In the early 1960s, when Ed Newton and his fellow students at the Art Center dreamed, it was of going to Detroit to design the next hot selling sedan or T-bird for Ford or GM.
In reality, their future in Motor City would more likely be laboring over the design of some small part of the next hot selling car. The sad truth for those in the transportation design courses at the prestigious Art Center was that few graduates started out doing design work on the entire car.
"The joke was we'd wind up designing door handles," Newton says.
Fortunately, the career path of this artist who grew up in San Jose ultimately led him to designing cars. And, they weren't just any cars that would roll off the assembly line in Detroit–some of the cars he designs now can fit in your pocket.
That path also wound through car shows and fairs, where Newton painted T-shirts, to the studio of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, where he generated hundreds of designs, and on to developing designs for a company that produced iron-on shirt transfers, a long freelance career, and work with a major toy company.
There has been one common theme through much of Newton's career.
When Newton, who will only admit to being in his late 50s, was growing up, the car was king–especially the American car. At that time, the country was firmly entrenched in its long love affair with the automobile. Kids bragged to each other about spotting the newest 'Vette or Thunderbird. Cruising was popular, just to show off your wheels. And Southern California was an epicenter for car worship.
It was a natural evolution for Newton to turn his interest in art to the auto.
His fascination, coupled with deep latent talent, started early. "My brother, Jack, was like a child prodigy in art. He was always someone I emulated," Newton says. "Even at three years old, I was trying to copy his stuff. I got frustrated because my hand wouldn't do what my brain wanted."
Big brother Jack would read stories from the monthly Walt Disney Comics, written and illustrated by Carl Barks, to the younger Newton. As a teen, his influence shifted from images of Donald Duck to the illustrations of Frank Frazetta.
Newton's thirst for art continued through his early schooling. While other kids played in the California sunshine, Newton drew. "Once, my Mom threatened to send me to a shrink," he says, because he wasn't outside playing, because he was wasting his summer. "I had a passion for drawing," he explains.
By junior high, hormones and uncertainty about art made him put away his pencils and paints. He hung out with students who saw bad grades as badges of honor. Early in high school, an artist who happened to be an alumni of the Art Center (then located in Los Angeles), came to one of Newton's classes. He taught Newton a few techniques, like shading, core lines, and reflective tones.
"A whole world opened up," Newton says. No longer drifting along, he had found a focus, and he decided to attend the Art Center. "If it weren't for that one guy showing up in Briggs' art class, I don't know if I would have ever been inspired. "
The trip to the Art Center was de-toured by an art teacher who submitted one of Newton's pieces as an application for a scholarship at UCLA. To Newton's surprise, and after he'd been accepted at the Art Center, a telegram arrived saying he'd received one of only five scholarships nationwide to study art at UCLA. It covered tuition and living expenses. It was a no-brainer. The Art Center would have to wait.
Newton credits the two years in the UCLA design program with giving him a broad exposure to art when he finally transferred to the Art Center. "A lot of kids in the Art Center had no time to get into the things I was able to do, like life drawing and fine arts. I had to take Art History and stuff, and I'm glad I did," he says.
That exposure may have even been a kernel that helped shape his painting style.
"In retrospect, I'm really glad I had a chance to get involved in the human element and not just the inorganic fundamentals of industrial design," Newton says. "It helped me to develop my style."
Even with four years in highly respected art schools, Newton's exposure to the airbrush, the tool he'd ultimately use to make much of his living, was limited to a single course at the Art Center. "At UCLA, it was as if they'd never heard of an airbrush," he says.
That class, even though it never even covered the frisketing process, showed Newton that the airbrush could give him the effects he wanted. Instead of letting him use the airbrush, however, the instructors taught a tedious, exacting way to do "catch the bead" gradations. Though he says you'd have trouble telling the result from the seamless look of airbrushed art, he never continued to use the method once he had a choice.
A bit of serendipity and the old-fashioned need to make some cash during summer break led him finally to airbrushing professionally. In 1962, he and fellow student Rick Ralston went to Hawaii to do T-shirts. Ralston had done shirts before on Catalina Island and convinced a somewhat dubious Newton it would be an easy way to make a summer's worth of money–and Hawaii is not a bad place to spend a summer.
His tutoring in freehand airbrush was quick. Sit down, hold it, point it, and press it. "I didn't even know what I was doing," he says. His first shirt took 90 minutes. Obviously, he got faster and the pair were a success, partly because of the novelty. "They had never seen anything like it in Hawaii," Newton says. Actually, at the time, not many people anywhere had seen airbrushed T-shirts.
He may not have known it then, but that Hawaiian summer catapulted him into what would be his art career. It just took him awhile to realize it. The following summer, he did shirts again, this time on his own, working the fairs and car shows in California.
Ralston, however, stayed in Hawaii and the business they started, Crazy Shirts, was a stupendous success.
When Newton returned to the Art Center for his third year, he and the school couldn't agree on his particular choice of instructors, so he left for good. Making money wasn't a problem–he continued to work the shows and fairs, polishing his airbrushing skills and developing some of those car designs originally intended for Detroit.
