Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fitz and Van's Formula

Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman teamed up to paint many of the classic car ads of the 1960s. Using gouache, Fitz painted the cars and Van painted the backgrounds. They had a formula, but it was a great formula.

It goes like this. Coloristically, they choose a overall background color (here, blue). They let that color key fill the scene, including the areas that aren't so important. Those areas are allowed to stay flat (here, dock, water, and sky). The car is the feature color (here, a soft gold). And there's usually an accent color in the background (here, red). A black shadow beneath the car makes the other colors look sharp. 

Compositionally, they fill the foreground with the car's front end, seen in perspective and stretched horizontally. They pick a complex background theme which suggests an attractive couple enjoying leisure time at an exotic location with other affluent people. This time we're dockside with a pleasure-boat party. 

Fitz said that the ad was supposed to make people feel: "I wanted to be in that car, in that place, with that gal on my arm." 

Overall background color—cyan. Feature color, magenta. Accent color—green (figures and swash of light). Background—tropical foliage. Theme—moonlight in the tropics.

Overall background color—dull ochre. Feature color—brighter yellow and blue. Accent color—red. Background —mountains and crowd. Theme: A day at the races.

Overall background color—magenta to violet. Feature color—red. Accent color—yellow. Background— architecture. Theme: Evening party. 

Overall background color—yellow green. Feature color—green with blue highlights. Accents—yellow and pink. Background —stately mansion. Theme: Southern elegance.

Overall background color—blue green. Feature color—yellow. Accents—pink. Background —country club or hotel architecture. Theme: party in the country.

Even though the paintings look photo-real, when you compare them to a photo of a real car, you can see how many artistic choices they brought to their renderings. They ignored a lot of hood reflections, made the windshields more transparent, simplified the ground plane, and exaggerated the car's geometry.

Van Kaufman died in 1996, and Art Fitzpatrick died last year at age 96. Here's a New York Times article about how Fitz received some recognition late in life for his accomplishment.
Fitzpatrick's art appears in a book called Pontiac Pizazz!
Previously: More technical notes about Fitz and Van
My video tutorial "Gouache in the Wild"


kikesiff said...

Very very interesting Mr. Gurney. Composition, colors and technical studies. Have you applied any of this in your work?

James Gurney said...

Kikesiff, Not quite exactly. I did paint a 1960s hearse in gouache, but I wasn't exactly trying for the Fitz and Van look. Here's the post:

michielvdheuvel said...

What a great post! I received a calender with various 60's and 70's car ads, but the artists were not credited. I had no idea who made the paintings but thanks to you I now know!

R. A. Davies said...

Do you know the size of the paintings?

Rainer said...

Wonderful paintings. Thanks for posting.

Rick Majors said...

I remember these well. Low and wide, baby! That's what sells cars.
This kind of art led me to be a car designer, but eventually I went into graphic design and architecture... which are closely alligned with industrial design and cars.

Pyracantha said...

These are awesome! How did the artists get such incredibly slick gleaming textures and super-straight lines?

James Gurney said...

Pyracantha, in a nutshell, a lot of planning and careful work. They traced photos of the cars, cut them out and stretched them horizontally, then traded the painting back and forth, using a bridge (a ruler lifted off the surface) for the straight lines. It's precise work and takes a lot of experience.

Robb said...

I thought it was interesting that the choice of colors between foreground and background wasn't always a complimentary contrast, which I would have thought would be a part of the formula. Instead, some are analogous and other just seem like they're having fun striking fun choices. Great post – Thank you!!!

Paul Sullivan said...

In the late 50s and early 60s some of the best ad illustration artists in the country were in Detroit—about 50 miles from my home, Toledo Ohio. When the Pontiac style was introduced—early 60s—I was working for Beeson/Reichart Advertising. I thought these guys were great! I still have a folder of their work. I wish I had saved more. Their color was magnificent! Someone was always saying that the "car guy was better than the background guy". I never saw any of their originals but we had a lot of Detroit studio reps call on us in Toledo—and we dealt with a few. I could be wrong but I think AF & VK were not based in Detroit. I never recall hearing too many good words about the Pontiac series from the Detroit reps. However the sample illustrations they had for presentation were really unbelievable—especially to a 22 year old, kid artist.

From all I ever heard, Detroit car art was gruesome work. They had to make it or break it in a couple of months of work. It meant sleeping on cots in the studio. It really hurt when some years the big three went all photographic.

A few guys really made it big time. Among them—as you know—Bernie Fuchs. He worked for New Center Studios until he went on his own in Detroit. I think my friend Bob Hiendel hit New Center about the time Fuchs left. Greenwald, the guy who owned New Center, had special drawing boards made. They had a few extras and in 1966 or 67 I was at the art supply store in Detroit and bought one. It was like buying a custom made sports car and I still work on it every day in my studio. It isn't beautiful and is only about standard size but it is all metal with a counter weight and foot pedal release.

Robert J. Simone said...

Love me some cars! Thanks James. Really fun and cool.

Olina 歐莉娜 said...

Thank you for the analyzing. I felt I leveled up after I read this. :D

bobbyvdp said...

I have read a lot about Fitz but never was able to find any detailed info on his actual painting technique. Many have branded it airbrush but my feeling is that there was some airbrush but most of it highly skilled brush work.

Remember, this guy was a master product illustrator. I started my career using an airbrush and stayed with it until the computer came on. I was fair. The difference between being fair and a master was incredible. You have to remember how much skill and cool it took to work at this level. Long days and nights over the table, careful not to spill or splatter paint. It was nerve wracking! Add short deadlines and revisions to finished art and you really had to have confidence and patience to pull this level of work off. Both Art and Van were amazing artists and technicians.

Bob Schenker
Charleston, SC

James Gurney said...

Bobby, I think you're right that most of the gradations are brush-painted. Syd Mead's early gouache car illustrations were also mainly painted with the brush. He used airbrush more later.

Rob said...

There is now a coffee table book of Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman's beautiful car artwork. For info visit

Rob said...

James, you are right. The gradations are mostly brush painted. I spoke with Art Fitzpatrick and other artists about this when doing research for my Fitz and Van book.