hammonds Reef. At first, Sharp couldn’t recall his own artwork. However, the long-distance inquiry rekindled his interest in his own art, forcing him to delve into his past works.
“I was surprised,” he said. “It felt like it was the first time I ever saw it. I didn’t remember that ad at all. I had to ask myself, did I do that? It wasn’t half bad either, [laughs].”
Sharp’s loft nestled inside his beachside home in Carpinteria, CA, is a virtual treasure trove of 1970s pen-and-ink drawings. As it turns out, C.I. used several pen-and-ink drawings in ads inside Surfer and Surfing long before they introduced their hexagon logo. Sharp also produced a large pen-and-ink color-in calendar and poster for Channel Islands during the same era. They were the first company that used Sharp’s art, who originally hails from Surfside, Texas, and relocated to Santa Barbara as soon as he graduated from high school in 1972, lured by its numerous point breaks.
However, those weren’t the only treasures hidden inside his loft. Those early drawings for C.I. gave Sharp the exposure he needed to attract other surf companies that wanted to tap into his artistic talents. There was the O’Neill wetsuit ad on the inside cover of a 1970s Surfer and a series of successful T-shirt designs for Hang Ten.
Sharp also created concert posters and album covers for touring musicians performing in Santa Barbara during the same era. Melissa Manchester, Paul Stookey, and Arlo Guthrie were a few of those, but the most noteworthy of those was an album cover for folk/gospel singer Andráe Crouch in 1976. The art for the Grammy winner’s “This is Another Day” depicted a colorful tropical paradise shaded in palm trees and a lineup of perfect right-handers peeling off in the foreground.
Several weeks later, after Sharp did some more excavating in his loft, he called me and left a message. “I found my old Fantasea poster and a T-shirt design I did for Big Wednesday,” he said with a hint of relief, and then he hung up.
The Big Wednesday Art
While John Milius was directing Big Wednesday in 1978, he sent an assistant to search for an artist. A stop at Channel Islands Surfboards at the old Helena Street address proved fruitful. The assistant asked who the best surf artist in Santa Barbara was? Sharp’s name came up instantly and Milius had a limo sent to pick him up.
They drove him up to the Hollister Ranch where Milius was waiting for him in a trailer. A secretary was sitting alongside him as well as actors Gary Busey, William Kaat, and Jan-Michael Vincent, who starred in the film.
“She was writing checks when I walked inside the trailer,” recalled Sharp. “Milius asked me how much to design a Big Wednesday T-shirt? I really didn’t know what to ask for, so I told him $1,400, and he told his secretary to write me a check. That was a lot of money back then.”
Sharp and Milius collaborated on the design. Milius wanted the Malibu wall with the three actors standing and holding surfboards in the middle on the T-shirt, along with some old-style lettering. Sharp sketched the three actors holding surfboards outside the trailer.
“Jan-Michael Vincent seemed a little jaded, but ultra cool,” recalled Sharp. “He was like (Marlon) Brando to us, just it. He was actually living out the character in the movie.”
Milius wanted the T-shirt to give to everyone involved in the movie and as a promo to everyone attending the premiere.
Longtime friend, photographer, and filmmaker Greg Huglin produced the surf flick Fantasea in 1978. Sharp had two projects for the movie: creating the poster and the cartoon. The poster was painted with acrylic and involved the “fantasy-style” Sharp was known for at the time.
The real challenge was the cartoon. Sharp said it took six months to produce a two-minute-long cartoon in traditionally painted animation cels. One second was 12 to 15 cels of movements.
“Huglin had to hire two people to help,” said Sharp. “It was labor intensive.”
Former world champ Shaun Tomson was the model for the surfer in the cartoon and a friend, Andy Johnson, was used for the poster. It’s about a guy living in the jungle. He opens a coconut and then sees a beautiful girl, but the surf comes up and, of course, he chooses the pumping surf instead of the girl.
“I was never trained in creating cels,” admitted Sharp. “I was reading a lot of books learning how to flip cels with my fingers. It was a massive project just to get two minutes out of it.”
By the early 1980s, Sharp’s dreamy fantasy surf art had run its course. The only logo design Channel Islands held on to and still uses today from Sharp’s 1970s collection of pen-and-ink drawings is the logo of the archipelago.
“The New Wave era slaughtered my style of work,” continued Sharp, a self-taught artist. “It felt like a decade ended overnight.”
From 1982 to 1989, Sharp admitted he rested on his laurels, knowing the popularity in his art in California was winding down. He coasted on his royalties from bigger companies as far into the 1980s as he could. By 1987, he was nearly broke and living a sort of has-been lifestyle in Santa Barbara. Without putting much thought into a career move other than just thinking of surf, Sharp packed up his easels and paints and relocated to Kauai and then the Big Island for the better part of 20 years.
“I dropped California and looked for a new start,” he said. “I struggled with my artistic identity in the early 80s. I’d become obsessed with Hawaiian books and movies and living in the tropics in America.”
Every artist experiences a down stretch, and Sharp’s story is no different. To make ends meet he took on a bevy of odd jobs. Stints as a shoe shiner and golf cart cleaner at the Princeville Golf Course occupied his days, and by night he performed at the Tahiti Nui Bar and Restaurant in Hanalei Bay strumming the ukulele. He even found himself airbrushing for Billy Hamilton Surfboards in the jungle near Hanalei Bay.
After Hurricane Iniki slammed into Kauai in September 1992, Sharp moved to the Big Island for the better part of ten years, purchasing a home in the Puako community along the Kona Coast. It was along the lava-strewn coastline shaded in palms that Sharp finally reconnected with his fantasy-style art, implementing Hawaiian culture, islandscapes, and surf into his artwork. Sharp developed his painting style with a newer, more brilliant color palette.
“One day the colors just came to me: rich, bright colors,” he said. “As a surfer and as an artist, Hawaii has been an inspiration.”
Sharp never forgot what lured him west from his Surfside roots. Taking his new inspiration that blossomed in Hawaii, he produced a series of surf paintings beginning with several of Santa Barbara’s best point breaks and gradually working his way down the Southern California coast.
“The original reason I came to Santa Barbara was for those classic point breaks,” recalled Sharp. “It’s a collective series capturing every point.”
The last time I was in Sharp’s art studio, he unveiled his new series of paintings of Southern California surf breaks: California Street, Malibu, Secos, Miramar and other classic breaks were resting on easels. There was an array of colorful paints splattered in cups on a crowded table, works in progress surrounded the studio, and lonely easels erected around the low-lit room awaited bare canvas.
“I needed to restart my career,” reflected Sharp. “My style was really strong from ’72-’82. That was my heyday when my art was really flyin’ here in California. “It’s still there today, the fantasy and organic nature.”
Today, the popularity of Rick Sharp’s posters has brought him full circle—to a career as a poster artist that has its roots firmly entrenched in California’s surf subculture of the 1970s.