Claudia Liebenberg’s brush work first came to us within a thumb flick of an Instagram feed whilst scanning through the reams and reams of moto related visual treats the hit our #ninetynineco tag every day. The piece in question was a red BMW R80 that on first glance appeared to be an on-white studio shot that has become synonymous with the more prominent custom workshops around the globe.
Having just shot Andy Roberts R80 the weekend before the model was fresh in our minds and just as we were about to screen capture it to re-gram, we realised it was in fact a hand painted masterpiece, created at the hands of South African artist Claudia Liebenberg.
Upon closer inspection, we found that Claudia’s profile was filled to the rafters with beautifully crafted paintings of everything from vintage Harley-Davidson’s, through to Brat style CB’s and BMW Trackers. After months of following her feed and a few mixed up email hiccups (on our part), we sat down with Claudia to chat through her process and a few of her favourites.
Interview: Claudia Liebenberg Motorcycle Art
Claudia, firstly let me start by saying that we’ve loved your work for a long, long time so I’m extremely happy to finally be getting to chat to you.
Then let me start by saying thank you kindly for the interest and appreciation of my work. It’s an honour to chat to you about this!
Can you tell us a little about how you started getting into art, and then the watercolour style that you have become synonymous with?
Start at the beginning, as they say. Well, that will take me back to being a kid. We grew up in a small, but beautiful town in the countryside surrounded by the locally famous Maluti/ Drakensberg Mountains. As a little girl, I just wanted paint & stationary to mess around with and to explore our backyard. I had this thing for reproducing on paper what caught my eye or that was special to me. So obviously it started as stickmen shapes of me and my awesome dog by the lake.
Back then, in a small town with a tiny school, art classes or art as a subject was something I could only dream of. So I just kept at it, because I loved it. The basic tool kit is tiny, so I really could (and still can) paint anywhere. Now, many years later and no longer a little girl, I still paint what I love…one being the obvious, these two wheeled machines.
Regarding the style, I’d say it sort of developed itself. And with all my sincerity, I am more often than not just as pleasantly surprised at what stays behind on that watercolour paper. Let’s not sugar coat this and make it out to be a rosy path of ease, no. The journey as an artist and creative entrepreneur has been and continues to be nothing short of challenging. Honestly, looking back, would you want those gravel roads any other way? Never having been in an art class in my life and with an Honours degree in Psychology, back roads are something I often find myself on…but hey, those are some of the best stories and one walks out with more than just a few new skills. You gotta risk it, as they say.
Some of the most rewarding aspects of this craft, is to pull an event together (with a legit team of friends or creatives), have the art on display in a simple lay-out, with honest food and drink and watch as people are drawn it…wait for it…then the stories are drawn out of them. The best part is to chat to folks on some of the adventures they have had as kids with their dads or buddies, to see them come alive as they look back on some of the journeys they have undertaken, and have overcome. That art can travel like that, bring people together like that, man… So rewarding!
Take us through your process a little. Do you have specific brands / paper weights / tools that you use, or do you mix it up?
So my process, OK it goes down like this:
A picture of a ride finds me and inspires me (the lines, the colors, the refections off the paint job, the detail in the engine build) I can’t really explain that feeling when you see something that just fits, and you know that thís wants to be painted. Like gravity pulling you down, so this piece does till its done.
I first pencil down the basic skeleton, making sure I get the ratios correct and the spacing of parts to one another. This is the quick part, depending on the size of the canvas.
Then, comes the best. Color fill! This is precise and free abandon at the same time. How that makes sense, I don’t know. This is where, like 4×4 driving in the sand, you let the tracks lead you to your destination. Patience is key, and if I get frustrated with the process, I switch to another task to refresh my approach again.
– for the paints, I use three brands: the good old Winston & Newton, ShinHan and one that I don’t recall the branding *blush* (it was on the packaging I chucked).
– for the paper: German! Hahnemühle Watercolour Paper, nothing less than 300gsm. The texture is incredible, and along with the pigment quality of the paints, it allows you precision and color-intensity in your piece. My reprints are also made on a similar look and high quality paper… One does not cut corners on these things.
