VERNON KERR (1938-1982)
24" x 48", Oil on Canvas 11086
Vernon Kerr (1938-1982)
Primarily a self-taught artist, Vernon Kerr displayed an early interest in and facility for art. He sold his first seascape for $50 at age 15. At that time, he proved to his parents that he was willing to pursue art at some length and inconvenience; traveling to private art lessons with Leon Franks in Hollywood, Vernon took three different bus routes, a two hour trip each way. His parents, in response, supported his interest and built him a small studio over their garage.
The burgeoning artist received more than familial recognition – at age seventeen, he was accepted as the youngest member of the Laguna Beach Art Association, joining the organization at the same time that the Southgate California Library gave him his first one-man show.
Enlisting in the Navy at nineteen, he was assigned as a draftsman/illustrator on a repair ship. His devotion to art never wavered during his tour of duty, and while the ship was anchored off Japan, he rented a small studio on land, traveled and attended art shows. Upon his return to the States and discharge when he was 21, Vernon made a 9,000 mile tour of the United States, visiting major art galleries and studying great works. But that didn’t seem to satisfy him.
Vernon’s mother recalled that he regretted his lack of formal art education. “Everyone was into extreme abstract painting,” she said. “If he had studied at that time, I’m afraid it would have spoiled his natural gift. I had no regret that he didn’t go to any of those schools. We discussed it often. But he never saw it my way. He still regretted that he hadn’t studied it.”
The family moved to Laguna Beach, and Vernon’s mother opened an art gallery in the center of town. The International Art Publishing Company began publishing his prints and distributing them worldwide when the artist was 24, thus beginning a trend which culminated in more of Kerr’s work in print with various publishers than any other contemporary American artist.
Despite misgivings concerning his training, he was an excellent teacher, well-known for his seascapes, landscapes and still lifes. Many aspiring artists vouched for his ability, citing his enthusiasm, formidable teaching skills and brush technique.
He began each lesson with a painting demonstration: He would place a charcoal-saturated string across a blank canvas and snap it, producing a straight horizon line. Then he would block in dark rocks and wave formation.
Next, he would use a tow-and-a-half-inch sash brush to paint the sky. Clouds and backlighting or highlights were completed with smaller brushes. The whole breath-taking operation would last less than half an hour. And all that time, he’d explain color key, contrast, hue, tone, lights, darks, accents, etc.
He would limit his palette in class to red, yellow, blue, black and white. He mixed all combinations and hues from these basic colors. (This was done for demonstration only. He used a broad palette for his regular work.)
Finally, he spent time putting in the foreground and carefully working on what he called the “nitzi-poo” details. The whole demonstration would take about an hour. He would inevitably end by saying, “Now you do it.”
But he was much more than just a gifted teacher. He was a talented, professional artist searching for the best manner in which to express himself. He had selected seascapes as his specialty, giving the following rationale: “I studied with Leon Franks. He is one of the world’s great still life and floral painters. If I wanted to step out from under his shadow, I would have to paint something he wouldn’t in order to make my own mark. I love the sea. It was natural for me to turn to it.”
“On a good seascape you should be able to tell roughly the time of day, season of the year and weather conditions,” Vernon said emphatically.
A couple months later, he surprised the class with announcement: “My prints have made me internationally famous as a seascape artist. But I need to grow. I’m closing the gallery and moving to Idaho to study landscapes.”
Vernon’s Idaho interlude produced some sensational landscapes and snow-scenes. But he could not long stay away from his beloved coastlines. After three years, he moved to Mendocino where a carpenter friend and former student helped him to build the ideal home/studio. This move brought some unexpected success, and his work reflected the relief of being back in comfortable territory.
A six-month promotional campaign by Los Angeles radio station KFAC to promote an upcoming show of Vernon’s work, which it was sponsoring, took an unusual twist. The station staff chose twelve classical music selections to which Vernon chose pieces such as Toccata and Fugue by Bach, Wellington’s Victory by Beethoven, the theme of the Kalendar Prince from Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov, and Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome by Strauss.
When the time came, we hung the paintings in the gallery without labeling them, then challenged program director Carl Princi to come and identify which was which. To the credit of both the artist and the observer, he named each one correctly.
That same year, a Los Angeles television station (KOCE-TV, Channel 50) produced a special Showcase on Vernon Kerr in which he executed a painting on camera. The program received excellent public reaction.
Vernon cited the early Japanese influence upon his work for the uniqueness of his imagery. “Oriental art is direct, clean and efficient. Their colors are pure. Their stoking is simple. I draw my paintings in an Oriental style that uses economy of strokes. Everything is planned in advance, not experimented with on canvas.”
His work has a great deal of mass appeal, but Vernon was often the last to believe it. Print companies continued to take notice of his work.
The day before an open house, Jim Haddad of Haddad’s Fine Art company arranged to come select paintings for potential prints to be published by his company.
Vernon crossed his fingers and kept saying, “I hope he picks two. I hope he picks two.” When I asked, “Why two?” he explained: “If he takes one, I had a lucky painting that turned out well. If he takes two, I’m an artist!”
Haddad took ten that year.
Ultimately, Vernon had more paintings in the Haddad catalog than any other living artist. In addition, his prints were distributed by Texasart, Donaldart and Brentwood Fine Art.
By turns ebullient and uncertain, Vernon could also be analytical about his work, comparing his painting process to a surgeon’s skill. “It is not time that makes for quality work,” he said, “but precision. You must know the value, hue, tone and textures of every stroke. You must think it out in advance. You must know what it will look like before the brush ever touches the canvas.”
Vernon Kerr’s legacy is the beauty he saw interpreted in nature.
Vernon Kerr died at his gallery in Mendocino, California, on April 25, 1982. He was survived by his wife and four children. No one knows exactly how many paintings he completed during his lifetime. The number is somewhere around 1,000.
Biography adapted from 1984 article by Earl S. Beecher, PhD