Gonzo Hot Rod Art
Some years ago, I was introduced to the work of a journalist named Hunter S. Thompson. Bear in mind that this “introduction” came at a pivotal point in my creative career, and I was completely drawn to his style of not only writing, but his almost renegade technique of forming a story. Here was a journalist who not only covered the news at hand, but worked in a personal angle, often thrusting himself so deeply into the event he was covering so as to alter its outcome! “Absolute brilliance”, I thought! Not mere “coverage” or “reporting”, but LIVING it! This was just too much… This guy GOT it! To a student of Fine art, this was the epitome of creating anything: the EXPERIENCE… being a PART of what you’re creating!
Thompson’s style of news came to be known as “Gonzo Journalism”, and the name packs the energy rightfully reserved for this all-out, sensory attack, in which the writer himself becomes an integral part of the story. Somewhere between the facts, self-interjection and commentary, the truth lay in wait. This was the sort of writing I had done since I could first form sentences… I had found someone who had paved the way before me, and man, I was digging this. Taking something that has always been deemed as objective, and beating it into something much cooler and entertainingly subjective… showing that a subject or event could have an effect on the writer, and then, at times becoming a part of that story was just simple logic to me… After all, how interesting is just blowing some facts all over a sheet of paper or computer monitor?! Stirring in (or up!) some emotion is key to creating compelling content. Anyone can say “gee, Stan… there was this one guy, and he said this, and the other guy said that. Then they shook hands.” Wow. Not sure about you, but I’M drained from that story. What a cathartic experience… or NOT. Thompson would become the center of his work, very often blurring the line between “reporting” facts and “influencing” a story. He interjected opinion, an energy, and most of all, an experience.
That said, I began to look at this field of automotive art that I work in, and feel a bit depressed. It’s gone from the fun, energetic industry to a machine full of photo-real, computer-generated imagery lately. The landscape is littered with photochops, rehashed 3-D models, and tracings of the same-old, same-old. My work was similar… the same tired, old recipes for stance, wheels and tires and paint jobs that lacked inspiration. I had fallen into a void of using a ‘recipe’, rather than being inspired.
My work was starting to suffer and suck. I was relying, like many others, on the tools, not the skill or vision I had originally worked o hard to develop. I was neglecting my training and the very thing that got me into it all to begin with. I hated what I was doing… but not with a passion. That part was gone.
Why am I not simply DRAWING anymore?!
The creative projects… the REALLY wild customs and out-of-the-box hot rods are the ones that inspire and push the hobby to that next level… they’ve become fewer and further between. It’s become… well, “safe”. We’re flooded with near stock-looking blah-mobiles drawn with a lack of personality, often with the actual car being just the same bland cookie-cutter crap over and over again. Wow… a photo-real rendering of a pro-touring car on aftermarket wheels… Where’s the excitement? You could take a photo of one of hundreds of similar cars on custom wheels at any car show, and have the same effect. When I look at a rendering or illustration, I want to see the artist’s style, the technique, the energy! What the hell happened?! It was as though someone started the rumor that renderings needed to be sterile, lackluster depictions of some uniform style, and by golly, the whole group jumped the bandwagon, eating up the words and carrying it right into the common belief system they’d developed. Worse yet, I saw it start to occur in my own work as well from time to time, and it made me take a step back, and in doing that, I had a moment of absolute clarity.
I took the past couple of months and began heading back to what made this whole automotive illustration gig so appealing to me at the start: The ENERGY!! I pondered just what makes a rendering so valuable to a project, and beyond the financial (sponsor opportunities, press, etc) and communication (illustrating the modifications) value, it all boils down to CREATING EXCITEMENT! Simply looking at a photograph of a car can be cool, sure, but you’re seeing something COMPLETE, FINISHED… and it removes the emotional response, the natural impulse to IMAGINE… To look at the idea SUBJECTIVELY!! By leaving just enough to the imagination, just enough room to interpret something, some part as YOUR OWN, you don’t just LOOK at the work, you EXPERIENCE it!!
Even when drawing from life… find something in the subject that excites you… that gets you going, and capitalize on it. Make that the inspiration for your work. In the piece below, I was standing in the Old Crow Speed Shop, which is like a living museum. It’s packed to the gills with artifacts, parts and history from hot rodding’s roots. There’s a certain roughness about the place… It’s old and weathered, and has just that right amount of patina to be loaded with character. I wanted my line work and coloring to portray and carry that.
