Hello people! My name is Dave Webster and I’m here to explain myself. No, I won’t make excuses. I’m not that clever. Only the pure, unadulterated, slightly biased (in my favor) truth coming’ at ya.
I expect the main question any casual listener to my show would be this, “Why am I listening to you when it comes to the subject of art or custom paint?”. I can give two reasons. One, I’ve been custom painting (bikes mostly) for over 20 years and two, I don’t know everything.
That second part may sound like the first reason to move onto another podcast about this subject (if there was one) but I hold it up as an opportunity. As I delve into uncharted areas of custom paint, which seem to pop up with every new project, I can help you avoid the pitfalls and hard lessons that come with first attempts at any new technique.
When I started my path in art, it was through a stack of comic books as a kid, starting with Daredevil #132. The way those little pink daredevils were drawn to mimic movement, and they seemed so hyper accurate at the time. I became obsessed with learning how to draw the human figure. To that end I studied anatomy books to see how muscles functioned, and heroic vs. human proportions. Clearly there exists other artistic disciplines to consider such as line, form, light and shade, color, value, and composition… but hey, one thing at a time! I was just a kid!
Anyway, growing in up in the suburbs of Buffalo, N.Y. during the eighties, I was interested in such nerd-dom but my family’s full frontal bent towards word-of-faith prosperity preaching (google it) made it impossible to obtain such paraphernalia. Comics, Rock-n-Roll, anything remotely funny, scary, or racy, on TV was out. Remember John Lithgow’s preacher character in Footloose? Same thing. However, much like the Old Testament Jews knew that knowledge and skill couldn’t be confiscated by Nebuchadnezzar during the captivity, I also knew that my artistic skills, my imagination, and work couldn’t be stifled by Jim Baker, Benny Hinn, and pals. I could take it with me when I left.
If I was over at a friend’s house, we would talk about, and try to draw comic books. This is where I was introduced to the concept of page flow and one other important fact I learned about myself. I got bored easily. I had more fun creating characters and drawing a few images, but it was beyond me how any artist could draw the same character over and over again and not lose their mind. I gravitated towards Sci-fi book cover art and album art by the great fantasy artists like Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin, Roger Dean, and Drew Struzan to name few. These guys had the ability to tell a whole story from start to finish in only one image.
I excelled in art class from grammar school all the way through graduation. My other grades were high enough, and my head low enough to navigate the politics of high school society unscathed.
…and then moved out on commencement day…
New decade on my own
I kicked around western New York, working and living for the next 3 years. I continued to draw and fantasize about being commissioned to paint an album cover or book cover with no real knowledge on how to pursue such an opportunity and got some extra bread painting denim jackets with acrylic paints. It was 1989. I worked at a movie theatre that used to play all the big films when I was a younger. In it’s heyday, that small 4 screen movie house played Superman, Start Trek, Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark. All the big films fit into that tiny place. By the time I worked there, we were competing with two theaters across the street, each with 8 screens. It was Road House, Shag, Do the Right Thing, They Live, and Miracle Mile. I know every minute of these dogs. The only good films we lucked out on were Rain Man and Sex, Lies and Videotape. This last one is a sleeper for sure, but Steven Soderbergh’s first feature. I became an instant fan of the whole cast…just sayin’.
I love movies. I get mad amounts of inspiration from them and, along with every other thing I was forbidden to partake of growing up, I indulged whenever I found myself alone in the house. My job at the theater eventually cross-faded into a position at a craft store/nursery that made most of it’s money during Christmas selling fake trees, lights, and other crap. But it also sold some art supplies. Yay for me!! That eventually blurred into other bum jobs and eventually, I ended up at a video rental store… Perfect! All the movies I can rent for free and they pay me too, albeit barely.
To AIR is human
Expenses being what they were, and the meager wages that one can muster at 18-19 are limited. Like my friends around me, we were required of each other to pool our resources and adjust the expectations of our living conditions downwards to get by. I had a good friend who worked at a book store. In that book store was a magazine section and in that section was a trade rag devoted exclusively to airbrush art.
