Theresa Contreras – Artist by Trade and Inspirer by Nature

Working-Class Virtuoso

Lowrider has long been known for two things: cars and girls. But did you ever stop for a second and ask why there aren’t more women mechanics, fabricators, painters, and the like? It’s a question we asked in this edition of Lowrider Original because we look forward to every chance we get to find ladies who have a hand in creating these two- and four-wheel masterpieces.

Anyone with a lowrider knows that one element can make or break a build: the paint. It’s the first thing people see and it’s what draws you in to admire the more mechanical aspects of the car. If it’s boring, overdone, cliche, or just plain looks like it was done the night before with a brush, your reputation is on the line. There’s no room for shortcuts.

Designer and custom painter Theresa Contreras knows this all too well. Having worked with the likes of Jimmy Shine, and having worked on cars for names such as ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and race car driver Tanner Foust, it’s safe to say people entrust her with high-dollar projects because they know what she’s capable of.

But while her eye for detail puts her on the same tier as the best in the business, when she speaks about her craft you realize she’s just a down-to-earth girl who loves what she does. We got a chance to hear how she got into the biz, what she thinks it takes to succeed in it, and her determination to convince other car-loving girls to take the plunge and forge their own path.

Tell us about the shop you work at?

Theresa Contreras: LGE-CTS Motorsports, my parents started it in 1982 and my sister and my husband work there also. It’s a 20,000-square-foot shop. We do custom paintwork as well as collision repair. For the custom side of it, just for something like SEMA alone, we paint 10 to 20 cars a year, and maybe another 10 full custom paintjobs on top of that.

How did you get into custom painting?

TC: It’s a family business. It started out as an autobody shop, so I’ve been around it my whole life. I went to school for graphic design. It was never my intention to go straight into painting, but eventually I ended up working there. While I was going to school the teacher would give us assignments to go out and try things. I was working there as a secretary, but people weren’t showing up to do some of the custom jobs, like maybe a pinstriping job, so I took it upon myself and literally from that point on learned how to pinstripe, custom paint, and things like that.

So you’re pretty much self-taught?

TC: Yes, I’d taken a class at Coast Airbrush and also a class with Paul Stoll from PPG as well, but those are the only two classes I’ve ever taken.

How long have you been painting?

TC: Seventeen years.

What was the first car you ever painted?

TC: I worked on a Ford Ranger with my dad. There was also a PT Cruiser that was like my first full custom paintjob.

Tell us about some of the favorite cars you’ve done?

TC: One of my recent builds was a BMW R nineT motorcycle, which went to SEMA last year. We did an all-female Mustang build, so that was an emotional build for me. It was a matte bronze finish that was really fun to paint. I did a candy over the entire car, cleared it, and then did a matte clear over the top of that. That car was really important to me because we worked on it with all women and we did it for FoMoCo and I made some amazing friends through that build. Right now we’re working with Tanner Foust, who is a rally cross racer and has hosted on Top Gear. We’ve built vehicles for him every few years. I worked with Jimmy Shine on an 1987 El Camino for Billy Gibbons for a TV Show called Rockin Roadsters. We also did a Maverick for Sung Kang from Fast and the Furious along with some high school students, so I had a chance to work with some of them in the paint booth and that was a really great build to do as well.

What do you think is the most difficult part about painting cars?

TC: Painting is all chemical based, so once you figure that out, and know and understand everything you’re working with it gets easier, but at the same time if you have a problem then it’s a lot of work to fix it. So it’s the time and patience it takes to go into that and make sure everything’s perfect, otherwise it’ll cost you in the long run. It’s definitely all time and patience.

What types of cars do you look forward to working on the most?

TC: What’s cool and unique about our shop is we don’t get the typical vehicles all the time. There’s a lot of custom builds that people aren’t able to fix at other shops, so we get a lot of lifted trucks, jeeps, hot rods, or lowriders where a lot of people paint them the first time, but to fix and do a repair on those, especially with paint, sometimes that’s not something they can do themselves, but we’re great at doing color matching. I’m just a car, truck, and motorcycle girl; I love it all, so it’s cool to see all the unique vehicles that are out there.

Do you do airbrushing as well?

TC: Yes, I do fine art graphics, full color, candies, pearls, anything like that. My specialty is to work with different colors and textures and make those come together, so I like flat finishes, gloss finishes, and I like to have a little play on things like that and see what complements something else. I never like things exactly the same so I try to do it slightly different than anything else. Lowriders to me are like the epitome of an old-school custom paintjob. I’ve always been a fan of guys like Larry Watson and Gene Winfield, how they started, and the fades they did, so I try to incorporate all those things into jobs I do as well.

