California Dreaming: The Art Of Kenton Nelson

Kenton Nelson grew up during the 1950s and ’60s. He started his career as an illustrator and graphic designer before launching a painting career at age 40. He works a ten-hour day, every day, in his studio in Pasadena, California. Nelson describes his style as “narrative idealism.” Nelson’s influences include the work of the WPA artists of the 1930s, American Scene painting, and Regionalism. His work often depicts an idealized version of his personal memories, of a time “when men wore hats, women baked their own pies, and the radio played big band music.” Nelson’s work is based on memories of the cinema and the advertising of that era, which were “all about hope and the promise of the future.” Nelson paints figures, landscape, and architecture “bathed in light.”

The people in Kenton Nelson’s paintings wear clothing from that earlier time, which overlaps with the heyday of Ivy League clothing. That is one reason to believe that his work will be of interest to Ivy Style readers. A more subtle point of contact is the ethos which comes through in Nelson’s work. As he puts it, he “chooses to run contrary to expectations, resurrecting and reinvigorating a style of painting that has fallen out of favor in certain circles.” Defying expectations, resurrecting and reinvigorating images and objects from the past, preserving beautiful and tasteful things, Ivy Style aficionados have these common with the artist as well. The following is a Q&A with the artist. — MICHAEL J. LOTUS

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IVY STYLE: We may as well start out with a question about clothing. On your Instagram page you have a picture of yourself in a white oxford cloth button-down shirt, right out of the package, with the packaging creases still in it. Is that your standard shirt? Have you always worn them? Do you care about clothes very much?

KENTON NELSON: I had to laugh. It drives my wife crazy that I will wear a shirt right out of the package. I will rarely wear a shirt without a buttondown collar unless I’m dressing up. Usually I’m wearing an oxford-cloth buttondown shirt, I am guilty of not having them ironed, with chinos, and boat shoes, old Vans. I think it’s a West Coast thing. I often wear sweater vests. I believe that’s the Brit in me. In thinking about this, I think I’ve worn the same thing since seventh grade. I am very interested in clothing, and classic American fashion, but I am also guilty of liking tradition-with-a-twist.

IS: The women’s clothing in your paintings seems to be more defined and specific than the men’s clothing. Do you have a particular interest in women’s clothing from the era?

KN: My interest in women’s fashion comes from my first 20 year career as a graphic designer, and art director. I had fashion accounts and got to direct fashion photography for campaigns. In her youth, my mother was a stunning beauty and dressed beautifully. My grandmother was impeccably dressed, and my grandfather was an English eccentric. Also, growing up in Los Angeles a lot of attention was paid to the films and advertising of my youth. Back then beautiful people/models were featured in advertising, giving us ideals to shoot for. Now it is quite different.

After I design the painting I hire a model and shoot her in minimal dress. I then get to design the outfits I like for my world. These are usually based on the fashion from my youth, when there seemed to be a little more style and grace. I also have always paid attention to fashion photographers. One of my heroes is Louise Dahl-Wolfe. I bought a catalog of George Hoyningen-Huene when I was 19, and I still refer to his design.

IS: Your work is rooted in a time and place. When you started painting, did you know what you wanted to do? Did you always plan to paint an idealized postwar California? How did you discover your unique niche? How has your work evolved over time?

KN: I started painting because my job as a designer went the way of the buggy whip, and “desktop publishing” arrived. I have always been self-employed, and with the advent of the computer and the early ’90s downturn in the economy, my income went to 25% of what it was the year before. I sold my big house and fancy car and decided to teach myself how to paint. I have never taken painting in school, but I realized that a lot of my hero illustrators were painters. My first paintings were of architecture, and I began to idealize our neighborhoods. After hundreds of paintings of buildings, I wondered if I could treat the figure like architecture. Now, 1,200 paintings later, I’m still trying to figure it out.

I try to paint the world like they said it would be.” The soft propaganda of 1950s and 60s advertising, TV shows, and movies had a huge effect on me. I am an optimist and an idealist and have always been that way, so I believe it shows up in my work. Each new painting has to be my best work, so I am always challenging myself to do things better, and I hope this makes for an improvement and evolution of the work over the years.

IS: You have referred to the WPA muralists and American Scene painting, and Regionalism as influences. That would include Edward Hopper and Grant Wood, certainly. You have referred to Rene Magritte as an influence. I recall Joan Didion, another Californian, saying that to learn to write like Hemingway, she literally typed the entirety of A Farewell to Arms to learn how he did it. 

KN: As individuals, we are an amalgam of all those things we have loved, and we can’t help but be under the influence of the greatness that precedes us. I love how the regionalists, and American Scene painters flew in the face of the modernism that was coming over here from Europe. Art should always challenge the movement that precedes it. When I started painting in the early ’90s, fine art was highly conceptual and very dark, and I wanted to make something inspirational. Of course I am under the influence of the art great artists that precede me, including Alex Katz, Gerhard Richter, Balthus, Sheeler, Hockney, Warhol, Grant Wood, and Christian Schad, to name a few.

