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Mike Zeller Watercolours and Vintage Race Cars

Car Art Experiments with watercolours. Why does Mike think of vintage cars as sculptures?

Thank you for agreeing to interview with me. I really appreciate your time and interest. I found your work on I love your style and the watercolors you use. What is your story? How did you start creating art, Mike?

Well, I guess it started long ago when I was a kid. I was always a doodler and liked to draw. That was one of my big problems in school – rather than paying attention I would doodle on the side of my note page. I’ve had a love affair with cars ever since I can remember. In grade school I drew cars with pencil and paper. The closest thing I could get to any sort of art in high school was mechanical drawing because we didn’t have any formal art classes. So I took mechanical drawing instead.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of Mid-Ohio, but it’s a well-known racecourse here in the States. It was about 20 miles form my home. I would go there and watch racing whenever I could. This started my love affair with photography. I took a lot of pictures and always liked to be involved in any racing piece.
Photo by Mike Zeller

Photo by Mike Zeller

Then, when I went to college, I was a fine arts major focused on advertizing and design. I should have been an art director in the advertising business but that never evolved. I went from college with a Bachelor of Fine Arts straight into advertising and became an account manager. I didn’t really get back into watercolors until about six years ago. The Goodwood Motorsport Circuit over in England inspired me. I took a bunch of pictures over there and my primary interest in cars then became vintage racing. I love vintage race cars, particularly open wheel cars with suspensions and levers and leather straps and rivets. I love that kind of detail.
Mike Zeller Bentley GoodWood

Mike Zeller Bentley GoodWood

Does this go back to your mechanical drawing, the attention to detail?
Yeah it did. That’s what I really like: drawing out the intricacies of the cars versus a car that is a contemporary machine with all kinds of shapes. They’re so closed off that you can’t see anything but wheels, like the newer Ferraris or Lamborghinis. I’d prefer to draw an old Bentley because I think they’re more interesting to do.
Because they show more details of the mechanics behind the car. 
Yes - it’s a major difference. You open the engine bay and all you can see is a bunch of plastic and covers. You can’t see all the little nuts and bolts and the interesting things that are there. So I experimented. I hadn’t done watercolor since college – almost forty years ago. I just started with a small one and did another that turned out well. So I got excited and did a few more. It’s sort of a moonlight thing that I do. I only turn out four or so in a year because I still work. I’ve really enjoyed doing it. I do the types of cars that I like.
Stirling Moss by Mike Zeller

Stirling Moss by Mike Zeller

When we were at Pebble Beach we saw Stirling Moss’ car that he won at. I think it was number seventy-two-two. It’s a beautiful car. Here again I tried to expand a little, doing his portrait and a little montage alongside painting the car itself. I’m always trying to experiment with different things and get more elaborate – not just focusing on the cars.
So are the experiments you’re doing focused more on composition and content or are you also experimenting with painting style and materials?
Well, I’m experimenting on a couple of fronts. One is the montage and another thing I’m trying to do is try acrylics and taking different textures. For instance, putting down different textures on canvass. I’ve just started doing research on that. It’s more artsy, a loose approach to portraits of cars. It could even be photography that I lay out and put different washes over. For instance, a picture of Enzo Ferrari from years ago laid down with a wash over it and another painting over top. That way, you just see a ghost of the portrait in the background – literally taking a photograph and embedding it into a piece of art. With acrylics you can have all kinds of different textured paints so that you have more of a thick texture that allows you to add dimension. Watercolor is the pigment of paint on paper. Acrylics allow you to do so much more.
Delahaye by Automotive Artist Mike Zeller

Delahaye by Automotive Artist Mike Zeller

How do you select your subjects?
I’ve got a bunch of photography from over the years. I just look through different photos of cars and see which intrigue me the most. I start by making a short list and putting those pictures in a file. Eventually I make a hard decision about what I want to work on next. It’s really just what I get turned on by more so than knowing that if I paint one car in particular that somebody might really want to buy it.
The only exception to that was this last year because I knew Ferrari was going to be the featured mark at the Euro-Auto festival, I decided I was going to take a shot at doing what I thought might sell at the show. So I did a watercolor of the Ferrari Enzo car, which was produced in 2006. It’s a very sleek looking car and my idea was to do the Enzo car and then have, in a monochromatic background, Enzo Ferrari in his old Fiat with the big wooden steering wheel. So I added that as a background to the car, which was bright red. Then I put the specs of the car into the portrait using carbon fiber texture as the frame for the square background. I sold it at the Euro-Auto festival. They auctioned off my artwork at great at a charity event for the American Red Cross.
Automotive Art by Mike Zeller