This is why I leave some loose lines among the tightened concepts, some free-form areas to chance… I’m not nailing down parts, bit by bit from some “rule book” (“18’s and 19’s? Check. Suspension lowered exactly like every other car on that forum? Check. Billet parts here, here and here? Check. Correct valve covers so as to avoid the wrath of the “Traditional Police”? Check, check!”), I’m inventing a concept to be shared, interpreted… EXPERIENCED by not only the owner or builder of the car, but anyone who happens upon it. I want the viewer to feel some of what I felt in the moment… that connection of having been there. Anyone (and I repeat ANYONE… you, your kids, your neighbor’s Grandmother) with access to a stock model, or some tracing paper and a few pencils and markers, or worse yet, Photoshop, Google and some time can bash out a car illustration (or ‘rendering’ as the common term has come to describe any altered image of a car today). But the ones who can hammer down a concept, and show some life in the lines, some ENERGY… man… those are the pieces that stand up to time, and drop their pants at the lesser crap. Compare a Dali sketch to some photochop or traced (‘vectorized’, ugh) image. Name your three favorite Harry Bradley renderings, or Steve Stanford concepts, or Larry Wood designs. Easy, right? Now try to do the same for three photochops, or vector tracings. That’s a pretty tough one, huh?I’m betting the latter list is shorter. I’m betting that you recall work because it brought out a response in you. Art is like that… it breeds a response, some sort of an emotional reply to the art and artist that says ‘Hell YES!!” It’s that unconscious, natural response that makes art so enjoyable… not some sales pitch or a popularity contest or post count.
That all out there, I’m adopting the “Gonzo” style, and going at it with the passion that brought me here to begin with. It’s just me, my art, and the drive to push it higher and higher until the son of a bitch breaks from the altitude. I’m not about to fall victim to trends… or to fall back into ‘lazy mode’ again. I enjoy the whole work part of creating artwork.
Our pal Hunter (from the start of this whole mess) stated that “he that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master”. Grand advice… and a central theme here in the Studio. Draw inspiration from as many sources as possible! I’m often looking to objects or art forms so removed from cars that even I begin to wonder how they’ll apply… and it’s a blast! I’ll look at a painting and consider the brush strokes, and experiment, seeing how they might work in a current or future piece. Perhaps there’s a rhythm in a song that just makes sense when laying down the lines on some graphics… It can come from almost anywhere. The key here, though, is KNOWING YOUR SUBJECT.
Simply hacking a few photos together, or painting some digital model or tracing a picture doesn’t grant you any more knowledge of designing a hot rod or custom car than does accidentally bumping a car in the parking lot with your shopping cart. When you take time to know the car, to understand the parts and pieces that make the whole… to look into the designer’s mind and grasp where he was going and WHY, well, you’re starting to grasp the idea. You’re in no position to modify that car until you understand it. Going back to Dr. Thompson for a second (after all, he’s the reason we got rolling on this anyway), he once wrote that “Fiction is based on reality unless you’re a fairy-tale artist, you have to get your knowledge of life from somewhere. You have to know the material you’re writing about before you alter it. ” Incredibly wise indeed, and the big “why” that so many of these sterile, cold “renderings” lack that “punch”… the thrill, the excitement of a GREAT piece… the ones that make you take a step backward and yell “BITCHIN’, MAN“!!
I began applying that energy to my work, both traditional as well as the digital stuff… Even airbrushing and sketching back over pieces after print. I was aiming to bring things full-circle. After all, digital art is only a collection of electrons to represent that creative thought which created the image to begin with. It only exists after print. If I could sketch a car, make it digital, enhance and change it all in the virtual world… Then bring it back into reality, and put my hand-drawn work back into it, well… Then we’d be talking! And away I went.
The goal was to create with the tools… not just because of them.
I wanted to stir excitement with the subject matter… to be one of those artists who get you going on what they’ve created, and then have you step back and wonder just how in the fuck they did it.
I kept yelling at myself that I want MY work to be like that!
I realized in attempting to reach that level that it all went back to the basics, the fundamentals. Know the subject, know the tools, get comfortable in a technique, and then break free of the comfort zone and create something NEW. Pushing the boundaries, and doing things that others haven’t, or better, have said that you can’t do. Analog to digital and back to analog art? Heck yeah. Got that ball rolling in the Studio, and am discovering a whole new set of challenges and inspiration. Next step? Who knows. I’ll discover it when I get wherever it is.
What I’ve learned so far: Push yourself. Forget what makes you comfortable, and lose the fear of the unknown. Above all, study, study STUDY. Look at the masters in your craft. See what they do. Pick apart the technique, see what makes it all tick and come together. You need a pep talk? Here you go:
After all… ‘How are you gonna learn to be great if you don’t study greatness?!’ Brilliant.
With all of that strewn on the table, I’m going to go back into the Studio and tear the next project a new one. I challenge you to go and do the same in the shop, and wow the snot out of everyone who experiences your Gonzo build.