Jason 'Miff' Swales: Putting waves on your walls

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
Swellnet Dispatch

The Swellnet team is in South Australia this week surfing and meeting up with locals. The first subject is Jason 'Miff' Swales a hardcore surfer and painter from Marion Bay, Yorke Peninsula. I first met Miff during a visit to another part of the South Australian coast.

A few years back I sat in a carpark in the South Australian desert overlooking a wave I'd driven 2,000 kilometres to surf. I'd just gotten out of the water and was drying off while watching the surfers still in the lineup. With me was a good mate who'd recently made the decision to give up city life for the country.

For Barney the place he had chosen was Taranaki, New Zealand. It's a long way from Taranaki to the South Australian desert but seeing as this was to be our last surf trip before his relocation the subject of surfing seachanges, and how to pull them off, often came up. Important points, explored at length over endless desert miles and in dusty carparks, were how to choose a good stretch of coastline and how to eke out a living away from urban prosperity.

An hour earlier we were out at the wave below the carpark carefully negotiating the lineup as six foot bombs pitched and detonated in shallow water. I kept one eye on the sets and one eye on the crowd, this place being the home of the Heavy Local. As the crowd rotated and I jockeyed for a spot I noticed a long haired fella getting his fair share of the set waves. My initial judgement was 'gnarly local' and I gave him a wide berth.

In the carpark Barney introduced me to the long haired fella from the surf. Thus did I meet 'Miff', real name Jason Swales and in person nothing like the angry local I imagined him to be. Firstly he wasn't angry but friendly, and secondly he wasn't even a local! Chalk one up for paranoid character assessment.

While not a local Miff was a regular visitor to this coast and knew the wave and its locals well. Joining our conversation on choosing a coast for a seachange Miff piped up: "You need to find a place that has one wave that you can live off and a few other mid-range waves for variety."

As the conversation progressed it became apparent that Miff had already chosen his stretch of coast. He lived near an incredible left that had become an integral part of his life. He also had access to a variety of other waves that broke in varying condition allowing for maximum water time. In that regard he'd made a good choice. But he lived in a holiday town, how to make a living?

Stu Nettle: How long have you been painting?
Miff: Like everyone else, I started painting before I can remember, but unlike most people, I never stopped. My Dad, a sailor and artist, was a big influence and always encouraged me to paint, especially the sea.

Was it always going to be your career?
I think I realised when I was young that there wasn't going to be any financial gain in chasing art as a career. I even tried out a career in sign writing until I realised that computer generated signs were just about to emerge. I found work building concert stages, starting in Oz with bands like Oils, INXS, Barnsey, Hunters and Collectors; then NZ with ACDC and Dire Straits. I moved on to build private stages for the Sultan of Brunei and Sheiks of Arabia in Brunei and Paris, for artists such as Elton John, Seal, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. I always took a surfboard wherever I went. At the end of my work stints, I would head to my next surf destination and stay there for as long as my money would last, and then a bit longer!

When did you start painting?
After an 11 month surf stint travelling through South Africa, West Europe and Morocco, I ended up stone broke, camping under the bridge at Mundaka. After a surf, I went up to the graveyard on top of the hill. I was so blown away by the view of the Mundaka line up, I started a pastel painting. I remember being hungry and had full intentions of selling my pictures. It was at that moment that I started to dream about becoming a professional wave artist. I sold prints in the car park to crew that didn't even surf, two originals to the local art shop, and two t-shirt designs to the local surf shop. I made enough money for another two month stint at that quality left, and a ticket to London where I started working at the Sultans private parties. The same thing happened in Central America when I got stuck there for seven months. I started selling hand drawn wave postcards in Puerto Escondido for US$5 each. It was costing me US$5 a day to live and I always managed to sell at least one card a day. I couldn't work out if crew really liked my pictures, or if they were just trying to help me out.

