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It's all in the details

RetroPower Follow along as the crew at RETRO POWER with Christopher Smith of Space City Airbrush work their magic on this 1933 Chevy.

"It's all in the details"

By Michael Riley

How many times have you walked through car show and saw a rod with custom graphics that stopped you in your tracks and you find yourself wondering how it was done?

As with any paint job, every layer is only as good as the one beneath. Before the actual graphic work could be applied, the RETRO POWER crew and lead painter, Michael Riley, laid down the sedan’s base color of PPG Deltron “Canteen Green” followed by two light coats of PPG DBC 500 Color Blender. This particular paint color was loaded with very fine pearls/micas in multiple colors that can be a bit tricky to apply. It is with experience and patience in the paint booth that a base coat such as this can be sprayed and the end result not exhibit “streaks” or “tiger stripping”.


The DBC 500 Color Blender mentioned above is essentially an un-tinted base coat that serves as a lock down (or intercoat clear) for a vehicle’s color coat, especially those color coats loaded up with metalflakes or pearls. One great advantage to using DBC 500 in a paint job that will see additional graphic work is that the DBC 500 will provide a protective layer between the original color coat and additional top coats, essentially negating the possibility of lifting or crinkling. In the case of airbrush graphics, various manufacturers’ products may be used to get the desired end result. In most instances, these products would be considered non-compatible, but a layer of intercoat clear will allow these products to be separated from each other as they are applied in the process. For example, the airbrush artwork you will see in this article is a combination of both solvent based paints from House of Kolor and water based paints from Createx Wicked over a solvent based color coat from PPG.

There is one very important aspect to remember when using an intercoat clear. If additional coats are applied within the manufacturer’s window of workability, it would be considered a chemical bond. However, if the window of workability for a chemical bond is over-extended, the intercoat clear must be scuffed with a 3M Scotch-Brite pad or 3M Super Fine sanding sponge. This now creates a mechanical bond for the next layer of paint.

Before the airbrush gets put to work, the area where the graphics are going to be applied must be thoroughly cleaned and masked. Chris starts by taping off an area of the door panel that will receive the graphics, in that case, a large circle. The remainder of the door panel and surrounding body panels are masked to prevent overspray from landing where we don’t want it.

Since the DBC 500 on this sedan was allowed to rest for about two weeks before the airbrush work began, it has extended its flash time for a chemical bond. A mechanical bond is now required for the graphic layers. As briefly described above, this mechanical bond is achieved by lightly scuffing the DBC 500 with a 3M Scotch-Brite pad and/or a 3M Super Fine sanding sponge. After this light scuffing, the area is thoroughly cleaned with a quality degreaser.  One thing to consider with degreasers, you can use too much, leaving a film behind that could potentially create adhesion issues with the next layer of paint. We apply degreaser with two lint free shop towels, one for the initial application and one to wipe dry.

Chris begins the artwork by applying a black base which is then followed by a light coat of Intercoat clear.  The following layers of intercoat and color coat are applied with several different Iwata airbrushes, loaded and used for a very specific purpose. Keep in mind as we go through the process that for every color layer applied, there is also a layer of Intercoat clear. Most all paint manufacturers offer an intercoat clear. For the actual artwork, Chris is using an intercoat clear from House of Kolors.

Although an airbrush doesn’t create the large cloud of paint mist like a full size spray gun, it is always good practice to utilize a proper respirator, especially with the solvent based materials.

Once the black base and its associated intercoat have flashed, Chris hand draws a white outline for the star and lightly dusts it with a white base coat. This helps define the area where the star will be. Since the Pinup Girl will be so highly detailed, the decision was made to complete her to various stages then “fill in” the white base for the star as these stages were completed. This helped minimize unwanted overspray between the graphic layers.


The next step was to outline and define the Pinup Girl, very similar to how the star was defined. You will notice however that the Pinup Girl has already started to take on shadows and highlights well before the skin tones are applied. These initial shadows and highlights give Chris a reference to follow as these skin tones are layered upon each other.

