AVONDALE, Ariz. — As NASCAR’s top drivers roar toward the finish line at Phoenix Raceway with the checkered flag in sight, Bill Patterson is in Victory Lane hard at work.
You may not recognize his name or face, but he’s a staple for NASCAR races at the desert track, leaving in Victory Lane a rainbow of paint splotches that didn’t quite make it from his brush to his canvas depicting the latest winning driver and car.
With team members, sponsors, reporters and fans flooding the area waiting for the winner to pull his car center stage, Patterson is frantically painting a vibrant masterpiece celebrating the win all in a matter of minutes after Phoenix’s two Cup Series events each season, including Sunday’s championship race. A live painter, most of his work is created on the spot, and in an hour — sometimes a little more, sometimes less — his blank canvas is transformed into a fantastic array of colors evoking tremendous speed.
Every brush stroke counts. He doesn’t have time to think. Just paint continuously and quickly.
“It’s all about trying to express the emotion and the speed,” 69-year-old Patterson says. “And once I figured out that I could do that fast — and because I did it fast — the thing has energy in it. … I don’t have time to make it perfect. It stays raw and keeps this energy, and I don’t have time to go in and screw it up.”
Although his hand-designed wooden easel is usually parked in Phoenix’s Victory Lane — or near the adjacent stage if it’s the title race — his work begins long before the checkered flag. It has to if he wants to capture the drama of a NASCAR race, plus the desert landscape in the background, in such a short period of time.
With a pencil and sketchbook, he’s glued to the race, outlining different ideas or storylines he wants to include. It sometimes takes him several sketches to solidify his depiction of the race and how the winner finished first, though he doesn’t always paint the finish. A cactus — like the recognizable neon green one at Phoenix’s start-finish line — is usually prominently featured.
Patterson blocks out the pandemonium, focusing only on his 60-by-42-inch canvas and 10-color palette. He grabs a wide brush and paints huge streaks of color across the canvas, serving as the background’s foundation.
“The moment I start until just a couple minutes in, it’s a little scary,” Patterson says. “Once I feel like I can see all the parts and pieces, even though they’re just blobs of color, then I just get to have fun. It’s probably like stage fright.”
Every live painting of his is unique. Some live artists will repeatedly paint the same subject, like the Statue of Liberty of Jim Morrison, Patterson notes. But no matter how many times he’s portraying a NASCAR winner, he’s painting a new scene each time.
He works carefully to establish his vantage points early. Perspective is the most challenging element of his live paintings, and “it would be really easy to get the perspective completely out of whack.” The finished product needs to look good both at a distance and up close, so he’ll periodically take a couple steps back to make sure nothing is too distorted.
With background colors, perspective and cues in his sketchpad in place, Patterson has his outline. And once he can trace the throughline from his sketch to his outline and how he envisions the final work, he then begins to construct various elements of the painting simultaneously.
“I’ll build a little grandstand, I’ll put the timing tower, I’ll put the mountains in the background, I’ll start outlining the car,” Patterson says. “I work on the whole thing, back to front, and it’s sort of a stream of consciousness thing.”
Though he seldom looks over his shoulder as the mayhem around him increases, he picks up on people’s observations from nearby. When it’s still a mess of colors on the canvas, he overhears some unimpressed viewers comment how their six-year-old could do what he’s doing.
But as his mastery over his subject matter grows clearer, he hears onlookers retract their comments.
Patterson describes his style as somewhere between expressionism and impressionism, meaning his work is not an exact depiction and it’s definitely not a photocopy. It’s his interpretation of the race with beautifully blended colors and impressively minute details.
“It’s certainly a unique thing,” said Chase Elliott, the 2020 champ and a title contender again on Sunday. “I can’t hardly write my name, so it’s amazing that somebody can freehand a [painting] like that and it be that memorable and special. And to do it that quick is incredible.”
Speed has long been part of Patterson’s life. As a toddler in Calgary, he started competitively ski racing around the same time he began taking art classes. But he said it wasn’t until he moved to Argentina when he was 11 that he was first introduced to the world of motor sports up close.