Automotive Art by Mike Zeller

Right now I’ve decided I’m going to take a bit of a twist. I’ve got several friends with motorcycles so I’m going to do a portrait of an old 1939 Indian motorcycle. Really just a beautiful bike and it’s got all kinds of detail on it – chrome and brass with lots of mechanics to show.
Would you like to share your art with a larger audience? I once read a quote that said, “Art is sharing an emotion that the artist has with the subject.” What is it that you are sharing?
I’m sharing my passion and appreciation for cars. I always think of vintage cars as sculpture. The cars are works of art and short of being able to own one personally the closest I can get to them is appreciating them by getting myself into the car by drawing and painting it. I hope people appreciate it when they see the work.
To me the cool thing is that somebody else really did the work. They designed the car; they built the car; they created the art. I’m taking their art and interpreting it in my own way, so to speak. They created the art to begin with and I’m just putting my spin on it. It’s a way for me to be a part of that. I’ve had a few exhibits in the community I live in and people always appreciate the work but the question is do they appreciate my work or do they appreciate the cars themselves? It’s so difficult to draw that line in the sand.
You’re the first artist who has expressed that to me. I never realized myself that the audience might just appreciate the car and not even realize that amount of work that the artist has put in to put it on canvas. 
I look at some of the automotive artists that are out there. Some of them are unbelievable and do just phenomenal work. One of my favorite artists who has been an inspiration for me is a guy named Ken Dallison. He is an artist that I commissioned some work from way back in the 70’s with a racing team. We were launching a new product called CAM2 Motor Oil. We created a brochure with illustrations of the cars and the drivers all done by Ken. I still have a couple of the original illustrations.
Whenever I’ve seen his work I’ve always saved it. I try to study what he’s done and learn to make my own stuff a little bit better. His unique ability is to create detail in a spontaneous way. My detail is detail but it’s not spontaneous. The stroke weight of his pen varies. Mine is done with the finest mechanical ballpoint that I can get before I paint it but there is no variation. Everybody’s got their own way of doing things but his talent is just amazing. I think he uses dye, not watercolor. His stuff is spectacular.
Mike Zeller Automotive Artist

Mike Zeller Automotive Artist

Do you consider his work an inspiration to improve your own skills and technique?
Yes. I do a lot of studying with other people. I just look at what they do. I haven’t contacted any other known automotive artists. Locally, I’m involved with a couple of arts organizations. I’m on the board of the Metropolitan Arts Council and another one called Artisphere, a nationally recognized three-day art exhibit that happens in Greenville, South Carolina. My exposure to the various styles of art is heavily through those two organizations.
I recently spoke with artist Stéphane Dufour in Los Angeles who has his studio in an artist community. He is the only one who focuses on cars but he was telling me how they share techniques, which he finds uniquely encouraging and inspiring. 
Oh absolutely. I mean, there’s so much to learn. The different techniques you see other artists do with completely different subject matter. And then you just ask yourself how that can be applied to what you’re doing. How can I stretch myself to do something a little bit different? That’s where I am now. I’d like to do something more spontaneous and loose and a little abstract. That said, bottom line, I’m a detail fanatic [laughs].
What is your dream? Where do you want to go with your art? 
Well, I would like to do more commission work. I really don’t want to be one of these guys who has to pack his stuff up and drive across the country to art shows. I’ve just rebuilt my website motoringarts. It’s got a lot of my photography in addition to my latest and greatest watercolors. So, I hope to use my website really as a marketing tool. I’d love to find more commission work through that.
Well, thank you for joining me. I really appreciate your taking the time for our interview. 
You can find more information about Mike Zeller and his automotive art on his website motoringarts.
Please share this blog with your friends. Let me know if you have additional questions for Mike.
Note: all images in this blog are copyright Mike Zeller
Marcel Haan

Marcel Haan

Founder and Owner of CarArtSpot, blogger and entrepreneur. With a passion for people and art. Every week Marcel interviews leading automotive artist and shares their stories at CarArtSpot.