Artist Lee Tunila Paints Her Way Around the Human Form

After years as a self-taught amateur painter, Lee Tunila stepped into the spotlight with her colorful and abstract works of art.

Artist Lee Oliver Tunila is a bit dazed and confused as she stares at the canvas before her. And she likes it that way. Never knowing what shape her painting might take, she just dives in and lets it develop, layer by layer.

Artist Lee Tunila went from drawing realistic paintings of the human form to more abstract, colorful versions

“The more layers that go on, the more confusing it gets,” she describes of her process. “Sometimes you have to destroy the whole thing to work it back up. I truly believe that if you don’t have the guts to screw it up, you’ll never find that glorious moment of ‘aha!’”

A self-taught artist and amateur painter for many years, Lee has been drawing and painting on a consistent basis for more than a decade—though it was a secret to all but her close friends until recently. Last summer, she began to make her talent known and her work publicly available—a tough decision, she says.

“It was such a leap of faith … no one knew I was an artist. And art is so personal. But seeing different art is such an enjoyment to me, and I figured if someone loves my art, why not share that?”

Sales of Lee’s art have been booming on her website, and her work was recently featured at an art exhibit at a Foundation of Local Arts fundraiser to benefit art education in Manhattan Beach. She has also donated her work to Young at Art, a non-profit organization that brings art into the local elementary schools.

It was while Lee was in elementary school that her love for the arts was ignited. She grew up on an island in Savannah, Georgia, where she spent many childhood hours exploring the historic beauty. Inspired by the natural wonders of the Lowcountry and encouraged by her mother, also a painter, Lee’s creativity flourished.

After college, she made a fateful trip to the West Coast that changed the course of her life. During a Thanksgiving visit with her sister and brother-in-law, Manhattan Beach residents Jenny and Chris Brearton, Lee met Randy Tunila, an IT executive at 20th Century Fox at the time (and now with Paramount Pictures).

A romance ensued, and Lee moved from the East Coast to the South Bay in 1999. She and Randy married in 2001 and live in Manhattan Beach.

The laid-back Manhattan Beach lifestyle suits Lee perfectly. “It’s a small community where you are always running into people you know,” she says. “It makes the community feel cozy to me.”

Randy and Lee have two sons, Ben, 8, and Wilson, 7, who are “a constant muse and source of inspiration,” she says. “And they are actually quite good at critiquing my paintings!”

She finds great inspiration in her boys’ simple doodling. “Children are so spontaneous and carefree with their drawings. As an adult I yearn for that pure inhibition.” She’s also greatly influenced by famed artists Richard Diebenkorn, Alberto Giacometti and Egon Schiele.

As is evident when glancing at her body of work, Lee’s favorite artistic subject is the human figure. “In my early days, I was painting and drawing realistic images of the human form,” she explains. “I enjoyed it, but I was struggling and lacking inspiration. Once I started painting and drawing with the intent of not ‘being precious’—following the advice of artist and mentor Joe Blaustein—it opened me up to explore and discover my style.”

“No body is ever perfectly proportioned; why should the body in a painting be?”

Now Lee’s nudes are more abstract and always evolving. Her work is very colorful, and in some you can see the human figure right away. In other works, you have to hunt to find the figure, which may be out of proportion or not fully complete—a quality Lee prefers.

“No body is ever perfectly proportioned; why should the body in a painting be?” she ponders.

Lee often names her paintings based on the sometimes-awkward feelings she experiences during her creation process—or life in general, like “Turn the Other Cheek” or “…because she said so” or “…and it didn’t kill me.” She appreciates feeling slightly uncomfortable with the artistic process, because “contentment with your art leads to being stagnate,” she says.

For the past 10 years, Lee has spent Thursday evenings painting with a group of artists from all over Los Angeles who influence and inspire each other. “We all paint from the same nude model, but every single one of us paints in a different style and color palette,” she says. “Not one painting is remotely the same. It’s quite inspiring.”

Check out Lee’s paintings and drawings at leetunila.com.

More Stories
Music + Culture

Ed Moses: The Accidental Art Icon

How painter Ed Moses and a raucous band of young artists electrified the Los Angeles art scene.

Makers + Entrepreneurs, Music + Culture, Water

Alex Weinstein Captures Feeling of the Ocean

The Southern California artist’s minimalist paintings and wall sculptures share a common theme—the immersive nature of the ocean.

Music + Culture

Q&A With Joey Ryan of The Milk Carton Kids

Golden State sat down with the Los Angeles folk singer and guitarist for a look behind the scenes with the band.

Get the Latest Stories

Receive the latest films, stories and curated content from Golden State.

By clicking the subscribe button, I agree to receive occasional updates from Golden State.