– for the brushes: Prime Art Gold. I own too many, I’m not ashamed.
When its all said and done, the graphite/ pencil marks are carefully erased off and that sharpy is then used to put my signature, year, and limited numbering (if it’s a reprint) on. This last touch is like the full stop at the end of a conversation between the piece and I. Sounds weird, but one has lots of mind space while creating, and one sorts through much in that time, that when a project is complete, so is the road you took in your head.
We found your work through your motorcycle art pieces, but you do a lot of other stuff too. We’ll get into moto later, but outside of the bike world, what are you favourite things to paint?
Outside scenes – water, mountains, forestry, botanicals/ florals. I have an expo with my one range titled “blooms on black” coming up very soon, so that work also gets some face time. This range is a fiercely delicate representation of femininity and grit.
I recently started with the four wheels, adventure motors and the classic ones… Those I’ll start releasing officially later this year.
Leather shoes. Anything leather is just for the win, and specifically these items in the attire line-up. They are those things that take the most hits and get you where you need to be. Best, is they look better the older they get, regardless of the hits, because of the hits.
Then, I doodle silly things just for laughs. Those never make it to social media really, and I mostly entertain myself or others with them.
Digital art and typography are also on my radar, so practicing my hand at them as often as I can.
And do you undertake a lot of commissioned pieces?
I do! I love commission pieces. Motorart is my main focus, so most of my commission pieces are along those lines. Naturally I don’t mind! There are incredible machines out there and built with so much story, sweat and beers, that it’s something of a privilege to be part of the process and capture that for folks on paper.
Ok, let’s talk motorcycles. What do you ride?
We grew up on scramblers and flattracks around some of those mountains mentioned earlier. Both my folks are creative in their own right – the father is a motorhead, owned and fixed anything that runs on fuel and wheels. That man can do magic with spray paint, and often overhauled some hoods and tanks with incredible work. He’s a Harley man at heart, and my taste took to some of the other classics (BMW R series, Honda CB’s, Triumph Bonnie…). The mother is the dainty side of things creative, goodness that lady has an eye! He made sure I appreciated the smell and sound of a good machine, she made sure I walked and talked like a lady. A salute to them for that! We used to ride 2-stroke machines, where the power bands kicked in a bit later along in the shift (insert memory of the smell of rubber on your hands and sand in your eyes). One of my fondest memories on a bike was the day I upgraded from my first bike, a 50cc automatic. A tiny thing with a crappy pink and green paint job. I didn’t care, it was awesome. I wanted to shift like the boys did, so they took me with on a day trip one weekend to the some of their dirt tracks next to Lesotho (a neighbouring country). This was huge for me, I was only allowed on the polo field with my little toy, now I got to go to the “big stuff”. My dad had a few apprentices that worked with him on machines, and they were like family to us. They obviously rode with my dad and were like brothers to my bro (a very talented rider) and I. Anyway, I still remember one of these big brothers running behind me holding on to the back fender and my dad running alongside yelling “Clutch, one up! Clutch, one up!” After many stalls and perfected kickstarts later, I nailed it and graduated to a whole new freedom of movement.
When us kids left the house to go brave the world and carve a path, they were all sold…so you make me weep with that question. I don’t have a ride anymore/ yet. Education and entrepreneurship took priority for the past couple of years, and ride purchase took the back seat. The search has been real and patient, and I found a pretty banged up BMW R100 about two weeks ago, by chance. Went to meet the old family who this beauty belongs to and chatted to them about offering it to me. She needs a lot of work, and won’t be ready to ride for some time, but that’s part of this love for the machines. So fingers-crossed this old man budges and gives life to one of this lady’s dreams. I already started mapping out some design changes, but am getting ahead of myself…
What was the first piece of moto inspired work that you produced?
