Rick Wilson is a freehand artist who likes to keep things simple. He uses paper, pencils, and ink pens to create beautiful black-and-white drawings of classic and muscle cars, and hot rods. He sells thousands of prints each year with his unique business strategy and pricing model.
We got in touch with Rick to ask him about his artwork and business.
AA: You grew up in Southern California, at a time when the custom car scene was taking off. Can you tell us about your early life and how it influenced your artwork?
RW: I bought my first car magazine when Henry’s Market dropped the candy rack at the register. I had no idea it was somewhere else in the store. A magazine rack replaced the candy rack, so I bought a Hop Up issue or something like that. I began to realize there were modified cars in town, and they looked just like those in the magazines. It was so much fun paying attention to my new interest in cars that the emotion of it all stuck with me for the next 65 years. I learned to love customs. Hot rods and drag racing eventually evolved with me over the years. I found out there were shops within bike riding distance from my home, so I could disappear for 8-9 hours on a Saturday and be home for dinner. My stops included the various muffler and repair places and small wrecking yards in the area of North Long Beach/Compton/Lynwood, but the real highlights were the shops of Bill Gaylord, George Cerny, the Barris Brothers, the Chrisman Brothers, and others. Larry Watson’s first shop out of high school was three blocks from the house.
AA: When did you start drawing?
RW: I doodled when I was about 3 or 4. Mom was good about letting me have paper and pencils. My car art began to look like something automotive by the time I was 5, then you could discern the art was about customs and hot rods by the time I was 6. High school found me trying to replicate my favorite cars from the magazines, but I put my own special modifications to those cars. I got busted repeatedly for drawing instead of studying in high school. My summers were filled with hundreds of art attempts. I kept everything I ever drew. I threw nothing away, much to my wife Barbara’s chagrin !!
AA: What medium do you use, and what are some of your tools?
RW: I am the perfect simpleton…….I use bond paper, pencils, ink pens, and the usual plastic line guides you find in art stores to help me keep my curves and straight lines in reasonable proportion. I put down lines sometimes in ink, but sometimes I use a pencil if I think I might have to make more than one pass at it. Once it looks OK, I ink it in. I use pencils for shading the final master. I use 11”x17” format only, and the final prints the public buys are that size on 80-pound art stock. I ship using thick tubes with plastic end caps.
AA: Many artists offer their work in color, but you only offer yours in black and white. Why is this?
RW: I heard guys state many times they like B & W. I couldn’t find many artists doing that, so I figured that would be a cool niche for me. It reminds me of the old magazines I grew up with, and this technique is absolutely loved by my customers. Besides, I send customers 3 unshaded and 3 shaded versions of my art when I am doing a commission. They can Photoshop the color in or have someone use Illustrator or whatever and get the color that way. I used to use color, but it put me so far behind in my work that I stopped doing it. That decision has had zero negative effect on my sales. I average 45-90 commissions pending at any one time. I do other things in retirement, so time is precious to me.
AA: In marketplaces, you usually see artists who offer high-price, limited prints. You took another path by offering low prices. Why use this different business strategy, and how is it working for you?
RW: I am a late-comer, since I am in my fourth year. All the guys out there have 10-40 years up on me, and so many of them computer generate or clean their art up. I want mine to look obviously hand drawn. When I began, I did commissioned work for $10. I had to start somewhere. I inched my rates up to $45 now plus $5 for S/H including the tube and end caps. I think that will stick for the next year or two. My prints were $1 each for a long time, and I am going to jump up to a schedule of $2-$2-$1.50-$1.50-$1 on, soon. I pay $.50 per sheet for the art stock paper and the printing charge, so I’m not getting rich here. My prices sell me to the prospect, then when they flip open my portfolio and also handle an actual print to see the size, the sale is automatic. I see myself offering a larger step-down schedule (like $4-$3.50-$3-$2-$1 on) in a couple of years and charging $100 for commissioned art, but not right now. I haven’t even run a marketing campaign yet. When I do, things will take off. I am happy now, since I don’t need money in retirement. I can work cheaply.
AA: You have done a lot of automotive events. What are some suggestions an artist needs to consider when doing an event?
