The topflight car builders—the guys who win the Ridler and AMBR awards and have their own TV reality shows—all have at least one thing in common. They use professional design artists to help them plan their car builds. These shops won’t start a project without a full set of vehicle renderings to map their way.
Traditionally, homebuilders seldom use professional artists for their project rides. They tend to assume it’s too expensive, but that thinking is changing. Even at the so-called casual car-builder level these days, show-quality paintjobs can easily run five figures, pro interior work is equally pricey, and the latest wheel/tire combos aren’t cheap either. If you want the perfect look the first time and you just can’t afford to pay for do-overs, a set of renderings could be the best investment you ever made.
Depending on your needs, a professional artist can do far more than simply show you different paint schemes, graphics, and wheel/tire combos—although that alone is worth the price. Designer Murray Pfaff equates his approach to an architect working with a client on a custom home. “I use my training and experience to help the clients visualize their desires,” he says. “My job is to make their dreams come to life.”
With their backgrounds in automotive and industrial design, many car artists, including Sean Smith and Tavis Highlander, can go hands-on in the build process, for example with clay models of scoops, valances, and other body mods. Some artists, like David Ross of Busta Design, often serve as build managers, supervising projects as they go from fab shop to painter to upholstery shop and so on, and also networking with potential project suppliers and sponsors. It all depends on how far you need to go.
Here’s a great group of automotive artists we surveyed, from award-winning veterans to up-and-coming young guns. Their methods, media, and even their rates cover a surprisingly wide range, but one thing for sure: They’re a talented and fascinating bunch. Check ’em out.
If you want the perfect look the first time and you just can’t afford to pay for do-overs, a set of renderings could be the best ...
Price range: $285 (single view), $1,500 (four to six views)
“I’m a digital artist,” Ryan Curtis says. “That defines my work. I start with a digital drawing done directly on the computer using a Wacom drawing tablet and stylus directly in Adobe Illustrator. All my renderings are vector-based so that they can be printed at any size without losing any detail.
“The first phase is a line art sketch similar to in a coloring book. This allows for a lot of the details to be ironed out like body modifications, stance, and wheel choices. After I have client approval, I proceed with the second phase, coloring the illustrations. When the colored rendering is approved I provide a high-resolution JPEG file and giclee art prints of the approved renderings.”
Carter Hickman Designs
Price range: $500 for two views, typical projects $750-$800
Carter Hickman’s method is unique among the artists we contacted in that he employs special three-dimensional rendering software (Modo, by The Foundry + Luxology). This software allows the vehicle to be rotated to any position and profile for viewing. He performs all of his artwork digitally, or as designers term it, “in the tube,” even though CRT monitors have been made all but obsolete by flat-panel displays. In the world of technology, the advances often outpace the language.
A veteran car designer with many well-known builds under his belt, Hickman believes renderings of all types are a boon to homebuilders. “You want to be comfortable with the project before you start,” he says. “Why not know going in that it’s going to work? What’s that worth to you?”
Kuras Custom Renderings
Price range: $75-$150 per view $300 to $380 per view for photo-realistic renderings
Paul Kuras, with a BFA in Industrial Design from the College for Creative Studies, is the old-school craftsman in our group, performing all his work by hand without the aid of the computer. For $70 to $150 per view to start, he supplies project-quality color renderings on 12x16-inch Canson Mi-Teintes paper.
Nevertheless, for the customer who wants not just a reference sketch but also a truly memorable record of the vehicle, Kuras can supply renderings with a level of detail far beyond the typical color design sketch. Kuras uses multiple layers of ground pastels, colored pencils, pens, and white gouache (opaque watercolor) to obtain an effect that is virtually indistinguishable from a photograph. It’s amazing, have a look.
Highlander Concept Rendering
Price range: $600 for one view, $500 each additional view
As with many artists we spoke with, Tavis Highlander employs a mixture of digital and traditional media. “Pencil sketching is where most projects start for me,” he says. “Rough sketches of details around the car are created and then critiqued with the client. Then the sketches are scanned into the computer and a color rendering is digitally painted in Adobe Photoshop.”
“There is no set-in-stone process, though,” Highlander is quick to add. “Every project is different, and I try to tailor the process to the client’s needs. ” That includes the form of the finished product, he notes. “Final deliverables usually include high-resolution digital files tailored to the client’s needs. Posters or other prints are also available.”
Sean Smith Designs
Price range: $700-up
“I start every design with a pencil and marker sketch on Vincent Vellum,” Sean Smith says. “Once that sketch or line drawing is approved by the client, I do the rest of the rendering with markers, gouache, and pencil.” About 50 percent of the work is done on paper, Smith reckons. “Then I scan it into Photoshop or Painter to do the airbrushing or digital painting. For tighter final renderings, I’ll use CAD data for the details—wheels, milled parts, headlamps, and so forth.”
An industrial designer by training (Art Center College of Design in Pasadena), Smith also offers studio services including clay modeling. “I try to offer a range of pricing with initial line drawings at $700 all the way to detailed projects such as Street Machine of the Year or AMBR cars, which can go all the way to $7,000.”
Price range: $325 per view, $1,500/set, including interior and underhood views
Murray Pfaff is another all-digital artist in our group. Instead of starting with pencil sketches, he works directly from a huge library of photographic images he has collected over the years, using a Cintiq pen display monitor and a stylus to construct successive image layers in Adobe Photoshop.
“Some clients know exactly what they want, they come with basically a shopping list, while others want you to be a contributor,” Pfaff says. “The rendering here is a ’80 Pontiac LeMans created for Dream Machines of Toronto. It’s a good example of a builder with an out-of-the-box car saying ‘what if,’ then allowing me the creative freedom to create something cool.”
Vierstra Automotive Design & Illustration
Price range: $600-700 single view, discount for additional views
“I am a self-taught artist,” Don Vierstra says. “I design, modify, and draw cars. The process starts with your list of build ideas, no matter how basic or rough. I then begin a rough pencil sketch, including any modification ideas, into the design view. After the view is approved, I then scan in the sketch and start a working file of reference photos for wheels, paint color, and interior. After the line work is complete in Adobe Illustrator, a proof is sent to the customer. When the customer makes changes and or approves the image, final details and highlights are added.”
From there, Vierstra tailors the physical product to the individual customer’s desires. “A finished digital file and a standard 11x17-inch inkjet print are provided,” Vierstra says. “If a high-quality print is desired, it is then sent digitally to be printed on high-quality, archival paper, suitable-for-framing art print.” A full-service automotive artist, Vierstra also offers logo, apparel, automotive wrap design, and trade show graphics.
Price range: $2,500-up
By day, David Ross is a mild-mannered stylist and design manager at General Motors, crafting the performance concept vehicles you see at SEMA and elsewhere. By moonlight, he’s Busta of Busta Design, indy rod designer—have pencils, will travel!
Hand-sketching with ballpoint on vellum, Ross/Busta then scans his “idea scratches,” as he calls them, into Adobe Photoshop for detailing with a digital pen on a Wacom tablet, however, Ross finds that increasingly his role as a design artist goes far beyond simple renderings into project management and brand integration for corporate build programs. It’s a long way from where he started in the ’70s, working his way through art college painting van murals!