5 Minutes with Steve Stanford
Steve Stanford has played a major part in hundreds of hot rod and custom car projects – without ever picking up a hammer or wrench. As one of the most-respected and well-known custom car designers and automotive artists, Stanford has had a hand (literally) in some of the most prolific vehicles of recent times, including the “Eleanor” GT500 featured in the film “Gone in 60 Seconds.”
Despite his success, the St. Louis native still works out of an old trailer behind Pete Santini’s paint and body shop in Westminster, California. “I’m a one-man band,” Stanford says. “I don’t need a lot and I don’t need to put on a dog-and-pony show. I’m not fancy. The most important thing is the artwork and it has always been that way to me.”
For Stanford, is truly is all about the artwork…and cars. In fact, he says he’s drawn so many cars over the course of his lifetime, he can’t even begin to speculate how many of his automotive drawings exist. “That’s an impossible question to answer!” he says. “Whenever I go through my files, [I’m amazed] at how much stuff is here, even though I’ve sold a lot of stuff to collectors. As far as how many [cars] I’ve drawn in my lifetime, it’s innumerable!”
We wrestled the pencil away from Stanford long enough to talk to him about his biggest influences, how his eccentric personality has helped his art, and why he listens to EDM music while he draws!
Goodguys Gazette: If you hadn’t become an artist and custom car designer, what kind of career do you think you’d have right now?
Steve Stanford: Honestly, there was no Plan B. This was it for me. I grew up around St. Louis, in a not-so-high-end part. The neighborhood I was in, there weren’t a lot of car guys because no one could afford it. I would read the magazines and, at the time, my best friend was my library card because I could check out Hot Rod and Motor Trend. I knew I was going to do something with cars. Before I got into drawing, I wanted to be a car customizer like George Barris or the Alexanders, but as time went on, I realized I didn’t have access to a body shop or tools. I considered being a custom painter but pinstriping drew me in. I found something I could handle and had the natural talent to do it.
GG: In your opinion, how do today’s cars compare to the cars of yesteryear?
Stanford: I was born in 1954, back when cars were good-looking. I was coming of age in the ‘60s and that was a good time for muscle cars. It’s easy to be inspired by those cars. I wish today was that way. I can’t stand looking at cars today; I don’t relate to them. The designers [of today’s cars] grew up with different standards, and a different outlook on the world. When I was a kid, cars were the end-all, be-all, but the young people today have so many diversions, so cars are just part of their lives. Cars are no longer the ‘main drag;’ they’re more like the side street and that’s sad. It’s reflected in auto design too. Very rarely do you see a car commercial panning over a car’s body line. Instead, they talk about the features and productivity.
GG: If you could have any car delivered to you right now, what would you choose?
Stanford: That’s easy – a custom Caddy! Most people like the big-finned ’59 but my dream is the ’64 Eldorado convertible: wire wheels, black on black. That was the last year of the fins, and it has open rear wheel wells. It was very distinctive.
GG: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Stanford: Be yourself. I’ve always been an odd duck, socially and with my outlook on life. I don’t exactly play by the rules. Being a sensitive artist can lead to some dark thoughts, but when I finally learned to like myself and be myself, things turned around for me. I’ve found out that, through the years, people have looked to me as an influence. If you’re not comfortable in your own skin, you’ll fall into whatever everyone else is doing.
GG: Do you ever see yourself moving out of the old trailer you work in and into a shop or studio?
Stanford: No because it’s lowkey and I don’t need a lot of space to work. It’s quiet and way in the back. If you have a really nice place with collectibles, it invites people to drop in. I know guys who have shops like that, and they don’t get anything done unless they set up visiting hours! Where I’m at, there’s not even room for me to hang up my artwork or anything, but I’m OK with that.
GG: How does a Steve Stanford drawing happen? What’s your process like?
Stanford: The first part is the most-important, and that’s doing the research. I have scads of magazines. Anyone who has been to my office knows it looks like a bookstore. I start with the research, and then once it hits the sketchpad it’s a series of sketches to figure out the angles and proportion details. I don’t use a computer because I’m old-school. Once I figure out the outline, I use that as an underlay drawing. I put another piece of good drawing paper on top of that. That way, if I make a mistake on the finished drawing, I have my underlay drawing. Then I fill it in with marker, airbrush or whatever. It can take me anywhere from two days to months to finish a piece of art.
GG: Who is your personal favorite artist, and whose work has influenced you over the years?
Stanford: The guys that used to do the Pontiac ad illustrations, Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman; their work is legendary. My style is close to Art Fitzpatrick’s and I’ve saved a lot of his scraps and brochures. He’s my main influence, but obviously there were many others. I was influenced by anyone who was really serious about illustrating automobiles.
GG: Aside from your art, what is one hobby you’d like to try?
Stanford: I’ve always had the secret desire to learn to play the keyboard or piano. I like Euro progressive rock and keyboard is such a big part of progressive rock. I don’t play any instruments at all. I like to rock out to music while I’m drawing, though. I like anything that requires musical depth, but I have a real love for EDM music. It’s great to draw to!
GG: What would you say is your biggest regret?
Stanford: Not to sound mercenary, but part of my psychological mindset is not emphasizing the financial parts I should have…I’ve been dedicated to the art; you don’t put the financial part first. The art always comes first. I wish I had had a 50/50 mindset. I’ve found that if you’re doing something for money, though, the work comes out looking like you’re doing it for the money. If you’re doing the job for the money, the reputation you worked to have and the quality and inspiration behind it will go away.
GG: When someone thinks of your work, what’s the one word you hope will come to their mind?
Stanford: Quality. If something has undefined quality, it draws you in. If there’s no quality in creating and executing it, it would be just like any other art. I don’t want my art to be just another face in the crowd. I want people to be inspired by it and I want it to stop them in their tracks when they see it!