Fine Lines: Auto body refinisher finds second career drawing buildings that don’t yet exist

You know the story; college senior takes a class guaranteed to be a sure thing, an easy “A.” Senior graduates and discovers that one class, more than any other, changes the course of his career.

Steve Fritz was that senior at Ferris State University, completing a degree in auto body repair and refinishing. He loved cars, loved making them look good, but he needed one “easy” class to nail the graduation requirements. It was an art class, and once he started using watercolors, something clicked.

Today he’s a highly respected and successful architectural illustrator working on national and international projects.

He started small in art class, painting mostly abstract watercolors using the six basic colors. “Honestly, it was the kind of paint set you’d find at Kmart, but I had a great time experimenting,” said Steve.

Still interested in art but eager for steady employment, he went to work in a Kalkaska auto body shop. One of his clients was the well-known artist Chuck Forman. Steve discovered that not only did Chuck teach art classes, he also needed help with illustration work. For the next two years, Steve met with Chuck and other artists and did nothing but pencil drawings.

“For two years, every weekend, Chuck and I would sit in his van and draw for hours, just using pencils and paper. Not using color creates a discipline, because you must get every detail right,” Steve said.

His drawing was so good, Chuck fed him work doing interior illustrations and standards manuals for Steelcase furniture. Steve then learned that the body shop where he worked was closing, and he was at a crossroads.

“I could either open up my own body shop or I could start drawing as a career. I was given tremendous support to choose art, and I’ve been doing it for 18 years now,” Steve said.

Over the years, Steve’s tried to be a teacher and mentor to other students, but it hasn’t panned out.

“People tend to think illustrating is easier than it is. It’s not drafting, and it’s not just line drawing,” he explained. “What I do is create a drawing from something that doesn’t even exist yet. And often, I have very little to go on. I usually have a set of blueprints, some site information, and sometimes I’ll know the overall color scheme. But it’s the details, the extras, that are going to sell the projects I work on, and the developers know that.”

Photographer John Robert Williams agrees with Steve’s assessment.

“Artists and photographers work with perspectives and shadow-falls, and we must make it look real. Virtually everything that Steve draws comes through my studio. He’s the master at making things look real. His details set him apart from other illustrators. He figures every angle; the time of year, the time of day, and gets the colors and shadows right. Without Steve making these illustrations look real, making them ‘pop’, the (real estate) developers are dead in the water,” Williams said.

Recently, Steve worked on a residential development project in the Cayman Islands. He was given 20 photographs of the site to be developed and some ideas on how the houses would be furnished. Using those photos and pictures cut from magazines, he created storyboards to get an overall feel for the project. Looking at his illustrations, the eye is fooled into thinking it’s a photograph, not a drawing.

Steve has worked on regional projects such as the Grand Traverse Pavilions, River’s Edge, the Park Place, NMC, Boyne Mountain, and Bay Harbor. He’s also worked on several out-of-state projects ranging from private residences to large shopping complexes. Perhaps his most prestigious project was working for the royal family of Saudi Arabia.

Prestige aside, Steve’s favorite project this year was helping to create a 9′ x 92′ mural for his daughter’s graduation from Central High School.

“Talk about satisfaction; no matter what people’s skill level was, we worked together to create something special for our kids. Working on a project like that puts everything back into proper perspective,” he added. BN