How long have you been painting full time?
After 4 years of drifting around the world I came back to Oz a little bewildered about materialism and the trappings of society in the suburbs. By this stage my house in the suburbs was nearly caving in from white ants, so I made the most out of the opportunity to fix it up, sell it and move to the coast. In between surfs I started to build a house and studio in the small country surfing and fishing town of Marion Bay. Since settling here in the last eight years I have been able to focus on my art and turn it into a full time job.

Have you ever doubted that you had the ability to live off your art? 
I went hungry a few times in the beginning. I didn't care though as I always had a belly full of surf and a dream, and the hungrier I got, the more I painted. The funny thing is, every time I doubted myself and thought, 'man, you're joking if you think you can make a living out of surf art', something really positive would happen; like a big sale, magazine article or TV segment about my art. So I kept on painting like it was meant to be.

Do you go through creative bursts? What stimulates your creativity?
I do have creative bursts and they seem to come with really good surfs. I paint what I am passionate about, and I am obviously passionate about waves. After a good surf, I have all these images that I want to express through my art. Especially after travelling to new surf spots. The first time you rock up to a break and it's cranking, or when you're paddling out and you see that perfect wave coming towards you, that impression is what I want people to feel when they look at my art.

Could you live on any coast and still create art of the same calibre?
I live in the small town of Marion Bay where there are less than 150 permanent residents. The holiday season does get fairly busy, but this is South Australia. I think I could do a lot better business wise if I lived on the East Coast or in Western Oz where there are obviously more people, and I do go there occasionally to surf, paint and sell some art. It's a nice change painting different waves and surroundings, but there are way too many people. I love my deserted desert reefs, and you might notice that there is never anyone on my wave paintings. It's not about the surfer, it's about the wave, the surf spot, the magic that has to come together to make a perfect tube. Even the most crowded spot has a little bit of beauty, even it it's only for a glinting moment.

Will you always paint waves? And will you always work with the mediums you currently use?
I hope I don't ever get over painting waves. Besides, like people, every wave is different. Different faces, colours, strengths, depth, beginnings, journeys and endings. As long as I keep surfing and rocking up to that new spot, seeing a new glistening jewel come wrapping around a new backdrop or framed in a new foreground, I'll paint it. As far as mediums go I am just starting to get back into using a brush again after a long stint of using pastels as my dominant medium. I really love the way I could blend the colours using pastels, but I also love the strength of colour and detail that I can get with oils and acrylics. I don't want to limit myself to 2-dimensional art, and I would love to experiment with 3-dimensional art as I have acquired lots of different building skills over the years. I am just looking for the next medium that will suit me, but for now, I'm just having fun painting.

Besides commissioned work, what considerations go into choosing a wave to paint? 
I do get a bit of commission work these days, but my favourites are the ones I choose to paint. I have more connection if I have surfed the wave. As when I am painting I really try to put myself in the picture at the break. I want to look at it and be there, and that is what I want other people to feel. Light and colour is probably the most important thing I am looking for. That perfect gleam line or the way the light shines through the back of the wave like a stained glass window, in just as many colours. That moment when everything is just perfect, every surfer knows that moment, it's just so hard to capture, especially on film, that's why I paint it.

Who generally buys your work – surfers, holiday makers, art buffs?
It's funny, as I started painting as a surfer for surfers, but I have realised that everyone loves the ocean. Waves represent so much that people desire; beauty, strength and power. I have found that all sorts of people buy my art; old, young, holiday makers, even art buffs. One of my commissions went into a private Australiana-style art collection where my painting was hung alongside Jack Absalom and Pro Hart. I felt honoured. I have heard that a lot of people have my art in their offices so they can drift off to their favourite break every now and again. I like that.

Finally, can you tell us where the waves are that you painted?
I don't have a problem with naming well known waves that everybody recognises, but I'm all for keeping secret things secret. If I crap in my own nest, I'll just make the waves more crowded for myself. I have to be careful sometimes as I feel like I'm getting close to stepping on sacred grounds. Sometimes I want to paint waves that I know even if I don't name them people will find out where they are anyway. Some paintings I don't reproduce and they go straight into people's homes. Sometimes I just say 'hey, it's nowhere, it's fantasy, it's art'.

