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PEOPLE AT WORK
 





Time Off with: Tim Phelps


Flame painting takes a steady hand, says medical illustrator Tim Phelps.

Tim Phelps is the Clark Kent of cars. He cleverly conceals his true identity by driving a bland, 1991 Buick. In reality, Phelps, an assistant director and associate professor in the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine, is the passionate creator of eye-catching, flame-emblazoned hot rods. He has 400 of them—all only 3 to 8 inches long.

Phelps began flame painting cars around 1995, choosing miniature rather than full-size cars because he wanted to learn the craft by starting small. He prefers to stay that way.

In toy stores, Phelps buys model cars for anywhere from 99 cents to $2.50. He removes their machine-applied paint, puts on a primer coat and new basecoat, and then creates his own tiny flame stencils. Wearing a magnifying lens mounted on a hood, he applies layers of flame colors with an airbrush. He outlines the flames with a small, script liner sable brush. One car can take eight hours to complete. It is work that requires an extraordinarily steady hand. As far as he knows, he is the only medical artist who flame paints. He does it solely for fun, having accepted only a few commissions for about $100 each.

Flame painting originated in Southern California in the late 1920s. It was not until the late 40s and early 50s, however, that it blossomed. Teenagers, impressed with the flaming cars at drag races and desert salt-flat competitions, saw flame painting as a quick, less costly way to customize their cars. Now it has gone global, with “flames on kids’ shorts, on sunglasses, phones, anything that’s supposed to be a hot item,” Phelps says. He himself has even created designs featuring flaming fish and birds for a Hawaiian shirt company.

A 20-year veteran of Art as Applied to Medicine, Phelps works closely with clinicians to depict their work in a broad array of specialties. He’s won more than 40 awards and was the principal illustrator of the Johns Hopkins Family Health Book. The bibliography of medical works he has illustrated includes another 30 to 40 atlases and textbooks, as well as hundreds of journal articles.

Now Phelps has added a book to his resume that has nothing to do with anatomy. Up in Flames: The Art of Flame Painting (Motorbooks, $34.95) is the first comprehensive history of this unique, indigenous American art form. It’s all about the quirky artists who put the hot in hot rods, adorning them with riotously colorful flames. Phelps profiles 18 of these masters.

Will Phelps ever reveal to neighbors what he jokingly calls his “dark side” by parking a full-size, flaming hot rod in the driveway? Not until he learns more about the inside of a car than the outside. “I’m sort of mechanically challenged,” he admits. For now, he’ll stick with the Buick.

—Neil A. Grauer

 

 

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