Once the base for the Pinup Girl is complete, Chris then takes on the tedious process of applying the skin tones until the perfect balance has been acquired. A digital rendering is used for reference during this stage to help ensure that the shadows and highlights are properly placed and all color gradients, hues and saturations are equally proper. This is most certainly an art form in itself and one that a professional artist like Chris has mastered over the years. It is at this point that Chris works the airbrush, modifying its output with the finger controls as well as adjusting its distance from the door panel. He can literally create a line as narrow as a piece of fishing line for super fine detail or a wider pattern for super subtle color blending.

As Chris works through the details of the Pinup Girl, he continually defines and adds color to the black background and white star. During this stage of blending and adding multiple colors, it is sometimes necessary to use a uniquely shaped template to define hard edges without over-spraying other areas of the artwork. In those instances where a line template is not used, the technique is simply that of a steady hand and experience. Those little “shots” of paint on the masking paper help Chris determine whether or not he likes that choice of color where he is working before it is applied, as well as helping to clear the tip of the airbrush. You can see how many different colors have gone into the Pinup Girl already.
As Chris comes near to completion, he adds in the last few details with a fine squirrel hair brush. The detail is absolutely amazing, literally. With the combination of transparent candies in the Pinup Girl’s hair and superbly blended skin tones, you would swear she was the real deal.
Once Chris has finished the artwork (this project took three days to complete) the RETRO POWER crew carefully places the doors in the facilities modified cross flow paint booth and thoroughly cleans each with degreaser, lightly draws a tack rag to pick up any remaining dust or lint particles and applies five coats of PPG DCU 2002 clearcoat. The clearcoat is allowed to rest for about 6 weeks before it is color sanded with 1000-grit, followed by 1,500 grit and then 2,500 grit 3M Imperial sand paper. After color sanding, the doors are buffed by hand with a 3M rubbing compound and a 3M hand glaze (this same process is used on the entire vehicle). You can now run your hand across the surface of the door and all of those color coats in the airbrushed graphics are buried beneath the clear and just as smooth as glass with a mile deep reflection. The final touch is an Antique Gold pinstripe around the original black circle that encases the artwork.

You may have noticed that the Pinup Girls (one on each front door) are not exactly alike. This is one of the unique qualities of custom airbrush artwork. No two people in this world are exactly alike and we didn’t want the Pinup Girls to mirror each other either. They have become known around the shop as “The Twins”.

Chris also applied a number of hand painted rivets on several other body panels of the 1933 Chevy using very similar techniques as described above. He simply created a template with a hole proportioned for the panels of the vehicle. The rivets were applied by essentially using a black and white color coat to the create the effect of a rounded rivet top. The rivets were then lightly dusted with the vehicles original color coat of PPG “Canteen Green” to ensure that the rivets looked as if they were installed and painted over.

Just as with the doors, once the rivets were airbrushed into place, the body was rolled into the paint booth, completely degreased, tack ragged and final clearcoat applied. The clearcoat was then wet sanded and hand polished
This close-up photo of the rivets after clearcoat shows how the three-dimensional effect tricks the eyes and mind into thinking these rivets are actually real. The shading was intentionally applied to these rivets in such as way as to properly reflect from the contours of the body panel. . It really is amazing how much depth the clearcoat provides for the graphic work.

The end result speaks for itself.

Get more details here:

Retro Power

4003 Beaumont Ave.

Liberty, Texas 77575

[email protected]


RetroPower started out more than 20 years ago in Liberty, Texas as a father and son “quality time” project. We finished our first car even before the boys had a driver’s license. The boys drove Camaros and Chevelles to High School that they built and still drive custom built hotrods to this day. The history actually goes back even further than that because my Grandfather made his living as a body man all his life and I would spend my summers working at the Body Shop.

RetroPower builds one-off custom street cars along with the occasion factory restoration. The customs run the gamut from vintage Street Rods to late model Muscle Cars depending on both RetroPower’s and their customer’s preference. RetroPower has received national recognition for it’s cars having been featured in numerous magazines, on national television, and at a wide range of car related events. Some of these features can be seen in the Media Section of the web page. In addition, RetroPower also offers a line of custom manufactured parts which can be seen in the Custom Parts Section. We also offer in-house Concept and Design Services.

Visit us on the web:


Retro Power

4003 Beaumont Ave.

Liberty, Texas 77575

[email protected]