He was instantly enamored, drawing parallels between two racing disciplines in extremely different sports.
“I got to go to my first car race down there and the first car goes into the first corner on the first day of the first event and I’m like, ‘Ohhh, I get it!’” says Patterson, who now lives in San Antonio.
“It’s so much like ski racing, it’s about the apex when you’re going in, when you’re going out. What do you want to avoid, what do you want to take advantage of? And so I got hooked.”
Though his interest in motor sports grew, his love for art never vanished. He’d attend local races in Buenos Aires and began combining his passion for speed and motor sports into art. But he was still years away from pursuing art as a profession, instead studying to become an architect.
He desperately wanted to be a painter but didn’t know how to make it a profession. He needed direction, he needed a subject, a genre, a market in which to actually sell anything he created.
Then came his epiphany. He was at the Mexican Grand Prix in the mid-1980s when he spotted an American selling art out of a backpack.
“I realized, ‘Oh my god, there’s a guy that’s doing what I want to do, that found a niche,’” Patterson recalls. “And so I went home, and about six months after that race, I quit my job and just committed to the starving artist routine, as long as I could stand it.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that Patterson first started working for Phoenix Raceway. Then-track president Bryan Sperber found some of Patterson’s work online and reached out about a one-off IndyCar piece, the artist said.
“He called me the next year and said, ‘Hey, would you be able to come and do a live painting in Victory Circle?’” Patterson remembers. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, you are talking to the guy that wants to do exactly that!’”
Since 2006, Patterson has been part of NASCAR’s post-race celebrations at Phoenix Raceway for its two races each season and is contracted by the governing body, sometimes also painting other moments throughout a race weekend. He estimates he does 20 to 30 live paintings a year, and at least 90 percent of his work is in the motor sports world, ranging from NASCAR, IndyCar or IMSA races to charity dinners and car dealership events. And he’s regularly jetsetting around the country for them.
“I remember seeing him in Victory Lane and just being shocked at how he can do what he does in the amount of time that he does, and to have it look so perfect,” Phoenix track president Julie Giese said. “I love his style, I love the way that they turn out and it really captures the moment.”
In addition to Phoenix, Patterson can also be found at other NASCAR tracks like Watkins Glen International and Daytona International Speedway, where he depicted rookie Austin Cindric’s Daytona 500 victory in February.
“Bill Patterson is kind of an iconic artist when it comes to motor sports,” Cindric said. “His artwork is unique and very recognizable, and… I think why it works so well with motor sport is because it looks like it’s going fast. There’s speed in the artwork, which is always quite cool to see.”
To master knocking out a gorgeous masterpiece in about an hour, Patterson approached it like an athlete: practice and film.
He’d station a camera and tripod in his backyard, repeatedly recording himself work. Working quickly is a given, but when he’d examine the video, Patterson discovered patterns he’d fall into that were hindering his pace.
“I was painting the same area six times and leaving other areas blank,” he says. “[It was] learning to pick up and understand when a part of it is done. And, ‘Oh, I should have stepped back to get a better look at the perspective because it looks weird now.’
“And I learned a lot in a short period of time, just by doing it over and over and over again.”
In developing his own expressionism-impressionism hybrid style, Patterson says he looked to the late LeRoy Neiman, whose work you’d likely recognize, if not his name. Neiman was a prominent American sports artist in the second half of the 20th century and serves as Patterson’s greatest inspiration in the live painting arena.
Especially early on, Patterson said he was conscious about not wanting his work to resemble an exact photographic copy of cars on track — though he did try that once. Over the course of weeks, he recreated a photo “with some mild personality,” and he loved it. But only for about 15 minutes, when he realized he didn’t want to be a human Xerox machine, so he pushed himself to find another dimension in his work.
“What’s missing? What do I need to do to change the paradigm here? And that’s when I realized, ‘Oh, I want to try to communicate speed. I want to try to communicate motion,’” he remembers.