His work at those shows eventually led him to a broader outlet for his designs. Newton kept running into Roth, who kept dangling an ever larger paycheck if Newton would come to his studio and do designs for Roth's hand-built show car program. Finally the bait became too attractive to ignore, and Newton went from being "Newt" the traveling shirt artist to studio art director in Maywood, California.
In addition to Roth's feature car designs, Newton took over the advertising design and illustration, and was soon the primary artist producing shirt designs for silk screening. In the seven years Newton worked for Roth, he produced hundreds of designs. Ironically, the originals were sold in bulk along with the flat files they were stored in when Roth closed the studio in 1970.
"It was at a time when the person who bought your design also got the original. It was sort of assumed and the way things were done back then," Newton says. "Maybe not in New York, but certainly it was in the neck of the woods I came from. "He didn't even sign many of the pieces, but he wishes he had them now. "I would have wanted to keep my originals," he says.
By the time the flat files were sold, Newton had been working for Roth as a freelancer for four of the seven years and had a well-established freelance career. "The closing of Roth Studios didn't affect my living much," he says.
The freelancing ended when another full-time job offer grew too inviting to ignore. This time, he became creative director for Roach, Inc., a Midwest company that sold iron-on T--shirt transfers. In addition to doing shirts and ad designs again, "they wanted me to design and help build a truly awesome $100,000 feature show car, which we named the RoachCoach," Newton says. "It was an opportunity that would have been hard for me to pass up." It also meant a move from California to central Ohio.
Though Roach is no longer in business today, the company peaked in the late 1980s, employing about 300 people. "It was quite a new technology at the time," says Newton. He worked there until the mid '80s, and then returned to freelancing. "I've had so many opportunities, I've never had to look actively for clients," he says. "I've had more work than I can handle."
Not all of it has been cars. Marshall U.S.A. used one of Newton's creative illustrations to mark the company's 30th anniversary. It was the first time in those three decades that Marshall Amplifiers used artwork instead of a photo for an ad.
Newton's work has appeared in a number of magazines, and it should come as no surprise that many have been car related. He also has a line of limited edition prints and is planning to release new additions in the near future.
Recently, Newton has been blending some novel technology into his work. Just as the airbrush was "newfangled" for artists when Newton began doing shirts, the computer is still relatively new for creating art.
Newton says he can scan a line drawing into the computer and use the airbrush tool in its program to add colors. "I find I can make corrections and refinements with a wand and graphic tablet," he says. "Blocking out areas on the computer illustration still takes about as much time for me as applying and cutting frisket on an illustration board," he says. "I spend just as much time creating masks (on the computer) as I'd normally spend with my frisket and X-acto knife," he says "I'm not saving time, I just have more control over the finished product."
Sometimes he blends airbrushing and the computer even more. Firebrand™, a retro stylized '54 Ford F-100 started as a line drawing that was colored on the computer. Then Newton airbrushed the flames for the background with gouache, scanned it, combined the separate files, and subtly melded the car and flames with the computer.
Some may think this blend of electronics and paint is a shortcut, but Newton sees the computer as another tool for creating his images. "Since the piece is really an electronic file, then there isn't an original per se," he says. "But it's still viable artwork. The only thing missing is a brushwork original you can frame and hang on the wall."
Still, with its many advantages, the electronic tool has given Newton a deeper appreciation of putting paint on a board. "For me, the computer will never fully replace the airbrush. It will never take the place of methods I've learned all my life to complete finished, tactile artwork. The more I make strides in learning computer techniques, the more I realize the value of doing things the traditional way. I'm proving to myself the validity of the old system."
All in all, the cars have dominated, from his sleek Triclopz™, a blend of retro and futuristic vision that resembles what the 1948 Tucker might have looked like if the company had stayed in business, to the wild, gear-shift clutching monsters and hot rods inspired by his Roth days.
And, it's not just two-dimensional designs. In addition to the feature car designs for Roth (and others), the vehicles that emerge from Newton's airbrush become model car kits and, more recently, tiny, highly detailed creations for the famous HotWheels® Collectibles line. The 1/6 4th scale, die cast cars were produced in a set of three called Lowboyz™ and have become true collector's items. The "first tool" sets (with the Newton package design art) have sold out, and the toy company is in the process of issuing strikingly repainted versions packaged individually.
His transition to the HotWheels® designs required Newton to do more than exterior design. With all their fine detail, the artist also had to design interiors, undercarriages, and even the engines. It was the entire design job, from door handle to fenders that he probably wouldn't have had the chance to do at a drawing board in Detroit.
Some of his Art Center classmates are still in Detroit. Others got out of the business. Newton says that back in the '60s, there may have been a twinge of envy from some for what he was doing with show car builders and the freedom he had with his creations. "I was fulfilling my dream of having my complete concepts come out in both full and scale size," he says.
© 2001 ARTOOL PRODUCTS COMPANY