The Automotive Art of Claudia Liebenberg
The watercolours that flow from Claudia Liebenberg’s exceptionally talented brush are engaging, emotive and honest. Just like the South African-born artist herself.
There’s an authenticity to Liebenberg’s zeal; she’s loved vehicles since childhood, thanks to her petrolhead father. Art was always a hobby—a self-taught endeavour that was never meant to be a serious career.
Then, early last year, Liebenberg started painting motorcycles—and, eventually, cars. As her automotive art gradually found its way online, her career blossomed. Now she’s exhibiting and taking commissions as far afield as the United States—creating transport-inspired pieces that any enthusiast would be proud to hang on their wall.
We managed to extract her from her busy schedule, long enough for a brief conversation about her work, her inspiration and her journey.
Traffic Magazine: You grew up in Ficksburg, near the Lesotho border…
Claudia Liebenberg: I was born there, and weekends were spent on Dad’s flat track; he made one. My first motorbike was a 50cc automatic, a tiny little thing, and then we upgraded to a 80cc scrambler, and we went higher from there. And he had lots of cars, just because he loves it. He was into everything ‘engine,’ so that’s how we spent daddy-daughter time.
So motorbikes started there—they’re part of home. When I paint them it really comes from home. That’s how we spent quality family time. Family’s really important to me—you’ll never have a perfect one, but it’s really important to me.
Claudia: Texture, the end product comes about quicker, and as a kid it had to do with space: I didn’t have enough space for bigger medium things. Watercolours are a little box, with little paints and little pots. I think it was also the cheapest medium, to be honest, at that stage.
I haven’t ever done a single art class in my life, I didn’t study art, no-one told me how to do a technique, or regard a line here, or remember to put in a shadow there. So I kind of fumbled around through just painting plants. I actually started with botany, a lot of vegetables and silly things… just messing around.
And then I studied. Art was meant as a hobby is what I was told, and I had to know what to study, so art was kept as a hobby.
So what did you study?
Claudia: I studied science, and then psychology post-grad. I think I’ll use it at some stage again, I think when I’m in my 40s.
How did you switch from studying psychology, to painting for a living?
Claudia: South Africa’s got a very long window period between finishing your studies and actually practicing. It’s just a very long term plan. So obviously you get your degree—but you need to pay bills, you need to feed your face. You need to be a grown-up.
So I launched into working with my hands, and working with leather. I did odd jobs here and there, all working with my hands, exploring different stuff.
My back was against the wall—I really needed something to pay some bills. The art just happened at the right time and the right place. It’s sincerely a God-given talent, and I’m very blessed to be able to do it.
I got my portfolio together, plugged in hard-earned cash to build a website, and then I decided “hey, let’s do an exhibition.” I’d never done one in my life, but I got this rad space for under R500, in Stellenbosch.
At what point did you start painting motorcycles?
Claudia: I’d been saving pictures of bikes, because they’re just beautiful to look at. If I’d ever be driving somewhere, I’d always notice them alongside the street, or see one parked.
When it came time to paint, I saw a pretty one, and decided to paint it. So I just did.
Then, at the exhibition, as I looked at all my work that I’d worked so hard on, in front of me, the one spot was just motorbikes. I would say half of the work was just motorbikes. Clearly I was interested in this.
After that, the response on Instagram blew me away. That is my main social media platform for advertising. I didn’t plan it—obviously, but people responded to the little bits of moto-art that I started putting up.
Why do you think motorcycles are such a romantic subject?
Claudia: It’s the exposed engine, the shape of the tank—it’s just a beautiful machine. It’s a very sentimental art form. Art is sentimental, but it’s a very sentimental machine as well.
There’s just something feminine about how a motorcycle is put together. It’s a beautiful piece of art, just the shapes in it. And for me that’s the best of painting them.
Tell us a bit about your process.
Claudia: I start by drawing—I have to put down the basic shapes. It’s the circles, which are the tyres, and the triangle, and then you layer on the basic shapes, and their ratios to each other.
Then I make sure that my engine detail is in. Because if I don’t pencil it then I’m not going to paint it. So I fill in to help myself. And then I start painting. I never realised what a difficult medium watercolour is…
Claudia: I chatted to someone the other day and their question was—which was really interesting—”how do you see the light?” She said I captured light in my work.
And that’s what makes you a good watercolour artist—if you can look at an image, strip it down, and then think in invert. Because you don’t really paint light—you paint shadow. You ‘capture’ light.
You started adding cars to your portfolio late last year. Was that a big mindset shift?
Claudia: Not really: Dad is a motor-head, so I grew up with four wheels and two. I get both, it’s just the paint job that’s a different mindset, not really the love for the wheels. I get the lifestyle of both, because he always took me to shows that he went to, with the built-up classic cars, the old Chevs, and the old Chryslers, and the old BMWS, and the old whatevers.
I have a bunch of pictures from when he went to Daytona, to a massive show there back in the day. So I have a lot of material to work with.
You recently shot over to the US to show off some work, how’d that go?
Claudia: The fabulous Oil & Ink expo is the reason why I went. I’d been saving up to at some point be able to exhibit work overseas. I’d had one or two requests for it, but up until that point I didn’t feel financially strong enough to make that move.
I painted a piece a while ago, that I released while we were camping through the desert in Namibia. It was a hit and people loved it, so I sent that specific one in for the Oil & Ink expo.
Then John, the founder, contacted me and it was pretty much all systems go from then. My piece got involved, traveling with him and the other artists’ work to various shows.
Many of my clients are actually in the California area, so when they announced that September would be the month that Oil & Ink would be in California, I thought “why the heck not.”
I’ve worked with brands there, I’ve had lots of work go that side, so I thought this is such a great opportunity for an artist to be at an expo that one of their pieces is at, regardless of if it’s inside the country or outside the country. And being at expos is something I greatly value—I’d much rather be at the place where my work is exhibited than just send my work.
I made my plans, and then I thought, “well, I am going to be in the area I might us well open it up, and say that if there are people that want to meet up or would like me to put up some other work, I’ll bring some with and make some dates available.”
It was a very organic process. The second expo was closer to the end, it was actually the Friday just before the Deus Bike Build off which is something I really wanted to see, and that made for two weeks of travel in between; traveling, and meeting up with people, and visiting garages, and stores, and sights and stuff.
It actually worked out perfectly—with a show to start with and a show to finish with, and everything else mushed up in between.