RW: Nobody, unless I am distracted, walks out of my area or finishes talking with me as I walk shows without getting a business card in hand. And when I mail a commissioned work or mail prints ordered off my websites showing currently 500 pieces to choose from, I always insert 6-10 more business cards for their friends, along with an info sheet telling them where to get $4 glass-faced frames to hang the art. I also send a communication out 3-4 times a year, telling them about my new art, when I am adding new renderings to my sites, what shows I will be attending, etc. I’ve been in four magazines this year alone. Always keep you name out there. I use Facebook, too, and that has been terrific for business. I always pick the brains of other artists, and I pick up business cards from all the businesses I see at the indoor and outdoor venues including SEMA. I am good for bringing home 300-400 cards from SEMA alone. Later, I will email those folks and offer my services. Some of my commercial work never gets onto my web pages. No one in the USA can compete with my rates. I even offer some businesses to try me the first time for nearly free just to get my foot in the door. I also spend a lot of time cruising the internet and learning about artists I haven’t seen before and studying what they have to offer and looking at their techniques.
AA: What is the most expensive booth space you have encountered?
RW: I have seen $1000 rates for a 10’x10’ for 2-day indoor events. The rates for a car show like the Grand National Roadster Show can be $600-$800 for that size. I live in NV, so going to CA for five days to set up, do the show, and get back home, plus have a friend help out which costs bucks, it can run up to $1400 fast. I have to crank a bunch of fifty-cent profits per print to cover the overhead, but if I sell 3000 prints and hand out 1000 business cards, it pays for itself big time. Most outdoor one-day car shows are $100-$200 for the day, but it is expensive if I have to leave Las Vegas to attend somewhere out of state. I try to pair up two shows back-to-back over a weekend to lessen the financial impact.
AA: In a recent newsletter, you noted that you would be doing less shows, in addition to raising prices on your commission and prints. Can you explain why you made these changes?
RW: Regarding price, as stated above, I need to get a bit more in return for my efforts, but I had to start somewhere. My tactics have worked so far. I chose to do fewer shows because if I leave town and travel out and walk a show, for example, I might entice 8 car owners to have me do art for them. So I might make $350 in charges, but I lost a day or two or three travelling out and I spent maybe $200 getting things done. I end up working for 45-50 hours doing art on 8 subjects for $150 net, and my car takes a beating. I am better off doing art I know will sell and posting it. I want to specialize in famous cars of all types. I walk a show and I will most certainly end up doing another 62 Impala, a 55 Chevy hardtop, a 32 Ford street rod, etc., and they all look about the same on my sites. I need that like a hole in the head. I’d rather draw famous race cars, show cars, famous rods, iconic dream creations out of the nation’s top shops over the last 50 years, etc. I don’t have time if I am filling my hours doing redundant art and traveling out to prospect.
AA: Your artwork is featured in the book “240 Shorty”, a celebration of the life of the late NHRA funny car driver Tripp Shumake, by his daughter Heather Shumake. How did this offer to be featured come about?
RW: My friend Phil Burgess writes an online and print column for his employer, the NHRA. He mentioned Heather’s intent to do a book, and since Tripp was a friend, I asked Phil for her contact info and then wrote to her. I did the art for free, plus she had me contribute content about my memories about her Dad. It will come back to me over the years as readers take note of my art and inquire. Artists should always think outside the box how they might use their art to help others in projects, publications, ads, etc. I have a bunch of people starting to use my art for flyers, business cards, yellow pages art, etc.
AA: What do you want to do in the next 2-3 years with your websites?
RW: I have maybe 100 cars and trucks I want to render and make available for sale regarding restyling I do to various makes and models. There are at least 50 that I have held in my head for 45-55 years, and they will get done. I also want to add content regarding boats, off-road vehicles, circle track cars, Bonneville racers, and nostalgia drag racing rigs. I could easily do 300 of those right now. I am finally getting motorcycle content, too. I have well over 500 friends who are world-famous guys who want to have their cars done, so I won’t be lacking for subject matter.
AA: Do you have any more book deals coming up?
RW: Yes, Linda Vaughn has had an interest in having me illustrate her next book. Also, a gentleman back in the MidWest restored a famous gasser and wants to do a book and I will be illustrating it if he goes forth and does it. I am also the resident artist for Traditional Kustoms Magazine where I can free-wheel original art for the reader’s enjoyment. I get four pages per issue, and I can squeeze 7 or 8 pieces in with captions very easily.
AA: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
RW: I have been able to escape being turned in over the last 45 years despite my picture being in all the post offices across America. I spent the second half of my childhood in Northern CA and lived on a ranch, so I am a great lover of all animals. I am also a Corvette freak, and I am a great fan of Ed Tillrock, Steve Sanford, Keith Kaucher, the late Dave Bell, the late Tom Medley, BoMonster, and also Harry Bradley. When I grow up, I want to be able to draw just ten percent as well as they do.