The Dame Wore Red – 1933 Ford Painted by James Owens

Learn How To Paint Like Hot Rod Artist James Owens

The Dame Wore Red is the first in MyRideisMe’s new feature, Artist Toolbox. Read on for tips and secrets how James Owens makes his car noir art.


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The Dame Wore Red

By James Owens

She sat there mocking me. Her blank stare made me feel like it was my first time. But I’ve been down this alley before and I learned something every time, usually the hard way. Her kind can strike terror into the hearts of grown men. Her milk-white skin was almost blinding, taunting, teasing me till I couldn’t think straight. She sat there on my easel thinking she had me right where she wanted me. A canvas is like a dame, you treat ‘em right and they’re a little bit of heaven right here on Earth. You treat ‘em wrong and brother you find yourself in a mess. I guess the big difference is, I’m usually trying to put something ON a canvas.

My name is Owens, I paint pictures.

It ain’t rocket science. Any yegg can learn it. But not everyone is nutty enough to put in the time.

This ain’t the right way or the wrong way but it’s my way. I took a lot of wrong turns before I found how to mix this drink. You’re gonna have to do the same. But maybe I can head you in the right direction.

First ya have to pick a “medium”. Which is a high-hat way of categorizing the type of materials you want to work with; water color, charcoal, etc. Like a woman, you have to spend time getting to know their characteristics. You need to know the way these materials act in order to use their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. You only learn this by getting in close and taking your lumps over and over again until you know how and when to bob and weave your way out of trouble.

I’ve chosen to push pigment mixed in a glob of oil around with a stick that has animal hair glued to the end. I trained in commercial art, a racket where speed is of the essence so oil paint is about as useful as tits on a bull. But hey if it was good enough for, Lyendecker, Rockwell, Saunders and my all time favorite Haddon Sundblom it’s good enough for this mook from Detroit. In my opinion the best work of these masters were done in oil. I wanted to work like these guys.

I tried acrylics for the ease of clean up and quick drying time but as much as I sweet talked ‘em I still couldn’t get the paint to do what I wanted, I couldn’t get the same feel as these “Oil Barons”. That’s the long way of saying I had to teach myself to paint with oils. Nothin’ good ever comes easy!

In between episodes of “Peter Gunn” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the automobile as graphic design. Not in execution of paint but in layout and design. The lines on some of my favorite cars are so incredible I want to find a way to accentuate these shapes while creating a painting. After all, what’s the use of just copying what a camera does? The 33 Ford has arguably some of the most beautiful lines ever built into an automobile. The problem is how to show off those lines in the most advantageous way. Like that “little black dress” designed to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

It’s all really an editing process, what to leave in, what to leave out, like a hot rod where if it don’t make it go faster it ain’t needed. It’s the same for painting. If it don’t tell the story you’re trying to tell then it’s got to go.

Here’s a little inside-baseball tip, if an automotive artist ever tells you he or she doesn’t use reference photos… well, just don’t buy any land from that guy. We all use it at some point in our process. I encourage you to take your own photos. After all it’s your vision and your eye people want to see. I even find reference on lighting and atmosphere to keep by my easel if the job calls for it. Don’t be afraid to use reference but don’t be a slave to it either. (Side rant: Hey all you pin up artists… Quit repainting Vargas, Elvgren and Petty girls. Get a girl to pose for you and do the heavy lifting yourself!)

Now where was I? Oh yeah. You can see in the reference photo that this piece started as a simple snapshot from a car show. I shot many angles of this car but obviously chose reference that would help me solve the problem I put before myself.

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For the artist, a painting should always be about something other that just making a picture. Is it a color or lighting challenge, or a drawing challenge, or as in this case a design challenge?

I wanted to really emphasize the design of the front fenders. I wanted it to be completely symmetrical. (Hundred dollar word means the same on both sides. I know ‘cause I looked it up.) The problem is that most cars are not perfectly symmetrical including this one. If you plotted from the center of the grill, one side was wider and the horns and lights fell at different places on the fender. This ain’t cutting it for my masterpiece! So the layout of the vehicle needed to be corrected in the drawing. I don’t care if it’s “Real” or not, I’m trying to solve a graphic design problem here.

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Once I had the drawing corrected and transferred to the canvas I sealed the drawing and primed the canvas with a Burnt Umber acrylic wash. Anything to kill that blinding white of the blank canvas. This immediately gives you a nice warm medium ground to work out of. Always remember, you can paint over acrylics with oil but not the other way around.

Although I like to keep my final paintings “Painterly” there are parts of the process that need to be kept pretty tight. Details like the grill of a car are important not to loose the drawing. Trying to correct all those upright bars once the drawing is lost is like calling your woman by the wrong name while making love. You may get out of it, but it will take a lot of work!

