Day Job/Night Job: The Amazing Art of Chris Harsh

Chris Harsh Artist
A technical instructor at the AkzoNobel training facility in Orange, CA, Chris Harsh is also a highly talented artist.

When he isn't working as a technical instructor at the AkzoNobel training facility in Orange, CA, Chris Harsh is pursuing his passions---skateboarding, surfing and art.

Thanks to his unique style and integration of different aspects of his background into his paintings, Harsh is getting rave reviews for his seascapes, tree images and even some abstract work that he's been experimenting with recently.

Harsh, 41, who is married with three children, started painting cars in high school back in the 1990s, but can still vividly remember his very first body/paint job.

"My grandfather left me an old 1970 Chevelle," he said. "He was the original owner, so it needed some work. But I got it running, so once I got my license, I was ready to drive. I worked on the car one summer in my friend's garage and he showed me how to mix up some body filler. I started sanding the car, fixing dents and applying the primer, and eventually I painted it yellow. People to this day still remember that big yellow car."

Once he realized that he liked painting cars, Harsh landed a job working for a collision center in Huntington Beach, CA, where he met his first mentor.

"I started working there the day I turned 18, so yes---I was ready to work and learn," Harsh said. "I was lucky to meet Bryan Hilleary, who was willing to teach me how to paint. He told me that he would teach me everything he knows and pay me while I was learning, so it was a perfect situation. Over the years, we've worked together a few times at different shops, so we've been friends for a long time now."

Looking back on his career as a painter, there were a few obstacles along the way, but Harsh always stayed positive and focused on doing a good job wherever he worked.

"I was painting camper shells for a while, and that's definitely a completely different way of working," Harsh said. "They prepped the shells and loaded them in the booth and I was spraying like a robot. It wasn't challenging at all, but I could work fast and log eight hours after working only 4--5 hours."

Always looking for a silver lining in every cloud, Harsh used the camper shell job to learn another valuable skill that would later help him in his current position as a teacher.

"Most of the preppers there were Hispanic, so I took the opportunity to learn Spanish," he said. "Talking to them every day really helped, and now I am completely proficient in Spanish. I am officially a bilingual instructor, and recently I was in Mexico City training the AkzoNobel technical crew there. I have met Spanish-speaking painters from all over the country, and connecting with them through language is very satisfying."

After 23 years on the body shop side, Harsh was ready to enter a new chapter. Teaching people how to use AkzoNobel products was immediately attractive to him.

"I really enjoy what I'm doing because I am able to share my knowledge and experience with so many different people, whether they're a rookie or a veteran," he said. "If I can make them better painters and teach them something they didn't know in one of our three-day classes or by coming to their shop, [that is] even more gratifying."

Back in 2002, Harsh was working at a Buick, Pontiac and Mazda dealership, where he became interested in pinstriping.

"On the Buicks at that time, they featured hand-painted pinstripes, so I started watching their pinstripper in action,” he said. “He gave me some tips and some of his oldest brushes. I got a kit and practiced, and after a while I got pretty good at it. That kind of fueled my art career."

Seven years later, Harsh began working with ink markers and pencils to create images, but quickly gravitated to paint.

"I reached the point where I thought buying a set of oil paints or acrylics and a bunch of canvases might be my next move," he said. "But then I thought, ‘Why don't I just use the same paint I use at my job every day?’ So I started working with Sikkens Autowave, one of our waterborne products, and I loved how it worked. Then I discovered that I needed something to paint on, and for whatever reason, I started doing it on paint lids. I was around all of these paint cans, so why not put these lids to use? That's how it began, and since then I've painted more than 400 images using automotive paint on paint lids."

After a while, Harsh's art gained some local recognition, which fueled him to do even more of it, he said.

"I have been a skateboarder my entire life, so one day I was at a local skate park and I ran into Steve Caballero, a pro skater,” he said. “We started talking and I showed him some of my work, and he liked it. He then referred me to some of his friends and they liked it too, so they invited me to display my artwork at the Ventura Nationals, an annual car show. They gave me a booth and I sold a lot of art that day, including some art I created right on the spot. It was great to see that people wanted to purchase my stuff, and that inspired me to keep going."

Since then, Harsh's art has appeared in art shows and other events. Many people have his images on their walls, but he still wants it to be a passion as opposed to a profession, he said.

"I do it for the love of it, so I don't ever want it to be like painting those camper shells,” he said. “I want to work on it at my pace and keep it a hobby, so that I won't lose that great feeling every time I create a new piece."

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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