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  • Driver's Seat - The Wow Factor - Steve Vandemon Interview - April 2005

Driver's Seat - The Wow Factor - Steve Vandemon Interview - April 2005

The Wow Factor

Joe Pettitt
Apr 1, 2005
A really cool custom paintjob can turn a good sport truck into a great sport truck. And if the painter's on his game, he can even put your truck on the cover of a magazine. That's the kind of work a handful of custom painters are capable of at any given moment. As magazine editors, we're always looking for fresh and cool trucks with a look that jumps off the page.
Steve Vandemon is one such painter. So to kick off this Paint and Body-themed issue, I thought I'd interview one of the wilder talents on the custom-paint scene.
He says he's been painting for about 11 years and is mostly self-taught. His Web site ( bio reports that he is an accomplished airbrush artist, sculptor, pinstriper, designer, and all-around trouble-maker.
Lately, Vandemon, like a lot of the better guys that paint hot rods and trucks, is moving into the fine-art thing. He's exhibited at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna, California. The pinup art he's painting on the hood would be considered fine art, and is in fact a project for an art magazine assignment that will take him to Italy. When that is done, he says it'll probably hang up on a gallery wall, even though, as he says, "It's a freakin' hood."
I caught up with him at his shop in Anaheim, California, to get his views on custom-paint design. Since we get a lot of questions about how to work with a painter, that seemed the logical question to start the interview.
Vandemon: The funniest thing is when people come in and they ask for some striping. "I just want some stripping on my truck." And I say, "Oh, OK, no problem." Then they point to a picture of one of my most intricate flame jobs.

That's not striping. Yeah, it has striping on it, but striping is different. Striping is pinstriping. Or they'll say they want flames. Then all they want are pinstripe flames - the outline.

That's one of the main problems when working with the public. It's just communicating accurately. But it's really a small thing, it's not like everybody has to accept my definition of paint elements.
ST: Should they work with a rendering artist first?
V: Working from a rendering produces its own set of problems. Here's the thing. Most people doing renderings aren't guys that paint on real sport trucks. They draw on an 8x10-inch piece of paper or on a computer screen. And then the customer expects me to take tape to make this two-dimensional object look the same in three-dimensions.

I mean, how long is your average truck? Eighteen feet, give or take. And we're working from an 8x10-inch (at best) rendering. It's a lot different. For example, the woody flame job I did on the PT Cruiser for APC. The company commissioned an oversized rendering. It was a nice piece of art, and I'm looking at it with one of the APC guys standing there, and I finally just took the rendering and crumpled it up and asked if they really wanted me to follow that. He laughed, said no, and the final paint scheme had nothing to do with the rendering.
ST: I guess renderings are just the starting point. And the owner should expect the design to evolve.
V: They have to have an idea of what they want, and if a rendering starts that process, cool.

I guess that's why I haven't done a lot of renderings for customers. I've done a few, but I won't do renderings of a flame job. Forget that. There is no way that it's going to look near as good on a piece of paper as what I can do with tape. I draw with tape. I can draw, but as we've just discussed, it doesn't translate to the real thing.

One thing I encourage my customers to do is look at their vehicle with the tape laid out. If they don't like it, it's easy to change at that point. But once you paint it...

My favorite customers are those with an open mind. They're not completely sure what they want and they trust my design skills, so I can influence their choice. The perfect example is a Chevelle I flamed. The owners wanted flames; they knew they wanted orange flames instead of yellow. When I laid out the tape, I took it all the way to the back, which sort of shocked them. They thought I was just going with a traditional look - flames just to the door. They weren't sure about doing something this different, but they trusted me. I painted it that way and it was shot for a cover as soon as it was done.
Photo 2/4   |   the Wow Factor Steve Vandemon Interview pinup Art
Photo 3/4   |   the Wow Factor Steve Vandemon Interview custom Paintjob
Design Trends
ST: We've talked to a few designers who feel the tribal influence is overdone, and maybe played out. What's your sense of the trend in paint design?
V: That depends on what you mean by tribal. If you're talking about tribal flames, I don't know if they're overdone, but I can tell you I don't like them that much, even though I think I had a hand in popularizing the style through a few of my designs that were on the covers of magazines a few years ago.

A lot of people call this paint with all the weird lines going all over it tribal. This design came pretty much from Craig Fraiser, at Cal Concepts, and Air Syndicate. Well, Craig started do this quite a few years ago and everyone started copying that stuff. And the main reason was he was teaching seminars on custom painting, showing them how to do that design. So that's why we see so many trucks painted in that manner.

Don't get me wrong, nine out of ten things anyone does includes ideas copied from someone else. The girl on the hood I'm working on comes from an Olivia painting, to the tee, with a just a few changes I make to make it my own.
ST: Yeah, and Olivia was probably borrowing ideas from Vargas and others. Just like we can see the designs of Von Dutch coming back in a big way to influence current designs.
V: Well, I haven't been around long enough to know this for a fact, but it seems like paint design style is cyclical, just like music and clothing fashion. You know, where every 20 or so years it comes back and is known as retro.
Realistic Flames
ST: What's your take on realistic flames? We've got a how-to story with Jerry Sievers of Paint N Place and Mickey Harris in this issue doing them in water-based paint, and I've got another in the works with Mike Lavalle working in a solvent-based system. And there's another painter that's big in flames.
V: Craig Fraiser.
ST: Yeah
V: All those guys are very good. Lavalle was on "Monster Garage" and he really popularized the look. I started messing with the technique so I could teach it in my seminars, and the panel in the middle is the most realistic because that's looking at picture of real fire. So the realistic flame jobs don't actually look like fire. They're an interpretation.

Here's an interesting aside. The guys back East and in the Southeast are thinking realistic flames are going to be the next big thing. I'm not sure about that. I still see more interest in traditional flames and variations on that technique,than realistic flames. I think realistic flames work on specific projects and for certain personalities. But I don't think it'll go mainstream, in part because it already has.
ST: What about scallops and two-tone paint?
V: I love scallops. But I do them mostly on bikes. I don't think I've ever done a truck with scallops. What's really hot now, though, is two-tone. I just did one last week. It was silver on top, blue on the bottom, with a beveled, chrome edge separating the colors. At the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) Show this past year, there were 5,000 two-tones. The cool thing about two-tones is you can do so many things with them. I was even thinking of using realistic flames to break the color, but I saw that someone already did it. But here's the idea: doing the two-tone with something breaking the bottom color and the realistic flames coming out from behind it. Use the technique to add a little icing instead of using it as the cake.
You know we're going a little long here and it'd be fun to talk trucks for hours with Steve Vandemon. But we've got to end it here. If you like to know more about what Steve's up to, don't hesitate to visit his Web site at, or call him at (714) 630-5350.
Photo 4/4   |   the Wow Factor Steve Vandemon Interview custom Flame Graphics


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