I love that story about Joan Didion! Great writers like Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and their short stories are the things that inspired me to paint. I remember writing in my journal, before I started to paint, that if I could captivate somebody with an image, and remove them from the world around them just for a few moments (like Fitzgerald did with one of his short stories), then I’ve accomplished something. I have been trying to do that ever since.

IS: Many of your paintings are of women in short skirts, or in beach attire, or disrobing. There is an unabashed interest in the female form, and not as an abstraction. It is idealized, but is an idealization of a real, tangible body. Your depiction is not vulgar, it is not blatantly carnal. How would you explain your tasteful and restrained yet appreciative depiction of the female form and female beauty?

KN: Thank you for noticing. Less is more. I would rather have a suggestion, and use my imagination. Mystique and allure are not about what you see, they are about what you don’t see. I still find my wife of 25 years mysterious in so many ways, and that is probably a good thing. She is a classic stunning beauty. Like most men I know, I married above my station. I figure women have a special “male pattern blindness” that we should be thankful for.

IS: What to you is the masculine ideal, in terms of appearance, attire, demeanor? Have you painted the masculine ideal?

KN: These questions really make me realize I am a product of my day. I still think a gentleman is the thing. A man should be strong, intelligent, dependable, trustworthy, respectful, hard-working, courageous, and graceful.  How we tend to ourselves lets the world know who we are. I still believe that you honor your company by the way you dress and appear.

IS: Your work is available on the Internet. Masses of people you will never meet can and do look at your art. What type of response do you get from people? Do you have fans? Do they ever surprise you with their responses?

KN: Yes, the world of art has completely changed. With the Internet my work has the potential of great exposure. What we give up in copyright we gain in what we used to pay for as advertising. A lot of students visit my studio, and I tell them that they have the capability of shopping for my clients and that the playing field is even. That said, I know how to work and get a job done. I am not sitting around my studio strumming my guitar, waiting for the muse. I am working nine or 10 hours a day, usually having a Trader Joe’s burrito at the easel. Even after all these years, I am floored by the way people respond to my work. I am totally isolated in my craft inventing this world, and it seems to touch some people. I will never get over that.

18 Comments on "California Dreaming: The Art Of Kenton Nelson"

  1. Interesting art and interesting message / philosophy.

  2. This is fascinating. Some of the most interesting people around are artists, especially when they talk about their approach to their work and the rationale behind it. “The soft propaganda of 1950s and 60s advertising, TV shows, and movies. . .” A memorable point. It observation explains so much behind the seething anger and discontent among so many in our own times.

    Best Regards,


  3. My kinda art

  4. Charlottesville | May 11, 2020 at 4:12 pm |

    Wow. Thank you so much Mr. Lotus for introducing us to Mr. Nelson. I am bowled over. Really wonderful art that is so different from almost everything I see today, and so evocative of the world he describes in the fascinating interview. I hope I get to see some of his work in person one day. My wife and I recently visited a Hopper exhibit, and this very much reminds me of those paintings.

  5. elder prep | May 11, 2020 at 5:16 pm |

    When I saw the first image above, I immediately said to myself, WPA art. My exposure to this style of art was in the mid-1950s when one day my dad took me to our local post office in Hempstead, NY on Long Island. It was one of the old post offices with grand 1930’s art deco architecture. Inside on one large wall was a painting of a British airship coming for a landing at Mitchel Field in Nassau county. As a 10-year-old, I was hypnotized by it. Thanks for the story on this impressive artist.

  6. Caustic_Man | May 11, 2020 at 6:36 pm |

    Great read.

  7. Michael J. Lotus | May 11, 2020 at 9:17 pm |

    Here is the Hempstead, New York Post Office mural with the airship. Very nice!

  8. Here’s the New Yorker cover referred to by Over Easy:

  9. Very interesting indeed. Thank you for the interview. Will certainly check more of this artist’s works!

  10. elder prep | May 12, 2020 at 5:36 am |

    Thanks, Michael for the link to the Hempstead mural. Great memories.

  11. Vern Trotter | May 12, 2020 at 11:28 am |

    I just read the USPO owns 30,000 buildings. I have not verified that number yet; I wonder how many have this type murals within.

  12. Michael J. Lotus | May 12, 2020 at 12:51 pm |
  13. A bit alarming that Nelson’s idealized America seems to be populated exclusively by white people.

  14. Jonathan Sanders | May 12, 2020 at 11:10 pm |

    Very cool and love the style. There is definitely something foreboding and sinister about this style as well. It’s like we’re seeing this well groomed pitch perfect American style being worn by Soviet spies.

  15. Blanche Weiss-Bialy | May 12, 2020 at 11:34 pm |

    A bit alarming that in some people’s idealized America everyone is crippled by neuroses about skin color.

  16. Jesse and White White-Bread

    Maybe the painter is painting what he feels like painting. Not a big fan myself.


  17. Maria Wyeth | January 3, 2022 at 3:57 pm |

    New paintings by Kenton Nelson.

  18. When I was 18, I spent a summer at Newport Beach. I typically wore board shorts & t-shirts on the beach.
    My “go to wear” was duck head pants or shorts & white oxfords from brooks & j crew. I had each monogrammed in different colors (lime, red, lt blue, white, & pink). The top piece of art reminded me of that summer.

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