As a young artist not yet old enough to drive but already bitten by the automotive bug, Matt Bernal recalls riding his bike to Steve Stanford’s studio. But his aim wasn’t to catch a glimpse of the well-known vehicle designer.
“I peeked in the window and saw what kind of markers and sweeps he used, and then rode my bike miles to Art Supply Warehouse in Westminster, California to use all the money I had to buy the same supplies,” Bernal says.
Inspired by the likes of Stanford, Chip Foose and Thom Taylor, Bernal began emulating their work with markers and chalk.
“These were my rock stars and they are who I studied,” he says. “I remember telling myself, ‘I wish I could render paint like Chip, and be as clean and crisp as Stanford,’ and through the years my style has become a result of studying different aspects of all my heroes.”
Talent, hard work and passion converged, and these days Bernal is making a name for himself alongside the masters by designing beautiful vehicles that are born as an idea on a page and then brought to life as real-world project vehicles.
“Early on, I just loved drawing cars, and made it a personal goal to become great at it. And trust me, my early drawings were far from great,” he admits.
But now they appear on magazine covers and at events such as the SEMA Show.
“What I envision when I’m designing a car is it sitting on a showroom floor and a guy walks past it and doesn’t notice anything at first, but then does a double-take and notices something that makes him scratch his head and he tries to figure it out,” says Bernal. “His eye then darts to the next detail, until he follows those details around the entire car. Everywhere he looks, he’s entertained.”
BRINGING STYLE TO LIFE
Established in 2009, Bernal Auto Style offers design services and project vehicle support for companies looking to create or embody an identity through a one-of-a-kind build.
“As it pertains to me, an automotive concept artist provides a visual representation of what a client may have in his head, but not have the artistic ability to show—as a concept to excite sponsors, motivate builders or to be used as a tool to build from,” Bernal explains. “I like to think the rendering is what turns an idea into a real project, not only for the owner, but all involved. It’s also a marketing tool to incite public excitement about a project, while at the same time validating that project.”
Bernal Auto Style has a family of companies it works closely with to help turn dreams into reality, providing each client as much—or as little—direction as they need.
“We are an ego-free company and don’t take ourselves too seriously. We use the term design loosely,” Bernal explains. “I work with companies that know exactly what they want and there is very little design required from me, and I have companies that tell me they have no idea what they want and for me to go crazy and create something eye-catching.”
The objective each time is to build successful relationships alongside successful show cars, and the process starts, not surprisingly, with a meeting to map out the direction the project will take.
“If it’s a SEMA proposal, they will fill me in on what they see in their head and I will add my opinions and we come up with an idea that the client is excited to see and I’m equally excited to design,” he explains. “I will create a base rendering and then usually the client and I will begin editing and tweaking things until we have something final and close to what the final vehicle will look like.”
His involvement doesn’t end there, however, as Bernal’s company will also pitch in on marketing and other promotional efforts, as requested.
“Again, if it’s a SEMA vehicle, I will help with the sponsorships of the project if I can,” he adds. “I also make myself available for all edits and changes as sponsors or parts may change, and I’m always available to make the revisions. I will also create promotional artwork for booth announcements, upcoming shows, articles, media coverage, etc. I take pride in the vehicles I’ve breathed on; it’s so much more to me than just collecting a check.”
Good work if you can get it, right? But, as in many industries, the true test comes in standing out in a crowded market filled with people of various skill levels and with different objectives.
“Anybody can throw wheels on a car. Anybody can two-tone paint a car, just like anybody can shoot a movie,” he says. “But not everybody can pull the emotion out of the person viewing it. That’s what I strive for. I’ve always tried to achieve this with layers of eye candy that could be paint or textures or patterns. There needs to be a difference between intelligent design and a car that was built from a catalog. I want my cars to be a visceral experience.”
As is often the case for those seeking a career in the creative arts, Bernal’s initial efforts toward making a living drawing cars weren’t necessarily greeted with wild enthusiasm.
“In my early years, I didn’t have a lot of support,” he recalls. “In fact, I had a lot of resistance from those closest to me. So, my personal motivation was, ‘Oh, yeah? This is what I love to do and just you watch me do it!’”
As a teenager he stood out as “the greaser kid who drives the old Cadillac and can draw really well,” and was asked to paint murals in the halls of his high school.
“Drawing and all aspects of art has always been something that has been in my DNA. As a kid I loved architecture. I enjoyed drawing buildings, houses and street scenes. I began drawing cars, but it was never with a potential career in mind. I just loved doing it,” he says. “My only motivation was to get better and outdo myself. Looking back on it, I was really just spilling my heart and my passion onto a piece of paper—and that was everything automotive and hot rod (related).”
Bernal received summer scholarships to art schools and attended Art Center College of Design’s Art Center at Night Transportation/Product Design program. He also found inspiration at a company called Wings West in Newport Beach, California. His mother worked there and helped him land a job during the peak popularity of the import tuning scene in the late 1990s.
“I hated working in the warehouse, so I would wander off to where the fun stuff was happening—where the body kits were being designed and shaped and where the show cars were,” he remembers. “Every chance I got, I would find a reason to get in the design bay.”
One day he snuck into the conference room and found some drawings on the wall that he remembers to this day.
“There were renderings of a Firebird body kit, a Pontiac Sunfire project vehicle and an S-10 body kit rendering. While I was studying the artwork, Billy Longfellow walked up behind me. Billy was a co-owner, and the creative side of the company.”