Click 'enlarge' to view Miff's paintings at larger size. Below are stories behind each painting. You can also visit his website:

1. The Ledge - This is a pretty spiritual place to me and a lot of other people. It's a really heavy beach with a couple of shipwrecks a few lost their lives claimed by the massive surf. I have experienced nearly all the emotions a surfer can experience on this beach. Near drownings, snapped boards, smashed faces on the reef, rescued mates, been rescued, and had the most filthy forehand and backhand pits a person can imagine. Originally painted as a commission for a good mate that charges here, but I loved doing it. I love this place.

2. Bukit Lawang- It's not very often I get inspired by a shot that doesn't have surf in it. After all, that's my passion. My wife and I were on our way to Nias from Medan, when sneakily without me realising my missus had put us on a bus to Bukit Lawang near Aceh to see the orangutans. Well, it was amazing. We walked a couple of days through the jungle checking out the orangutans and camping over night before returning to town via the raging river on a bunch of truck tyre inner tubes strapped together. Less than two months later, due to illegal logging in the national park, a landslide caused a flash flood to come through and wipe out the town and orangutan rehabilitation centre, killing about 400 people. The Indonesian government wouldn't allow the town to be re-established as it was too much of a risk being so close to the river. I was inspired not only by the incredible light in this picture but how unfortunately nature now relies on our respect for its survival.

3. Trespassers - Named after the story of an old farmer that used to shoot at surfers with his salt gun if he caught them trespassing...pre-gun control days. It never happened to me, but I have been kicked out for driving my 4WD there. This was painted from a still shot that I grabbed from a video recording that my missus took. I just kept pausing the frames until the perfect light hit the face of the wave. We all got heaps of great tubes that day and it felt like the painting just fell out of me onto the paper.

4. Hollowdays - To me this picture represents the ultimate in surf travel. I helped sail this yacht from Canary Islands, North Africa, across the Atlantic to the Caribbean Islands of Tobago and Trinidad with four other surfers. After sailing 27 days out at sea, we pulled up at this point after recognising it from a South American magazine written in Portuguese. I was yelling 'this is it, the picture in this magazine!' as I watched someone bust the fins out the back of a wave three times along a smoking right-hand point. The South African Skipper, Rocky, insisted on having the first wave as it was the 'Skipper's right'. Well, he shouldn't have stuffed around with the anchor so much then, should he? Ha ha...

5. Eebanay - Well, I've never actually surfed this one. I only dream of it. It's a big wave tow spot somewhere in the South Oz desert. I had to change it so no body would recognise it. I can't even tell you how I changed it, but it was such a great image I just had to paint it.


roubydouby's picture
roubydouby's picture
roubydouby Thursday, 10 Jan 2013 at 2:59pm

Awesome stuff - I remember seeing a pic he did of Stenhouse bay jetty that included under the water as well as above - That was a while ago now and I can still see it in my mind. Terrific stuff!

barley's picture
barley's picture
barley Thursday, 10 Jan 2013 at 3:12pm

Nice story and great interview guys.. His pictures are a trip out..beautiful colours. Every time I see one I picture surfing the waves and it gives me goosebumps. Its nice to drift off sometimes. Keep up the good work bro!!

top-to-bottom-bells's picture
top-to-bottom-bells's picture
top-to-bottom-bells Thursday, 10 Jan 2013 at 3:46pm

Very cool interview and story. I always enjoy hearing about surfers choosing a coastline and making it happen for themselves. Even better when they support themselves by doing something they love - more power to them. His pictures look like Geoff 'Speedy' from Esperance (I think?) and used to hang out at Margs and Cactus a lot. I remember he used to sell some of his art on the road.

shralpz's picture
shralpz's picture
shralpz Friday, 11 Jan 2013 at 10:33pm

Nice work, captured Tress's glass well. I especially like the way there is no one out! Ever! Fantasy!