Is the BMW motorcycle yours personally?

TC: I have another business called Real Deal with Jessi Combs, who’s a metal fabricator and has been on shows like Overhaulin’ and All Girls Garage, and her and I together have this business to try and empower more women to get into the automotive industry. BMW gave us the bike so we could do an all-female motorcycle build for them and they took it on tour with them.

Women have such a critical eye for detail. Why do you think there aren’t more women in the automotive business in general?

TC: I think it’s intimidation. At first maybe they think they can’t do it or maybe they’re not interested because they haven’t been around it. The ones who are around it tend not to push themselves to do a little more. What Jessi and I do, like this event we’re doing right now called Babes Ride Out, is an all-female motorcycle event in Joshua Tree where we hold workshops. I’ll be doing a workshop on airbrushing, Jessi will be doing one on welding, there’ll be another on leatherwork, we have a blacksmith one, and we’ve done metalshaping also. We find that being there in front of them takes the intimidation factor away and then all of a sudden they say, “You know, I think I could actually do this,” and we say, “Good, we want you to go out and try it, and if you enjoy doing it then go out there and do it.” I’m not sure if it’s society or if it’s in their minds and they think they can’t, but once they try it, they really enjoy it.

Is there a type of paintjob you’d like to do that you haven’t done yet?

TC: I’m not sure. I have to think about that. I think that’s what custom painters are always after is trying something different. I kind of want to do a Mustang like the BMW. I enjoy telling the story of what the car’s about. Like, if you have a fully aluminum body, you should showcase it in some way. Mustangs are like raw in general, but they’re also mean and have a sexy thing, so putting all those things into a paintjob is fun. Tough, raw, and sexy all at the same time.

What do you think some of the biggest mistakes are when people select a painter?

TC: I think maybe not taking their time. I try to spend time with clients to find out what catches their eye. For me, when I’m with someone, I’d want them to show me every photo in a magazine that caught their eye and that way I can see a pattern of what they’re looking for. Sometimes people let their friends dictate what they want. Someone is going to a painter because they love their work. You have to have that marriage of, is this relationship going to work the way I want it to and am I giving them enough input to be creative enough? So it’s a fine line.

Do you think one of the biggest problems is getting the client to articulate what they want?

TC: Yeah, I think the biggest problem for a client is they don’t explain themselves enough, but the problem is also for a painter to want to understand them more. And it’s up to the client to do their homework and ask themselves why they’re going to a certain painter. Is it their style? Their technique? They need to make sure it’s the right marriage for them?

What do you think it takes to become a successful painter?

TC: Long, long hours in the paint booth. It’s a very dedicated job. Custom painting is definitely really long hours sometimes. People say all the time that I have so much patience. It’s not that I have so much patience, it’s just that I want to see it done correctly. You have to understand how much work, time, and effort you need to put into all the details.

Are there certain products you prefer using?

TC: Yes, I do use PPG. I use their Vibrance collection and their Waterborne collection because waterbased is what we spray at the shop regularly. Their Vibrance collection I use for all the candies, flakes, and pearls. Over the years I’ve worked with many different paint companies. When we do cars for the SEMA Show we’ve used all different kinds of brands and literally have used everyone out there. What I like about PPG is their consistency of product, which is very important when you have chemicals that you’re mixing with things. When I’ve used other products, they were like, “Oh, you have to add this, and then that, and you have to add these other things,” but keeping it simple and having a great product to use is important. It needs to be customer friendly and needs to be something that works well and the painter understands well, and PPG has been the product that has worked best for me over the years because it’s consistent.

What would your advice be to people looking to get into this business?

TC: Just try it. I go to shows all the time and show people how to pinstripe and tell people to go to their local automotive store where they have these items for you and ask the people their questions. They will help you and give you techniques. Most of the people at the counter paint also. How did I start? I locked myself in a paint booth and just tried. Trial and error. Doing something, doing it wrong, and trying it again. Just constantly doing it. That’s how you learn. If you want to be good at something, it doesn’t have to be anything big. Just get a few parts you can paint. Try one color, then two, and work your way up. Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to do a custom lowrider paintjob the first time, because that takes years of practices. It’s dedication.

To learn more about Theresa check out www.iamtherealdeal.com and www.babesrideout.com.