Instead of being upset, Longfellow began telling Bernal about the drawings and the artists who drew them.
“He said, ‘Thom Taylor did those for us.’ I had seen guys like Chip Foose and Thom Taylor’s artwork in magazines, but this was the first time I had seen a company pay them to produce artwork that was for a purpose. It clicked at that moment that this was a profession and I had been getting good at something that might pay off. Billy is still a supporter of mine to this day and it’s those moments and relationships that this industry is all about.”
THE BUSINESS OF DROPPING JAWS
Bernal now counts many of his heroes as peers in an industry that continues to excite while pushing his artwork to new heights.
“As I’ve become more of a player in the game, my inspiration has turned to bettering myself and always doing better than the year prior,” he says. “If you ask what inspires me creatively, I would say dropping jaws. I’m in the business of dropping jaws with subtle-yet-complex design aspects that make people at shows stop and scratch their heads, trying to dissect and figure out what I did and how I did it.”
He says it helps being in a business that brings out the passion of so many.
“I don’t know of any other industry where everybody who works in it has the same disease. I love mechanical art, and that’s what vehicles are. Those who see cars as only transportation don’t have the disease,” he says. “If you look at not only custom cars and hot rods, but even production cars, they all come from creative humans and love.”
And it all begins with a designer.
“They all started with pencil on paper. I love the process of concept to reality to the aftermarket and customization. Cars and trucks are canvases to express who you are. I love all the different niches: lifted trucks, hot rods, imports, muscle cars, lowriders. We all share the same love like a family would, and I just can’t imagine insurance salesmen having the same bond.” That’s not to say that there aren’t days when running his company actually becomes, you know, work.
“As business has become a continuous rotation of projects, my biggest daily challenge is remaining passionate and motivated for the lingering long-term projects while exciting new projects are coming in,” he admits. “It takes discipline to stay focused on what I need to do and not what I want to do.”
And there’s also the constant juggling of new creative projects versus managing the vital real-world relationships his company has built and needs to maintain.
“The challenging part as a creative artist is the fact that the work requires my motivation and excitement to get the best out of me, and sometimes I just can’t turn it on. With new jobs coming in, I find motivation to start a project or complete a project in the weirdest places. Meanwhile, invoicing, chasing money and deadlines can put a wet blanket on creativity. So I always try to stay in a place of happiness and creativity at all times.”
Most often, he says, that’s found while immersed in a project.
“When I was kid, I would sit at my drawing table and draw cars. I would get into a mode where my subconscious would take over and everything just flowed. It was a high that I can’t explain and it’s a feeling I chase to this day,” he reveals. “But, the most rewarding feeling is when I receive a check made out to my business—a business I only dreamed about when I thought I would have to conform and get a real job. I feel fortunate and grateful that hard work and passion have enabled me to do what I feel I was put on this planet to do.”
THE ‘LAST RIDE’ & BEYOND
Ask Bernal about his all-time favorite project and he says, “That’s an easy one: The Last Ride 2011 Mustang I built in tribute to my friend and automotive mentor Joe Gosinski. It is by far the most meaningful project to me.”
Calling it an example of what he could do when starting with a blank canvas, the project took a personal, tragic turn.
“There have been cars that have been more technical, but this was a car that Joe and I collaborated on and were going to build before he was murdered in his shop on Christmas Eve 2010,” he says. “I knew he would want me to follow through with the plan and deliver it to SEMA, and that’s what I did. Last Ride debuted in the Gibson Exhaust booth at SEMA 2011. I was awarded the Mothers Design Excellence Award that year and the car went on to take over the internet and magazines.”
Now a regular at the SEMA Show each year with cars he’s designed, Bernal still has some goals he’d like to achieve.
“I’ve yet to build a SEMA car for Ford,” he notes. “I’ve contributed on many Ford SEMA cars, but I haven’t built my own yet. It’s definitely up there on the dream list.”
Part of the attraction is the chance to work on newer vehicles showcasing automotive design trends that Bernal says are at an “all-time high.”
“I credit this to the OEMs taking notice of what the aftermarket has done for individuality and personality in what you drive,” he says. “I also credit this to new manufacturing technologies that allow designers and engineers more artistic freedoms.”
Technological advancements have allowed automotive concept artists to do their jobs better as well.
“The digital age has enabled me to have a career doing this,” Bernal says. “It’s made it possible for me to take on multiple jobs at one time, do quick edits and multiple variations. When I was doing old-school marker and chalk renderings, I just couldn’t turn them around fast enough and I could never charge for the time it actually took me to do one. Digital is where it’s at now.”
Still, Bernal considers himself lucky to have learned his craft by making marks on clean sheets of paper, just as many of his idols did.
“I still love the by-hand aspect. I spent so many years trying to master marker and chalk renderings that I still have some pride that I learned the hard way before I learned the easier way,” he says. “The best compliments are when someone can tell there is some elements of that old-school organic marker and chalk feeling in my renderings.”
For young artists looking to enter the automotive arena, Bernal advises that passion and heart are as important as technical skill.
“There is always somebody better than you who wants it more than you and is working harder than you are,” he warns. “If you want to make a name for yourself, you need to want it more, and believe me, if you are genuine, your passion and authenticity will spill out of you and become infectious to the right people. You just need to recognize the career-making opportunities when they come knocking.”
Or, you can go looking for them through the right window.