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How to Paint Vintage Cars in Watercolor

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I am Diane Brown (dbro), an artist and illustrator living in Texas. I enjoy all phases of the creative process. Enjoy and comment!

This is one of my larger paintings, 20x30" "Fifties Fender" watercolor.

This is one of my larger paintings, 20x30" "Fifties Fender" watercolor.

Painting Portraits of Vintage Cars

I am a watercolor artist who paints a myriad of subjects. One subject that I return to again and again is vintage cars. I love rendering the beautiful, sculptural quality of those wonderful fenders and fins with their magical reflections and distortions from the chrome that encases so many surfaces on these machines.

Let me first say that I am not a "car person." I do not know much about cars, especially not old ones, but I appreciate their styling and the great variety of their shapes and sizes. I was really introduced to vintage cars by my husband, who is the quintessential "car guy." We have attended many vintage car shows over the years and, as an artist, I am always in search of compelling imagery to paint. One thing led to another, and my first car painting came to be.

Step 1: Gather Reference Photos

Old cars are very detailed and symmetrical, so clear, high-definition photos are a must for an accurate representation of the subtle variations in the reflections on the car as well as the precise relationships of the mechanical and decorative parts of the automobile. This requires that you get good photos of the car you wish to paint. I do not have a fancy, high-end camera. In fact, I have taken perfectly serviceable photos with my phone camera.

I like to take photos of the car from an unusual point of view, usually a close-up view of an appealing part of the vehicle. I take many photos of the car from various angles and review them later to choose the image that resonates with me from a design standpoint. Once I determine the images I wish to use, I get the photos printed to use as references for the drawing upon which the painting will be based.

The best place to get such photos is to attend one of the many vintage car shows that take place almost any weekend around the country during the temperate months. The owners of these cars are passionate about their treasured vehicles and are generally more than happy to let you take photographs.

"Fifties Fender II" 30x20" Watercolor

"Fifties Fender II" 30x20" Watercolor

Step 2: Pencil the Image

Once you have determined which reference photo(s) you would like to use for your painting, it is time to begin the process of capturing the image through drawing. On this point I am adamant. The drawing has to be done by you, by hand. To my mind, it is not your rightful art if you do not personally render the subject by drawing - not tracing, not "photoshopping," not computer generating. These approaches are technical exercises and, in my opinion, not art. Your ideas may differ on this subject, and you are, of course, free to do as you see fit. Drawing a car is a demanding task, so drawing skill is a must. I think that's part of what makes it art. If I draw a subject with my own hand, mind, and heart, I can choose aspects of the image to emphasize or play down, etc. No photograph or computer program can do that for you. Okay, I'm off my soapbox for now!

How Precise Do You Have to Be?

My drawings are accurate, but not precise. I don't worry about EXACTLY copying the photo. I want my work to be recognizable as the car being portrayed, but I don't want it so exacting as to look sterile or "measure-y." As I'm drawing, I pay close attention to shifts in color, repeated patterns, the proportional relationships between the various parts, and the wonderful abstracted distortions in the reflections in the chrome and body of the car.

Drawing for Fifties Fender II

Drawing for Fifties Fender II

What Size?

Before you begin drawing, you must determine the ultimate size for your painting. Many times my final painting will be done at a different size than my original drawing. As long as the drawing is proportional to the final size of the painting, you are free to do the drawing at a larger or smaller size. Most of my paintings of cars are done at a relatively large size (16x20" or 20x30"). I am more comfortable drawing at a smaller size, so I just make my drawing at a proportion equal to what I want my final painting to be and then have the drawing enlarged to the desired size of the painting.

Step 3: Transfer to Painting Surface With Graphite Paper

Once I have the drawing made to the correct size, I transfer it to the painting surface using graphite paper. Homemade graphite paper is cheaper and better than what you can purchase. The transfer process is simply putting your drawing on top of the watercolor ground and then putting a sheet of graphite paper between with the graphite facing the watercolor paper. Then you trace over the lines on your drawing (or a copy of it) with a fine-point pen. The image is thereby transferred to the watercolor paper. It is exactly like how carbon paper worked in duplicating a typewritten page (who remembers those days?)

Check for Accuracy

Now that the drawing is transferred to the watercolor ground, I review it to make sure the image is accurate. I also lighten lines that have transferred too darkly. This is especially important in areas where the painting will be light in tone. Dark pencil lines are distracting (for the most part) in a watercolor, especially where the image is lightest. Also, once paint is applied to the pencil lines they will not erase. Therefore, use a kneaded eraser to gently lift the pencil lines to where they are just dark enough for you to see so they will guide you in your paint application.

"Fin Again" watercolor 5x7"

"Fin Again" watercolor 5x7"

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Step 4: Paint

Now is the time when the process really starts to take shape. In general, watercolor is applied from light tones and colors to darker. This is the process I follow, though I sometimes like to start with the application of some of the darkest tones to help the painting get off to a dramatic start. This is okay to do, as long as you do not need to layer any other washes over the dark area. In lighter areas you may layer successive washes to your initial ones as long as you make sure the first washes are completely dry before you layer on more. If you don't, the first wash will run and lift off, mixing with the new wash.

Continue with the application of washes being sensitive to the shifts in color and tone as you work. One of the joys of painting vintage cars is working with the bright, fanciful colors many of the cars are painted. Any color can be mixed from just a few basic colors. Have a scrap of paper of the same type your painting is on to test the color before you apply it to your painting if you are unsure. Wait until it dries before you decide to use it as some colors will change as the paint dries.

