Painting (Pictures of) Vintage Cars in Watercolor
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.
First Steps—Gather References
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
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!
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
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.
Once I have the drawing made to the correct size, I transfer it to the painting surface using graphite paper. I will write an instructional article on how to make your own graphite paper soon. 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?)
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.
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.
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.