The February 1992 issue of Airbrush Action Magazine featured the work of Hajime Sorayama. This one image was the turning point where I started putting my time and energy into pursuing and learning as much as I could about airbrush.
I went out immediately and bought all the wrong tools, managed to fumble my way through airbrushing a T-shirt or two. I was the amateur’s amateur. Even with that, there was no doubt about what I wanted.
Racking up enough years on my own, I was able to apply for student loans, independent of being a dependent. The Federal Government, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh saw me as low hanging financial fruit, and I was only too eager to jump feet first into that fiscal bear trap.
I met a friend there at AIP who had worked the previous summer airbrushing T-Shirts at Cedar Point. His airbrush work amazed me plus, he made it look so easy. I rabidly pursued an opportunity to get an interview even though the park wasn’t looking for help. As it happened, I got my time in front of the manager there but as I feared, no room in the coop. No room that is, until 2 weeks into the summer season! Suddenly shorthanded, I got the call and was off.
Airbrush boot camp
Before long I was dealing with 6 paasche VL airbrushes (the industry workhorse in 1993) 8 hours of loops, lines and trying to figure out why it worked here but not here, what caused this clog and why skipping here?! Moisture in the lines, how to take it apart, clean it and… this thing called “the damage box”.
Damage Box: noun – (ˈdamij bäks) origin of speech – Sandusky, OH
A large box holding any and all airbrushed garments containing misspelled words, wrong colors, or other inconsistencies. Primarily used as a coping mechanism whereby the airbrush artist may insert their face in order to scream at the top of their lungs, yet having no audible effect on the nearby customer base, who are 99 & 44/100% purely the reason for the existence of said “Damage Box”.
It was some of the best times I’d had since I moved out of the house. I never learned more about one craft in such a short amount of time. Anyway, as the saying goes, a fool and his money are soon partying which led to the inevitable parting. I managed to grab up four of my own Paasche VL’s before my “twenty-stupid” year old version of priorities had me on the road back to Pittsburgh prematurely, and “slingin’ paint” in the one mall that, to this day, still has an Airbrush T-Shirt shop.
For the next few years until I graduated with my associates degree in graphic communication, which was all AIP offered at the time, that was my job. I had painted in almost every mall in the city of Pittsburgh that had a shop. All that direct contact with the customer netted me the ability to decipher what it is was they wanted even when it was difficult for them to explain.
Why do we fall…to Florida?
Then I had a great idea. MOVE!! I spent one year in Key West, Fl owning and working my own T-Shirt shop under this assumption: There are no airbrush T-Shirt shops in Key West. No, but there was every other kind. Customer bases being what they are, it didn’t work out too well. I was terrible at marketing, unsure of what my services were worth, and in an economy way more expensive than any location on the mainland. I was eager to get back to familiar ground as soon as my lease ran out.
Back to Pittsburgh. Back to the mall. This was when the first sportster motorcycle tank landed in my lap. A standard grim reaper design. I did my utmost to apply the best image I could using the same paint I had been using for so long. Like many of us in the mall or beach scene, the natural inclination is that if my paint could last in the washer, a little sun and elements shouldn’t be a big deal. I had a lot to learn and it would be what felt like a years long chemistry class and trying to keep terminologies straight.
When the guys I worked for at the mall decided on a mobile on-location business model would suit them better, working parties and festivals, I was out of full time employment once again. Ad specialties was to be my 9-5 concentration from 1999 through 2002. Custom paint would be my side gig.
During those years I became proficient with vector graphics, embroidery and furthered my communication skills. For those of you who’ve never seen one, an 6 head 15 needle embroidery machine is like your grandma’s sewing machine on every legal, and illegal performance enhancing drug. I feel it necessary to include here that in shop class, I was only able to achieve a C+ while in home economics, I got an A+. Go figure. The kid can sew.