Not all old cars are maintained in pristine shape. Some of them definitely show their age and have a weathered, rustic quality that has a charm all its own. An example of this is shown below. "'51 Packard" is a painting of a car that has lost its new-car sheen, but still has great character and distinctiveness. I have enjoyed replicating the rusty body using the color burnt sienna and, interestingly, instant tea. The chrome on this car still shines, and it has been challenging and fun to paint the distorted reflections in these parts of the car. It helps to view these reflections as abstract shapes - kind of like pieces to a puzzle. It's interesting to see the shapes repeating and changing slightly from one part of the car to another.

This is a painting in progress, "'51 Packard" watercolor 16x20"

This is a painting in progress, "'51 Packard" watercolor 16x20"

Final Thoughts

Painting vintage cars in watercolor is a very challenging and rewarding process. It takes time and patience and skill to render these vehicles in an accurate and engaging way. These paintings have a light, lyrical quality that only watercolor can achieve. I would encourage you to try your hand at this subject matter. There is an endless variety of makes and models just waiting to be celebrated and shared with the world through art.

"Blue Fin" watercolor, 11x14"

"Blue Fin" watercolor, 11x14"

© 2014 Dbro


Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on November 06, 2019:

Hi, Edwardr872!

Thanks for you kind comments about the article. I think it's great you are undertaking painting vintage cars. I think they are one of the best subject matters out there. As to painting chrome, I would just suggest looking at the image carefully and trying to replicate the look of the reflections you see in your reference material. I like to think of what I see as an "abstract" image and work from there. There are obviously distortions in what you will see, and you must try to refrain from "normalizing" the items reflected. To me, the chrome is the best part of a car painting. It can be challenging to capture the reflective feel of it, but when its done well it really helps "make" the painting. I hope this helps. Just keep trying and I know your work will improve.

Edwardr872 on November 06, 2019:

I'm a beginning watercolorist and just started painting classic cars from images I've come across. I love your examples and the way you describe your technique. I find that rendering chrome in a painting is really difficult. TIps? Thank you!

Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on October 29, 2019:

Thank you, Maysam! I'm glad you enjoyed this article.

maysam danesh on October 29, 2019:

I love your watercolor paintings and thanks for it.

Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on September 07, 2018:

Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Naushad Ahmed on September 07, 2018:


Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on November 15, 2017:

Thanks for your kind comments, Stephanie! I'm glad you like my paintings. I really love to paint these vintage cars. They are works of art in and of themselves. I hope you will paint some of the cars you've photographed. I'd love to see them when you're done!

Stephanie Henkel from USA on November 15, 2017:

I love your watercolor old car paintings, particularly Fifties Fender II. What a great idea to include reflections of some people in your shiny car -- it really adds a unique personality to your painting. You've inspired me to try painting some of the old cars I've photographed through my travels.

Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on February 23, 2017:

Wow, Beverly! You are so kind! I'm glad you enjoyed this article and my paintings. Truly vintage cars are one of my favorite subjects. You have exactly the right idea and attitude about gaining skill in painting (or any other artistic pursuit) and that is practice. I'd love to see some examples of your work. Thanks again for your kind comments.

Beverly Davis on February 22, 2017:

You ate amazing. It would be my dream to paint like you. I'm getting started and painted few old cars, but let me tell you, after seeing your work, only makes me want to continue painting till I reach my goal, and that is to paint good like you. Thank you for the tips on painting.

Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on September 19, 2016:

Sorry I didn't see your comment until just now, Gary. Thanks so much for your kind comment. I'm glad you like my work.

Gary Bowman on July 02, 2016:

I love old cars, they are rolling art. Your work is amazing. Your chrome is fantastic.

Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on June 22, 2015:

Thanks, Larry Rankin! I'm glad you enjoyed this article. I'm working hard on a couple more cars. I hope to post them once they're done.

I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on June 22, 2015:

Very interesting subject matter. Great hub!

Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on June 12, 2015:

Thanks so much, REALfoodie! I appreciate your kind comments. I really enjoy the challenge watercolor presents, though it is more forgiving than many people realize. I'm glad you enjoyed my work.

C De Melo on June 12, 2015:

Your work is FABULOUS! I've dabbled in hat goes off to you. I love the effect, but I find it difficult to work with (it's a rather unforgiving medium). I admire those who can handle watercolors with such ease and obvious expertise! Brava!

Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on September 27, 2014:

Thank you, RTalloni! I hope you do stop (almost) everything and paint. It is a gift one gives to themselves to express their creativity through painting (or any media).

I appreciate you taking the time to read this article and leave a comment.

Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on September 27, 2014:


Thanks for your kind comments. I love the look of old cars, too, and I agree that there is something about the more light-hearted design and attitude about them as opposed to modern cars. I'm sure there are some classics in the offing in modern cars - time and perspective will determine which ones will stand the test of time.

RTalloni on September 27, 2014:

Beautiful work. Thanks so much for sharing your ideas and processes, as well as for letting us some of your paintings in progress. You've made me want to stop everything and paint!

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on September 27, 2014:

You are a wonderfully skilled artist, and I love these paintings of yours, especially how you achieved the shine on the cars using watercolors.

Like you I am not exactly a car buff, but I love these vintage cars. When I see one I ask myself what it was about them that made them so special. Nobody is going to paint a watercolor of a 1970s Pinto or an 80s Chrysler K car, but a '57 Chevy inspires the artistic side in us. I think it is because these cars were works of art in themselves. Nowadays automobiles are strictly utilitarian, engineered to achieve the highest possible fuel efficiency, and so the art is lacking. Great hub!

Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on September 27, 2014:

Thank you, heidithorne! I appreciate your comments. The close-up angular shot makes a much more dynamic composition. I have two more car paintings "in the works." I'll share them when they're done - weeks from now!

Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 27, 2014:

Oh my goodness! What gorgeous work. Totally agree that whether it's watercolor or photography, getting interesting closeup angles tells a more interesting story. Voted up, beautiful and awesome!