The Art of the Automobile
Venice painter Harold Cleworth on his lifelong love affair with cars
By Christina Campodonico
Harold Cleworth has two passions in life — paint and cars. But the 76-year-old automobile artist and longtime Venice resident didn’t put the two together until he came to America in the 1970s.
Born and raised in Northern England, Cleworth didn’t own a car until he moved to London to work as an illustrator. He had a successful career designing album covers at Decca Records for then little-known bands like The Rolling Stones and The Who, but something was driving him to do more.
At the suggestion of some travelers passing through London, Cleworth decided to move to America and landed in San Francisco, where he became known for painting cars in a hyper-realistic style. In his paintings and illustrations, the sun glints off a 1960 Cadillac Coupe de Ville’s chrome, trees are reflected in a 1964 Corvette Grand Sport’s back end, and the open road bounces off the bottom of a 1967 Shelby Cobra. No detail goes unnoticed; no contour is ever out of place.
Visual futurist, illustrator and concept artist Syd Mead praises Cleworth’s work for evoking “the mystique and the ethos of the automobile,” with Mead going on to write “His images capture not just the reflections and sensual shapes of lacquered metal and brilliant chrome, but are imbued with their own gestalt because of his matchless appreciation of form, light, reflection and shape.”
That kind of attention to detail has driven Cleworth’s designs for auto magazine covers and posters for the L.A. Auto Show and Pebble Beach’s Concours d’Elegance.
Now Cleworth has chronicled his life’s work in a new book called “Cleworth: An ARTFULLife.” From a Dodge muscle car on Abbot Kinney Boulevard to a pink 1957 Lincoln Premiere parked at Pann’s Restaurant in Westchester, the 160-page coffee table book spans Cleworth’s career while also taking readers on a visual journey through L.A.’s roadways and architecture.
What started your love affair with cars?
My father drove a bus for 50 years. A car was something one achieved. Very few people had cars where I grew up. We all went to school and to work on buses, so when I saw cars I went, “Oh my God, looks like some wealthy person driving by my neighborhood” [Laughs].
My father used to buy me little model cars for Christmas … kind of introduced me to the aesthetics of machinery. He would show me how an engine would work, thinking maybe I would be a mechanic when I grew up or something. But I saw the beauty of an engine and I used to make little sketches of them. Then, when I grew up — 14, 15 — I would hitchhike up to London to the Earl’s Court Motor Show there, so I would see the new car models coming out. It never occurred to me to paint a car until I came to America.
When I came to America I saw the ‘50s American cars for the first time in the flesh, as it were, and I was blown away by them. You had so much here in the ‘50s. English cars were always in very good taste, you know, the Jaguars and the Rolls Royces. Here, I saw some bad taste and I loved it. The ‘59 Cadillac — huge fins, and they were painted pink. I thought, “This is what I’m looking for.” So I actually did a painting of a ‘59 Cadillac, the back end. Published it as
a print and it did quite well.
What did you do when you relocated to America?
It was 1972. I moved to San Francisco, to Haight-Ashbury, and lived on Haight Street for 10 years and opened a little shop. I found a cheap-rent empty store and moved in and then just started to paint. And starved for a while. It was probably one of the most happy periods of my life because I was doing exactly what I was born to do to begin with. No idea whether I was going to make a living at it — it didn’t matter.
What brought you to Los Angeles?
My business partner said, “It’s the car capital of the world. That’s where you should be.” And he was right. I didn’t know where to live at first. I was wandering around aimlessly and finally settled on Venice, which is my favorite town, near the beach. And what I loved about Venice was — it’s not anymore — but it was then for the people, for the poor people. It was by the beach. It was rough. It was dangerous. People would say, “You’re crazy. It’s full of crime.” I said, “I don’t care. I want a place with an edge. I want to live in fear of being mugged now and then. It keeps me alive.” I love Venice.
How has living here influenced your work?
Very much, just by walking around. There are many paintings in our book inspired by literally trucks parked on the street at night. Graffiti that I see on people’s walls that I’ve used as backgrounds for painting. I can walk to the end of my street and see something. It’s here. All you have to do is recognize it. I think it’s my job, or one of the jobs of an artist, to show you something that you’ve seen before but you haven’t noticed.
You pair some L.A. landmarks with classic cars in your book. Why did you do that?
My favorite period I think has always been the ‘50s, not only in cars but in architecture. My house is full of ‘50s stuff. Some of it’s bad taste. Some of it’s good taste. It was a wonderful period in American history. People were all doing well. They had money, they had cars, they had homes. It was just a delightful colorful period. I’ve always said, “England is in black and white and America is in color, glorious Technicolor.” And I noticed that when I came here. I noticed a blue sky that I’d never seen before, that we didn’t have in England [Laughs]. That era has always stuck with me, just because of the fun America had.
What is your painting technique?
I’m not sure that I have one. My technique is basically I will shoot pictures of what I want and then start off with a blank canvas. Okay now what? I’ll sketch it. I’ll draw: What situation can I put this car in? Sometimes I’ll start a painting not knowing what it’s going to look like when it’s done, and to me that is very exciting. If I see the end of it before I start it, then it’s labor. I want to see a painting grow and appear.
What was your first car?
In America? A ’58 Imperial.
How was that?
Oh gosh, it was stunning. It was enormous. It was turquoise and white [with] fins. Very similar to the ‘59 Cadillac, but it was gigantic. I mean the bumper! There was so much chrome on the bumper it was ridiculous. You could melt the bumper down and make a Mini [Cooper] out of it. It was huge! But the pleasure! Everything was power and it had all these little gizmos in it that I liked, like a button on the floor to change the radio bands. If you didn’t like what you were listening to, you’d kick this button with your foot.
What’s your favorite car of all the cars you’ve owned?
The ‘58 Imperial without question. It was just me. I don’t consider myself a good mechanic at all, but I could work on that car. I could open the car and figure out if something was wrong. If I opened the hood of my car now, my Dodge Magnum, I haven’t a clue what the hell I’m looking at. I became emotionally attached to that car because I had worked on it. I had fixed it. I had made it run.
Harold Cleworth signs copies of “Cleworth: An ARTFULLife” at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 13, at the Peterson Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Visit cleworthart.com to see more of his work.