To paint something like the bars of the grill I use a technique called brush ruling. I have a wood ruler about 20 inches long that I have taped 1-inch risers to each end. I can then rest this on the canvas and put the brush’s metal feral against the metal strip embedded in the ruler and stroke as long and straight a line as I want. Like anything else, practice makes perfect. Practice on scrap until it becomes comfortable. In this case since the bars of the grill are upright I turned the canvas sideways on the easel. I’m always turning the canvas this way and that to find the best angle of attack. (I’m purposely leaving out any feminine reference here.)

While I’m at it, as far as brushes go, I use hog bristle flats and I use as large a brush as I can for as long as I can. For detail I like cheap liner brushes.

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At this stage I’ve laid in the blacks. This will immediately give you your darkest dark. It is important to get canvas covered quickly unless you are retired and don’t care how long it takes to do a painting. Hell, most of us ain’t independently wealthy and a guy’s gotta eat so lets get this thing finished.

After the black dried I used washes of Burnt Umber to work up my tonal values. This I kept pretty loose. It’s important to get your mid tones right. This also gave me a warm unifying color for my painting. I cannot emphasize too much the importance of getting your tonal values right. DO NOT MOVE ON TO COLOR WITHOUT WORKING THIS OUT. Most of the time when a painting fails it is due to bad tonal values. Color doesn’t make the painting; it’s the tonal values. Get this part down and the rest should go pretty smooth. This is the dinner and dancing before inviting her up to your place if you know what I mean, and I think that you do…

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I guess I’ll side–track a moment here to talk about an amazing product I discovered called Galkyd. This is an amber liquid that acts as a drying agent. When mixed with paint it makes most oils dry to the touch overnight. This is the greatest stuff since sliced bread. If it were a broad I’d marry it. Do yourself a favor and pick up a bottle and give it a try.

Okay now the doll is freshly scrubbed for a night on the town, lets get her dressed up. With oil you want to work your paint “Thick over thin” or “Lean under fat”, also, “Light over dark”. This helps with paint application and also can keep the paint from cracking due to different drying times of different thicknesses of paint. In other words use your darks in washes and build up the thickness of the paint as the colors get lighter.

I chose to wash in my darkest red using a thinned out Alizarin Crimson. I thinned the paint with the Galkyd and a little odorless turp. Since it’s a wash the Burnt Umber of the under painting still shows through. I like Alizarin Crimson for shadow areas on red cars because it is a cool-ish red, very deep and works well with the Burnt Umber under painting. When I use it in connection with warm reds and oranges it really feels natural and makes the red look juicy.

It’s interesting that on most any car you paint, regardless of color, you will only find the pure color at the crest of a curve. All other surfaces seem to be affected by reflected light and colors or shadows.

So the next color I laid in was pure Cadmium Red, followed by oranges and yellows to build up the curved forms.

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The red is looking pretty tasty at this point but I haven’t put in my brightest highlights yet because I still have to paint the highlights on my chrome. So she’s in her dress but let’s not zip her up until we put her jewelry on. The chrome will obviously have the brightest highlights of the entire piece so once I’ve done those I will be able to better gauge what is needed on the fenders.

I like to work wet into wet (No wise cracks.) and let the colors blend on the canvas, but it is important to not just mush color around. Study your reference and make a decision before you touch brush to canvas. Then lay that stroke in and leave it alone. Especially when putting in your highlights.

Here’s how I like to attack chrome. I like to start with what I might refer to as a mid tone highlight. Depending on the lighting this is usually made up of a lot of Naples Yellow Light. I’ve had a torrid affair with this blonde. I’ve left her a million times but keep coming back to her. Be sure to leave a lot of Burnt Umber showing through and lay in this highlight like you’re carving out a shape from the darkness. Once this is done I come back with pure Titanium White for my brightest highlights.

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I was now able to get just the right balance on the highlights of the fenders.

Hint – if you want something to look very shiny put your lightest light next to your darkest dark.

Now I don’t always work this way but it seemed the right approach for what I wanted to do with this one. Sometimes I’ll work “ala prima” with no under painting. (Fancy foreign word means painted all at once.)

Basically it’s done. But they all need a touch up here or there, but I can’t see it right away. So now I need to live with it a while. Like a dame, wait long enough and she’ll tell you what she needs.


James Owens works out of his studio in the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains with his little K-9 pal “Indy” sleeping under his easel and his beautiful blonde wife “Kathleen” peeling grapes by his side. He spends his free time reading too many Mickey Spillane novels and finding ways to compare things to women.
Web site:
Email: moc.rion-racnull@mij
Complaint Department: Circular file!


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