In artist Andrew Leonard’s illustration “I can’t quit you baby,” a woman stands against a De la Vina lamppost, her head tilted back in enraptured pleasure while a debonair beau plants a kiss on her neck. Placed in the background, just outside of Brownie’s Market, a spotted mutt looks on with bemused interest.
In another piece, titled “Old Town Goleta,” Hollister Avenue’s Santa Cruz Market is drawn in an art deco style, elevating the stalwart neighborhood grocer with a glamorous aesthetic reminiscent of the French Riviera travel posters of the 1930s.
But this is not tourist art. Leonard, who works under the pseudonym “Digital Sunsets,” eschews the ubiquitous coastal watercolor, instead training his lens on obscure urban subjects far more meaningful and recognizable to a Santa Barbara resident.
“I have a personal connection to these places,” says Leonard, “and I know that other people have these memories — people in my family, people I grew up with. I have an emotional tie to these beautiful things that I’m seeing.”
Leonard grew up in Goleta before moving to New York City to study art at the Grand Central Academy. The curriculum was largely grounded in a realist tradition, emphasizing antique art, figure drawing and sculpture. For Leonard, who draws inspiration from impressionism, outsider, and folk art, this rigidly classical education was stymying.
“I left,” Leonard recalls, “I didn’t want to be that kind of artist. I ended up finding another school.”
After two years, Leonard transferred to the Art Students League, where illustrious alumni like Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe received their training. “I kind of found my voice a little more there; it helped me think and be proud of myself and where I come from.”
After spending 12 years in New York, Leonard recently moved back to Santa Barbara, where he now produces art that celebrates the local and the mundane, including the Westside’s Foodland grocery store, Goleta’s Mercury Lounge, and the distinctive architecture of La Super-Rica Taqueria.
“I remember seeing Super Rica, driving past when I was 12, thinking how cool and weird this building is,” says Leonard, “And coming back and thinking, ‘Holy shit, there’s nowhere else that looks like that.’ I can appreciate the nuances of that type of architecture and those little things that make Santa Barbara unique.”
Leonard’s impressionist influences are evident in a piece titled “Easy Rider,” in which a group of friends laze in the grass of the Santa Barbara Mission garden, rendered in short, quick strokes that evoke Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass.”
Before Leonard’s art is finalized in a digital format on an iPad, he draws upon analogue resources to create his compositions. “I use all my facilities,” he explains, “sketching, photographs, memory, plein air paintings, color studies. I’ll do watercolors at a spot just to get a feeling.”
Chicano iconography abounds in Leonard’s illustrations. His work is populated by figures who wear tank tops and long shorts, ride atop bicycles with high handlebars, and drive in classic cars with white-wall tires and wide rims. It’s a depiction of a community often underrepresented in local galleries.
“I’ve always been obsessed with the culture,” says Leonard, “My first car was a 1977 Cadillac Coupe DeVille with 20-inch rims. My best friends, my family are Chicanos. I feel like it’s important for that community to have a voice, you know?”
Since his return to Santa Barbara, Leonard has entered a prolific and inspired phase, producing a much-lauded chalk drawing for the I Madonnari festival and creating the artwork for the official 2020 Fiesta poster. “It’s hard to see myself doing art anywhere else besides here,” he says, “I’ve finally found that formula where I feel so connected, and I’m making work that is the most genuine I’ve ever made.”
Leonard’s art is available for order at digitalsunsets.net.
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