The Screwball Confidential Interview – Tom Fritz

As some of you know I do a little acting as well as painting. I have worked with and have personal friends that are recognizable in the entertainment business. I really don’t get too fazed when I meet someone we all know from film or television. But I will admit to being pretty stoked when I met my next interviewee.

In my opinion Tom Fritz is top of the game and has been a personal inspiration to me. Aside from the fact that his subject matter is usually the coolest cars and motorcycles on the planet, his ability to capture light, atmosphere, energy and movement continue to amaze and delight.

I want to thank Tom for agreeing to take part in this interview and share a bit about his work.



James Owens – Well let’s start with the basics. 16 pack or 64 pack of Crayolas with the built in sharpener… which one? Ha. No seriously, where do you hang your hat?

Tom Fritz – The girls had the 64 packs with sharpeners because they liked to stay within the lines using nice, sharp crayons, all neatly lined up in the box according to the spectrum. I think my folks got me the 16 pack, but I ditched the box and kept my crayons in an old cookie tin. I had an 8 pack in the book slot of my desk at elementary school and got busted for drawing on the playground asphalt at lunch.

No lie… my second grade teacher pulled me aside and demonstrated how I was supposed to carefully ‘peel’ back the crayon wrapper… then she yelled at me for pressing too hard and snapping my crayons.

I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley. Today I live in Newbury Park, California with my best friend and wife, Molly, my kids Emily and Wesley, and my dog Sam.  Today, I paint in my dungeon and look at the Santa Monica Mountain wilderness out my slider window. I witness some sort of wildlife carnage daily.


J.O. – How would you describe the art you create?

T.F. – If I said I create to satisfy my eye and my soul it probably wouldn’t be good enough. I focus on representational interpretations of something I feel on a subconscious level.

I also dig the act of mark-making so I don’t try to disguise that. I want to play a game with my viewer; I want them to see two things at once. At one glance, they see abstract shapes of paint applied to the canvas, and in the flicker of an instant they see an object in dimensional reality appearing out of that seemingly disordered jumble of painted marks.

I could go further and get into what kind of “-sion-ism-ist” I am, but I hate those academic sounding definitions.


J.O. – Which artists would you say have had the greatest influence on your work?

T.F. – Come on, Kevin… you know I have trouble recalling names. Images are so much easier to recall – check my grades in Art History.

There’s a ton of ’em, and I’m gonna miss some, but here goes: Renoir, Daumier, I marvel at the fluidity of Tiepolo’s line, Manet, (especially his later works where he was influenced by the avante garde Impressionists), Degas, Monet (for his color contrasts), Delacroix (for his expressive use of juxtaposing complementary colors), Morisot, Sargent and Henri (esp. for their highly economical, confident, and accurate brushwork). Van Gogh. Thiebaud. American Illustrators: Remington, Howard Pyle, Leyendecker (composition and awareness of contour and silhouette). Rockwell (for the narrative). Can’t forget Fuchs, Peak, Heindel, Cunningham.  Right now, I’m studying the Russian Socialist Realists. I take a little bit from all of ’em. Really hard to say who’s influenced me most though.


J.O. – Give us a short rundown on your journey. How you got started. Did you go to art school?

T.F. – I remember what sparked the whole thing was when I was maybe three years old. I discovered (stumbled into??) perspective and the force of overlapping shapes, and became so thoroughly wrapped up in the concept that I could create a three-dimensional reality on a two dimensional surface. It was a powerful, magical moment.

Paper was hard to come by when I was little, so I drew on everything else — the bottoms of chairs, the insides of game-box lids, the closet’s back wall behind all the clothes, 2x 4s in the garage, on the white rubber parts of my Red Ball Jets. Sometimes my mom would surprise me and bring home the end of a butcher’s roll for me to draw on. Coloring books bored the beejeezus out of me. TV cartoons, comics, MAD magazine, and magazine illustrations were my influences. My mom enrolled me in an after-school art school when I was 7.

I remember being confused a lot — one moment I’d be praised for my work and the next moment I be getting yelled at. I was starting to develop the notion that my art held a mystical power that could elicit differing responses from adults, but the trick was I had to learn how to harness that power appropriately. I didn’t realize it, but I had come into touch with the greatest power I could ever feel, and it was my own.

Part of that power I learned very early on was to fill a dreadful report or term paper (where I was otherwise most apt to place three paragraphs of deadwood and redundant bullshit to increase my page count) with gorgeous full-color illustrations. This always bode well with the teacher and in most every case increased any letter grade I would earn by no less than two. My art helped me skate through the Los Angeles Unified School District’s demanding curriculum with ease.

Yes, I went to art school. I got my art degree from Cal State Northridge. More than anything, I think the degree taught me how to learn and develop — you know, allow me to broaden my understanding and to perceive things. I got a lot of my education from the library.