“I went from this photographically perfect painting and then practiced basically sort of devolving, like subtracting, or just putting in essentials only and not any more.”
He found it liberating.
Now, Patterson is at the point where his live paintings are methodical and mechanical. He has his color codes in his sketches: a touch of black goes on that side, yellow on the other, blue and pink up top. He wants to feel the sketch, feel the speed and feel comfortable knowing he can translate it from his pad onto the canvas.
He paints with acrylics. But because of his masterful color blends, he says some artists assume he works with oil paints, which take a long time to dry, allowing the artist to continually play with color and flow. He can achieve the same effect with acrylics, but only if he works quickly.
When he’s pleased with his idea, he drops his sketchpad on the ground near his easel but almost never glances at it once he begins painting — unless he’s lost and needs the reference. He’ll paint himself cues to follow as he completes the piece, like a white stripe signifying not only speed but where the wheel is supposed to be.
“We’re probably in [Victory Lane] for 45 minutes or so after a win by the time we get out of the car, do interviews, do all the pictures,” said Joey Logano, NASCAR’s 2018 champion who has two career Phoenix wins and is a 2022 title contender.
“And he’s over in a corner, and he’s painting the car or maybe a scene of what the end of the race looked like, the first couple of cars. And I always thought that was really cool to watch it come together while we’re taking pictures.”
Strategy and planning are crucial for Patterson’s quick execution of a live painting. But he can’t start painting too much before the race ends because, as NASCAR drivers and fans know all too well, chaos in the final laps of a race can jumble car positions and produce an unexpected winner.
And he likes to include a second car. Sometimes it’s the runner-up if it’s a close finish, sometimes it’s more about highlighting a compelling story from the race, like a car that kept challenging the winner for the lead or the title runner-up if it’s the championship race.
By the time there are just five laps remaining on the one-mile track, Patterson says he has a pretty good idea of the winner and the second car he wants to feature. He can then begin envisioning the winning paint scheme and how he wants to portray it.
“The really fun part for me is when the driver goes over to see the painting — Bill’s got it finished at that point — and just to see the smile on their face,” Giese said. “I think the drivers, they very much respect it and enjoy seeing his work and being part of that history.”
The winner usually signs the painting but doesn’t actually get to keep it, which comes as a surprise to some.
Most of Patterson’s Phoenix paintings are at the track or track offices, lining the hallway walls. Cindric’s Daytona 500 victory painting currently is with his winning car on display at the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America adjacent to the Daytona track.
Patterson has painted a Kyle Larson victory multiple times, including when the No. 5 Chevrolet driver won at Watkins Glen in August and after Phoenix’s 2021 championship race — and that painting is the first thing visitors see at the track offices. Although Larson said he has some motor sports art, he hasn’t commissioned any copies from Patterson. “Yet.”
“Someday, I would like to get some paintings from him, for sure,” Larson said. “There’s another guy [Bobby Moore] that does something similar to him at the Chili Bowl every year, so I’ve gotten a lot of those paintings of my midgets and stuff that I’ve won in, but I don’t currently own any of Bill’s. His price range is a little higher.”
Since Phoenix took over hosting NASCAR’s championship weekend in 2020, Patterson is faced with the annual hypothetical challenge if the season finale winner is not the same as the champion. With Elliott and Larson winning both the race and title in 2020 and 2021, respectively, Patterson hasn’t had to choose.
But with more parity in the field this season, there’s perhaps a greater chance the champion and race winner won’t be the same driver. Should that happen, Patterson said he’ll paint the champ — either Elliott again, Logano, Ross Chastain or Christopher Bell — and that piece will eventually replace Larson’s title painting at the front of the Phoenix offices.
“I think the coolest and prettiest things in the world are race cars, so it kind of hits home for me,” Cindric said. “Anyone in the motor sports industry — or really, anyone a fan of motor sports — could look at artwork a lot differently, depending on your perspective.
“So I think capturing that perspective for as many different viewers is probably challenging. But I always like it when art looks fast because in the car, it feels fast.”