How did James Caldwell end up in an interview with Jay Leno?
I recently saw you on YouTube with Jay Leno – congratulations! How did you land that interview?
He was exposed to my work during Pebble Beach Week. Have you had a chance to come to California for Pebble Beach week yet? It started out as races on the concourse and now it’s turned into a whole week of events. He saw my work there and put me in contact with his producer and I got on his show!
And you were having an exhibition during Pebble Beach Week?
Yes, I showed at several places that week. There is the Automobilia show early on. It changes every year and I absolutely love going. My agent was down there – he has a lot of connections and was able to get me into various events.
My first job was in a racecar shop doing machining and welding and fabricating. I love working with my hands and I love cars. I actually went to school for product design. While I was there, I also learned drafting architectural drawings. In 2007, I started focusing my artwork on automotives. Occasionally I’ll do still life paintings for practice. My automotive work is based off of photographs because the paintings take too long to do on the spot [laughs]. I think it’s good practice to set up a still life – wine glass, a bouquet of flowers – and paint it from life using your eye as the camera.
James Caldwell - 1955 Porsche Speedster
People often ask which is my favourite painting and it’s often the one I’m working on. Artists are very often asked “How long does it take to do a painting?” That sort of seems like people are really asking, “How much do you charge per hour?” [laughs] Each painting is a cumulative skill. This painting that is complete has maybe taken three weeks but is really how long an artist has been painting in general.
Occasionally, I’ll work on multiple paintings at the same time. Usually if there is a deadline involved or I’ve got a backlog. But I find staring at the same painting for too long causes me to miss things. Going back and forth between two paintings keeps me fresh. Most of my work is done on a commission basis. A lot of it, anyway. I don’t like to keep clients waiting too long – I want to keep them happy!
What is it that you aim to share through your art?
I think that everyone sees things slightly differently. The owner of the car will always love the painting. A great painting helps show others why the owner loves the car so much. Sometimes they’ll talk about their car that they love and request a commission piece. I tell them that the most important thing is choosing a location that means something to them. Maybe it’s a favourite place that they drive to. One of my clients has a beautiful vineyard next to his house, so we did the photo shoot with the vineyard in the background. The time of day also needs to be right to bring out the reflections in the car. Reflections are important to me – the more the better.
I feel like every car has a good angle. I don’t think someone could bring me a car that they love that I wouldn’t feel inspired by. My challenge is then to find the best angle to show the characteristics of the car. I’ve got a fun little car that I take out to car meets – it’s a replica of a 550 Spider Porsche. I live in the perfect climate for it. It’s never too hot and rarely too cold. It’s perfect for a car with no top and no air conditioning or heating.
James Caldwell in his 550 Spyder Porsche Replica
I recently interviewed an artist who said, “I’m not painting the car; I’m painting how light is reflected by the car.” Does that resonate with you?
Absolutely. I’ve done a few black cars recently. One was a Porsche that I painted in a paddock. The colours there were very muted – blush, soft, creamy. The other was parted in the grass as the Concourso Italiano. There are rich colours – green from the grass, blue from the sky.
It bothers me when you can see a painting of a car that has been photographed in one location but painted in another. Cars reflect their surroundings. It is so important to select work starting from a real point in time. Everything becomes an impression of the moment but it must be somehow linked to reality.
What makes you chose particular topics when you aren’t working on commission?
It’s tough! I accumulated a huge number of images. When it’s up to me, I agonize. I comb through all the photos and try to decide which one I want to do. Often, you take pictures in the moment but it’s not until later when you can see the more compelling aspects of each photo. I wish there was a better explanation…
I tend to be drawn toward the classics. In the 50’s, for example, the artists and the engineers were the same people. A lot of the cars back then had one or two designers involved in the shape. It was so pure back then. There are a lot of beautiful modern cars but often you’ll see a difference where it looks like one person designed the front and another person designed the back and they didn’t necessarily agree on how the car should look. I’m drawn to the classic shapes because they are so coherent. They were guessing at aerodynamics; it was all trial and error.
James Caldwell - Mercedes Gullwing
That said there are some gorgeous modern cars. I feel like every car has a good angle. I don’t think someone could bring me a car that they love that I wouldn’t feel inspired by. My challenge is then to find the best angle to show the characteristics of the car.
Do you meet and connect with other artists at car meets and shows? What’s that like?
When you’re showing your work you don’t have as much time to talk with other artists. But I love to see the work of others. Everyone has such a different take on the same subjects. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.
I’m a member of the Redwood City Art Centre. It’s a town about ten minutes away from where I live. There are about 30 artists. I’m the only automotive artist but it is fantastic. There are some great portrait artists, some landscape artists. It’s inspiring to be around them. Much more so than working from home, which I find can be quite solitary.
My biggest inspiration as an artist is John Singer Sergeant. He’s not an automotive artist; he’s a classic portrait artist. I admire his talent. In my opinion, the reason why his portraits are so great is that his faces are very sharp and it draws your eye there. He captures things perfect without a lot of detail. He is so controlled on the focal point of a painting. I study him. I try to keep my backgrounds very loose. It’s a challenge to me to keep the focus on the main subjects while keeping the details and consistency. For instance, in a grill, I don’t paint each piece. I paint some of the highlights and leave the impression of it. It’s too fussy if I try to paint each one. It keeps the focus on the major topic. It’s what I like to call ‘implied detail’.
James Caldwell - Ferrari Spyder
Where do you want to go next? Is there a particular subject or place?
To have continued success, to be allowed to keep doing this is my dream. I’ve had requests to become more involved with the Concourso Italiano. It’s the concourse that happens right before Pebble Beach. This year I will be fairly involved with them. They require several paintings and for me to be featured on their poster. The more involved I get, the happier I am!
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