J.O. – I am personally fascinated by other artist’s working methods. So let me ask you about your studio, is it in the house or a separate building like Norman Rockwell?

T.F. – My studio is in my house. Living in southern California, most people would kill to have my commute every morning. I go down seven steps, turn on the lights, and start destroying canvas.


J.O. – Do you have multiple workstations for painting or drawing?

T.F. – Most of my painting happens on my studio easel. But sometimes it happens on the floor, or on a drawing board. I draw on a drawing board, or on the floor, or on my slider door, on my lap, or even on the top of a bar.

Once, when I was working as staff illustrator for one of the huge defense firms, I was signing posters for the Air Force and they put me up for a couple nights in a swank hotel back in Washington D.C. When I travel, my impromptu studio is my hotel room. Anyways, I brought a few tubes of acrylics with me and was working on a small piece back in my room after hours. I was hard pressed for a palette, so I used the glass top on one of the lavishly carved Georgian-style side tables. You should have seen the maids face when she went in to swap towels the next morning…


J.O. – Do you prefer an easel or drawing board to paint on?

T.F. – It depends on what type of paint I’m using. For my oils, I prefer my easel, with the painting surface dead-nuts vertical. I work horizontal for water media.


J.O. – I have really become attached to my maulstick. What is the one piece of equipment you couldn’t live without?

T.F. – um… Jim… about your maulstick. Videos. I wanna see the videos, man…

I suppose I don’t get too attached to equipment much. They’re just tools. I customize most of them to fit the way I work. I can always get more tools or swap them out for different ones. Take them all. Just leave me with my mind and spirit.


J.O. – I know you work mostly in oil, do you have a preference to brand of paint? If so why?

T.F. – I’m more concerned with the actual worm of color I squeeze out of a tube rather than the label on the tube. Art supply stores will sell you thousands of oranges all called “Cadmium Orange”. But sitting here looking in in my tabouret, I see a lot of Grumbacher, Utrecht, Winsor Newton, some Shiva, Rembrandt, and Holbein. I may be dating myself here — one of my favorite brands was Liquitex, but they stopped making oils years ago. They were the only source for navy brown. I don’t use ‘student grade’ anything – the pigment is too weak. Some artists balk at some brands because of the big “blop” of oil you get when you squeeze the tube. It doesn’t matter. Blotters made out of old cereal boxes suck the goop out of the paint pretty quick.


J.O. – Do you like to use mediums?

T.F. – Sure… it all depends on how I want the paint to kick and if I want the paint to slide of the brush. I’ve been using Winsor & Newton’s Liquin and Grumbacher’s Copal Mediums. Some alkyd mediums, too.


J.O. – What kind of surface do you prefer to paint on?

T.F. – I tried the sides of boxcars, but they’d go by too fast an I couldn’t keep up with them.

I’m not too tied down to one thing. I like a tightly stretched, primed, even-textured medium duck, or whatever stretched canvas is on sale at the art store. I use left-overs from the large rolls to make canvas panels. Poly canvas has a nice bounce to it. Masonite, luan ‘skins’, cold press illustration boards — they all cause the brush to respond differently, and sometimes this alone determines what I’ll start my painting on. I’m always playing with different stuff in the studio.


J.O. – I know you work a lot. What time of the day do you find the most productive?

T.F. – My day starts before most people punch the time clock. Late nights are usually the best time to concentrate and get something done. It’s like everyone knows you’re sitting there slashing and thrashing away in your underwear so they leave you alone.


J.O. – Let’s get into a bit of your process. How do you like to work out ideas? Do you do thumbnails and develop it from there?

T.F. – Oh yeah, a quick thumbnail is where I start. All it takes is a pen or pencil and a scrap of paper, a bar napkin, or matchbook… or a Sharpie marker on a linen tablecloth. Or a soapy finger on the steamy shower door. I’m trying to pull the image out of my head and lay the foundation. Scribbling little abstracts is a relatively painless way to work out a composition.


J.O. – Do you prefer to draw directly onto a canvas or create a sketch with all drawing problems solved and transfer that to the canvas?

T.F. – My process changes with the subject, size, and complexity. When I’m painting small organic subjects like landscapes or figure studies, I’ll go direct. For the more complex technical stuff, I’ll address as many problems as possible, then transfer. Even still, you can’t catch all of them. Part of the fun is dealing with problems as they arise.


J.O. – Do you do any kind of under painting?

T.F. – Always. I kill the white first-thing to keep my color balance straight, otherwise I’ll constantly wrassle with value and temperature.


J.O. – I’ve always admired your brush work. It has a really great energy. Is it something that came naturally or did you make a direct effort to learn to handle the brush in that specific way?

