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Are car designer’s renderings fine art?

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Well, what do I know—I am a fine artist but not a car designer. But as a historian with 18 car histories under my belt I admire certain car designers throughout history and for a lot of them, part of my admiration is based on their renderings of cars to come. Say for instance, Virgil Exner Sr.’s drawings of the Stutz Blackhawk: beautiful drawings and beautiful car. In fact, I daresay that some designers got the green light from their automaker employee to see their design produced based on their sexy drawing. It’s the stuff of dreams – you make a sketch and magic happens.  So what they created in a few hours or days spawned a great design, one that we can still drive around or at least see at a concours.

Now with Detroit designers, time was that they were not allowed to take work home with them. One I knew who defied that rule was Larry Shinoda, who did the Mako Shark, and early drawings for the Stingray production car, using elaborate schemes to smuggle them out of the office. I can see why he did it. It was common practice in Detroit for automakers to periodically clear the file drawers of old renderings. Sometimes car companies went broke, and they threw everything in the dumpster!

Larry Shinoda Corvette Sketch

Larry Shinoda personally showed me some of his drawings, smuggled out of GM.

There have been occasions when car designer drawings have been displayed at concours d’elegance, but only occaasionally. Decades ago, I remember being entranced at the Greenfield Village Car Show by a Wayne Kady drawing of a car with a long, long hood, some sort of modern Cadillac with 1930’s Duesenberg proportions. Decades later, a Cadillac concept called the Sixteen embodied this design proposal. Outside of the automotive world, these drawings rarely get recognized for what they are: art.

Wayne Kady Cadillac Art

This Wayne Kady drawing might have influenced the Cadillac Sixteen prototype built many decades later.

This is true even in the home of the American automobile industry. The Detroit Institute of Art, one of the preeminent art museums in the U.S., is almost totally devoid of automotive mentions. That changes with a new exhibit called Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City 1950-2020. The show will have at least ten actual cars and many dozens of renderings. I think that this show will move up the acceptability of car renderings as art. Show dates are June 13, 2020 – January 10, 2021.

Now if you want to get picky about definitions, “fine art’ is pretty vague. To quote Justice Potter Stewart (speaking of a different definition) “I know it when I see it,” but I’ll wade into the battle, paintbrush in hand. I say car designs done by some artist employed by an automaker or coachbuilder are done for a commercial purpose, i.e. to fit within a certain window of constraints and maybe art–but not fine art.

Giugiaro Maserati Bora Sketch

A real treaaure would be a Giugiaro drawing, signed by him, like this of a Bora in 1971.

Let’s say the design VP says say something like “And make sure we can still use the tooling for the doors from the X model,” forcing the artist to bend to commercial needs. Because we are looking at old design drawings now, unless the artist is there to explain them, we aren’t aware of what restrictions they were working with. Thus, we can never consider design drawings as pure “fine art” done for aesthetics only, because we don’t know the behind-the-scenes rules.

Now, let me compare that to commercial art. Van Kaufman and Art Fitzpatrick, known as Van and Fitz, were two artists in Detroit who did the Pontiac print ads. There are people who collect Van and Fitz art (both artists have passed now) and frame them and treat them as fine art. But to me, their work doesn’t quite fit the definition of “fine art “ because they were told “Leave room for this headline and this much body copy.” So their work, however beautiful, is commercial art done for an ad.

Sticking with the categorization of fine art as something done purely for creative expression, I can think of one reason car companies do not want their designers doing fine art: They want their lads putting in maximum effort at work, not saving themselves at work to pour all their effort into side work that they will sell at a car show or gallery.

Franz von Holzhausen Pontiac Solstic Sketch

GM publicized Franz von Holzhausen’s Solstice design and what do you know, he got hired away to Mazda and ended up at Tesla.

Then too, if you are the automaker and you paid the designer to work all day, you don’t want the rejected designs taken out and circulated where, egad, they could inspire a rival firm! You never know when you are going to go back to an old design. Even at the Ford Motor Company, I can see them occasionally saying something like, “Say, Joe, can you go back to the ‘60s file and see how we did that Mustang station wagon?” And you, as the boss, wouldn’t want to go to the file drawer and see drawings you remembered being there gone. Your company paid for them, after all.

Automakers generally don’t release a lot of renderings, and I can think of several reasons why. One is that the finished car always has to compromise on some of the details that look so good in the drawings (“Really, Fred, we can’t cast that hood scoop surround out of one piece, it will cost too much”) and they don’t want car fans criticizing their design decisions based on an early rendering. And then, too, it tends to throw the focus on the designer instead of the car or the company.

Only on special occasions do automakers relent. I remember Ferrari handed out some design renderings when the Enzo came out, and the Japanese artist who worked for Pininfarina, Ken Okuyama, handed out signed Enzo sketches. He eventually left Pininfarina to go out on his own. I wonder if it was because he was becoming too well known as the non-Italian who designed some of their most beautiful cars.

Ken Okyuyama Ferrari Enzo Sketch front

Ken Okuyama, once of Pininfarina, handed out prints of his renderings when cars he designed were introduced. This was the Enzo.

This is all becoming a moot point, however, as paper designs are going the way of the manual transmission. Tough schools like the Art Center College of Design still teach how to draw with pens, pencils, paint, and the like, but computer-generated art is now the rule. And, sadly, design renderings done by computer don’t have the same look: No rich papers, no textured paints. And when it comes to automotive art (“fine” or otherwise), my theory is that paper renderings, the ones signed by the designer, will go up in value.

As a fan of car designer renderings, I live in hope that a rapprochement can be made between the automakers, the design firms, and designers who have a secret stash of their drawings so that the art world can show more design renderings. One venue I can see as legit is the fund raiser, where designers submit art for sale in a silent auction benefiting a charity.

Zagato Maserati Mostro sketch

Zagato, an independent design house, released these drawings of the 2015 Maserati Mostro.

When I saw Pete Brock at the Art Center Classic show, I posed the same question in this headline to him. He thought it was fine art, and he himself went to GM and got permission to use the work he did there over 50 years ago: from his perspective, there is no problem. I suggest The Brock Approach be offered, that all designers who have art at home share it back to the manufacturer, get it photographed, and keep the originals. This could even apply to deceased designers, whose families could get the works scanned, and the keep or sell the originals.

What say you?

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is a fine artist who frequently depicts prototype cars in his paintings. For a list of completed available works, write