All through this time I was still honing my custom paint skills, learning about lacquers, urethanes, and every other piece of info I couldn’t possibly know if I needed or not. I was very new to the business of auto body and the materials used in custom paint. For instance, I had no idea that catalyst, hardener, and reactor were synonymous. Stuff like that. Mechanical vs. Chemical adhesion. What sand paper to use here or there? Is it a rule or a preference? If so, why or why not?
Once the Ad specialty business I worked for went under in ’02 I was on my own full time. And this is where I learned all my hard lessons on marketing and (shudder) partnerships.
Gun for hire
I took the leap off of the “steady paycheck” and almost immediately began to miss the comfort of the chain attaching me to my desk. My God! You don’t really appreciate the office girl until all the paperwork is your responsibility. 1099’s, w-9’s, Profit and Loss sheets, fictitious name forms, invoices, ledgers…I’m surprised I still have the capacity for creative thought after dealing with it all. For a break, I would occasionally take up with my friends and colleagues painting at malls and other functions cranking out what I now refer to as “fast food art” around Christmas time. As each season came around with new owners of old shops and stands, I started to realize that I was the guy designing most things, training artists, and fixing compressors. It got old and left me wanting to pursue a higher calling in art. I hadn’t started pinstriping yet, nor had I any bodyshop skills. All my custom paint began and ended with airbrush. I knew there was more to the craft but for now most of this knowledge was left to the body shops that contacted me for my services. I just let them handle it.
I can point to two instances where I was inspired to fill these gaps. One positive and one negative.
Early on most of my exposure to the motorcycle industry came through two shops, both in Oakdale, PA: Roll-On Cycle, and Steele Auto Body. The patience of the respective owners of these two shops dealing with my being a rank amateur, my questions about paint, business practices, and helping me steer through etiquette’s specific to the biker community, to me was, and is gold. Through my relationship with these two establishments, I attended some shows and festivals. At one in particular in the summer of 2004, I met Steve Chaszeyka (Wizard). At the time, my skills were limited to airbrush alone. I had only just started getting used to automotive urethanes, so I had my traveling T-Shirt setup with me to paint those, and leathers jackets and such, and pass out cards to get future custom paint business. So there was this cat doing things with a paintbrush faster than I could do it with an airbrush! Wolf heads, bears, feathers, and long sleek lines. Beautiful colors! All of it on metal and not an air compressor in sight. We talked about the industry, markets, and traded some art. From that exposure, I had ordered pinstriping brushes and paint within a week. The planets lined up, and I was left alone to practice every night for weeks. Not since my days years before airbrushing with rabid fervor, was I so intent on gaining a skill.
Through Roll-On Cycle I was introduced to Hippy. Hippy was an accomplished body man with a sweet tooth for custom bikes, so our respective talents meshed. Early on, it was Hippy that took care of all my finish work. This was both good and bad. Good, because Hippy put every drop of his Italian pride into his clear coat work. Bad because, at the time, I thought all finish work from any shop turned out that clean and smooth. Then Hippy did something that foiled it all.
He moved far away.
Now I had to find someone else to do my finish work. And this is where I began to learn the hard lesson that not all finish work turned out the same. It sure as hell didn’t turn out like Hippy’s. I was so used to seeing a nice, smooth, calm, coating every time, that when I was forced to find another shop to finish my work, the result were… confusing. I didn’t want to say what I was thinking which was “what the hell?”. I was left to assume that somehow, I had been spoiled, and that this is what the rest of the huddled masses accepted as clear coat. As I shopped around, I was forced to deal with production shop time lines. I couldn’t have my work, which was smaller and less profitable than an entire car, waiting in line for weeks until a shop had nothing better to do. Also, much of these clear jobs were done on the barter system. I didn’t have a ton of money, to lay out not knowing what I was going to get, but I had talent that wouldn’t run dry like my bank account would. Eventually I learned the hard way. I got what I paid for. After one such losing deal that ended up costing me time and money because some shop monkey couldn’t learn to clean his guns out before clearing my stuff, I quit trusting anyone but myself.
‘Til Death We Do ART!