T.F. – Thanks. Whatever I’m doing with my brush is just me doing whatever. There’s no special application; no special ‘lick’. What’s there has developed out of miles and miles of strokes trying to satisfy my eye. Remember what I said about how a different surface will make the brush respond differently? I embrace the serendipity and deal with it intuitively.


J.O. – I love your sense of color. I might describe it as having a sense of heightened-reality. How do you approach color?

T.F. – Thank you. It’s a mixed bag. I continue to study color theory and out of all the creative challenges, color can be the most endearing or damning. I think my color depends on what I’m trying to pull through myself. I’ll skirt the outer edges of the color wheel sometimes, or slide in towards the center to really kick a pure sparkle. Do I want to impart power with raw color, or quiet things down with sensitive grays? I select my palette for the emotive aspects, and adjust from there. Color allows me to say things that there are no words for.


J.O. – Is the computer a tool you use in the creation of your art? If so how do you utilize it?

T.F. – It’s been a part of my process since that first beige Mac landed on my reference table back in 1985. For my first-ever digital project, I drew a heavily-pixilated b&w of a quad .50 mounted in a half track using Macpaint. Turning pixels off-and-on, it took waaaaaaaaay longer and looked a lot rougher than a Sharpie on tissue done in a fraction of the time. I wasn’t sure if the computer would ever fit in but eventually it did. I still roll with Mac. I use mine for everything from image storage, to color concepts, to quick sketches. It’s a quick way to help solve problems when I get stuck. For instance, I can work on an image without painting myself into a corner, so to speak. I can bring the image into the computer and try different solutions without compromising the actual artwork as it sits on the easel. I also use it for some of the finer aspects of the business (record keeping, etc.), as well as educating myself. I keep coming up with new ways to use it.


J.O. – Besides the automobile, is there any other subject matter that you enjoy painting?

T.F. – For content, I love vehicles because there’s a resonance I get from them that for whatever reason attracts me. I worked as the staff artist for a Fortune 500 defense firm for 25 years so I painted spacecraft, aircraft, naval vessels, and all sorts of military land vehicles. Motorcycles have been a part of my life since I was a kid and are the most challenging.

A vehicle’s design, the capacity to fit into and reflect the environment they occupy, and their visceral attributes continue to give me powerful feelings. They reflect my passion and offer images that I can live with and play with and push my boundaries with.

Having said that, if you look at my body of work you’ll see that in many cases the vehicle is playing part of a larger story. Usually there’s a landscape tucked back in there. I enjoy painting landscapes and use them in my vehicle paintings for compositional reinforcement. I’ve always enjoyed the nuance of the figure. Most of all, I enjoy tying it all together with a quality of light that blankets everything.

The beauty of what it is we do is that the creative impulse can come from anywhere, anytime. The other day I was eating a bag of chips and was fascinated by the way the multicolored mylar bag was reflecting its surroundings. That’d make a fabulous painting…


J.O. – Do you do any plein air painting or sketching? If so please describe the equipment you like to use.

T.F. – Anything goes, really. A sketchbook with a China marker, or slightly dry Sharpie, or a calligraphic marker. When I go backpacking, I carry a little watercolor kit with me. It’s a little bag with some brushes, a pan, and a thin stack of 300lb watercolor sheets. I paint these little, personal abstracts during breaks that might find their way into some larger paintings. I also have a pochade box that I set up on top of a tripod. It’s fun to take a break every so often and scoot over into the local mountains and chase sunlight.


J.O. – What advice do you have for young people interest in learning to paint?

T.F. – First: Embrace education. I see so many young artists struggling with re-inventing the wheel. It’s already been invented, artists have been refining it’s roundness for eons, and some of them committed their knowledge and experience to writing. Now they’re your dead consultants — they hang out on shelves in the library and they don’t even charge a consultation fee for their expertise. No excuses.

Second: Like they say, “stop aspiring and start perspiring”. Many come up to me and express their desire to jump into the fray, but seem to be apprehensive about how to get the ball rolling. The only way to develop your art is to set yourself up a workspace and start scrubbing down some brushes. Commit.


J.O. – Where can people find your work?

T.F. – My website is

Gallery: Sanders Galleries, Tucson AZ

I’ll be showing (and painting) at the Barrett-Jackson Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona during January 16 – 23, and I’ll be chained to my booth at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, January 28, 29, and 30.



3 Responses to “The Screwball Confidential Interview – Tom Fritz”

  1. Thanks for the interview and the write-up Tom and James. You are both heroes!

  2. Says:

    Whoa- got soulful deucation there brother!

    Tom, you stole my painting! – the one of the rail from snail- eye view, I hate that it’s done by you & not me!
    That particular piece, with it’s tight complexes, is a finely developed composition. Delight! This generous interview creates a path to improvement for others.

    Thanks & praises to you Tom
    Thanks again James

  3. Says:

    The Harley pic has fine complex composition

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