First moto-inspired piece… ever? Haha, that would probably be an 18-wheeler, the old man’s Peterbilt and of course a red Studebaker pick-up. But that’s full-on kiddi crayon art. Many doodles after that, but as a serious artist, it was an army green Royal Enfield. A Classic Bullet 500. After that I did a BMW R80, the infamous “Lady in Red” (seen below). She still remains a favourite amongst the followers.
Instagram and Social Media in general is a great way for people to get feedback on their work from others, but it’s always interesting to hear opinions from the source.
Can you take us through a few of your favourite pieces and tell us the story behind them?
Instagram is a great social media – purely because its content is so honestly tiled. Its a visual feast, and then draws you in to read more on the photo or piece. It’s great to get feedback from the followers, great way to interact with others who appreciate the work and hear how they are inspired too. The world becomes a very small place on that platform.
This said, one must walk that fine line to not begin to produce work to impress, but to produce work because you love it. Keep focussed, but allow some sensitivity to the market…I must confess, that is a line I cross in my mind sometimes and have to be guided back gently to the core of the creation process. Work for the genuine love of it, and the added praise is a bonus.
My favourite pieces… How does one choose?
Claudia’s 5 favourites
This piece…It was the first motorcycle to be dubbed “super bike” and one my dad owned when he was a twenty-something. The full-on “stare” of this piece is what grabbed me. Bravery is not necessarily heard in words, but seen in action. The unsung heroes, who conquer without ceremony, because it’s about their faith and what they are made of. The piece speaks for itself. It’s laced with detail and is a full conversation of focus without using words to explain.
I love Classic Rock and Blues, and these tunes accompany many of the pieces till completion. So this one comes from Queen’s songs, where he sang “he used to be a man with a stick in his hand… she used to be a woman with a hot dog stand”
2. The top view of a black BMW R series – “Here and Now”
I painted it before a bunch of friends and I headed up North on a camping trip through the Namib desert, en route to the Skeleton Coast, and shared it on the trip with the insta-world. She exploded. What made me paint the piece? The reflections on the tank, and the different angle view…it was a new challenge for me, so I took it headlong:) As mentioned earlier, the R Series machines are first prize, so they will always make their way to my desk.
3. The Harley Davidson “Knucklehead” engine block
This is an American classic. Birthed in the 30’s, which meant Depression and struggle, opportunity to overcome. Take heart. Show heart. Have heart. That is, I think one of the strongest undercurrent messages in my work, take heart. If there is one thing we all have in common, then that is hardship. And in the face of these, we have choices to make. To choose life, or death…be this only in heart as it were. I hope you choose life, and then live from that heart, even though it has been exposed and detailed with marks of mileage.
4. The Harley Davidson Knucklehead Bobber “Daytona”
What really made an impression on me was first the “heart” of this machine (mentioned above). I read up on her history and found that she is rather an impressive machine. Though she was built for the distance, she handled herself gracefully with speed and has a speed-record to her credit, claimed on those famous Daytona Beach racing stretches back in the day.
5. The Royal Enfield “Bullet”
This was the first official piece of motorart as an independent artist. I think it was a culmination of the army green colour, and the WWII heritage behind them that caught my attention. Enfield is a town in the English countryside, and this small company produced bicycles. The Royal Marines contracted them to manufacture a lightweight machine, a glorified cycle with a motor. These were utilised by the paratroopers who were dropped out of an airplane and were then to hit the ground, assemble the machine that was strapped on their backs and get going…essentially to make ground troops cover more distance in shorter time. The Royal Enfield was born and continuously upgraded to accommodate ammunition, riffles and bigger engine capacities. As of late, she is synonymous with road trips around India, as production was relocated to the East after the war.
I have done commission pieces that were never taken to social media. My understanding was that those were very personal pieces and I respected that. So they were created for their eyes only. Share them or not, that was their prerogative. I’m ok with that.
All this so far; a God-given talent and incredible encouragement from others. One never makes it alone, and I can’t take it all as just my doing, but a collective growth.
When the going gets tough, keep going.
Thank you Ninetynineco for having me, and here’s to bringing it in the future and enjoying the ride!