Tim Phelps likes it hot. Flaming hot.
In fact, give Phelps a blank surface, and he's more
than likely to have a flame on it before you can say
An award-winning medical illustrator for Johns Hopkins
by day, Phelps 10 years ago developed an off-hours passion
for flame painting, the kind you're likely to see on a
circa 1950s hot rod.
Phelps prefers to flame miniature die-cast cars, but
he's been known to heat up pool cues, coffee mugs, T-shirts
and even Santa's sleigh with his scorching art.
Over time, Phelps has become an expert on flaming and
even found time to write a book on the subject: Up in
Flames: The Art of Flame Painting (July 2006,
Phelps joined Johns Hopkins in 1986 and today serves
as an associate professor and assistant director of the
School of Medicine's
Department of Art as Applied to Medicine, the oldest
program of its kind in the United States. The department is
both a resource for Hopkins affiliates and a training
ground for the next generation of medical illustrators.
Phelps, who calls himself a general illustrator,
renders surgical procedures and organs and body parts from
head to toe for Web sites, textbooks, patient education
pamphlets, journals and other publications. Of note, Phelps
was the primary illustrator and art director for The
Johns Hopkins Family Health Book, a mammoth
comprehensive health guide first published in 1999.
The Gazette recently sat down with Phelps to chat
about his hot hobby in his "miniature museum," a room in
his house in Towson that he's converted into a workshop and
display area for his 800 or so flamed cars. Or is it 1,000?
He's lost count.
Q: How do you create your medical images, say for a
A: I sketch in pencil on tracing paper. Of course,
we make we sure we don't put eraser crumbs into the
surgical field [laughs]. We are trying to identify surgical
moments, key things that are happening, perhaps certain
nerves being identified and preserved.
Q: Do you transfer all your work to computer?
A: Right now it's a 50-50 mix of traditional and
computer media. The computer does a lot, but it can't
replace the draftsmanship of an artist.
Q: How did you get into the field?
A: I was always an artist and interested in science.
Q: Not much call for impressionistic or abstract
drawings in your line of work, huh?
A: There is a responsibility here of not being only
an artist but a communicator. It's not all about making
pretty pictures. It's about making pretty pictures that
communicate. And when it's communicating medical anatomy,
it's got to be right on.
Q: So, how did this flame-painting hobby of yours
A: This is bizarre. I was in a toy store about 10
years ago and struck up a conversation with someone looking
at the Hot Wheels cars. He was a pretty knowledgeable guy
on hot rods and customs, so we struck up a friendship. At
one point, later on into our friendship, he said, "You're
an artist. You should try to paint your own cars." I had
never really thought about it before.
I thought the seed was planted, however, when I was
about 5 or 6 years old. My oldest brother, who is 10 years
older than me, had a 1929 Model A Ford, a red one with
white primer spots and spoke wheels. It was a pretty cool
car, and ever since I've loved cars, especially miniature
Q: What was your first flame?
A: Well, it was downright ugly — a little
Matchbox car. I was just trying to see what painting on
little cars was like.
Q: But you persevered.
A: I started looking through the hot rod magazines
and realized there were different flame styles. I was
trying to pinpoint when those came about. It just led me
down this long path of history of all these different
styles that came and went. Some disappeared and are now
back again with a vengeance.
For instance, there is a style now called realistic
flames, and they really look like fire. It turns out those
started out as a treatment in the 1970s with folks painting
dragons spitting fire or volcanoes on vans. The style
disappeared, and it came back like in the late 1990s,
mostly from this guy, Art Himsl. He is the king of the
hill, and the one that everybody follows.
Q: Why flame at all? What are the origins of this
A: Basically, these teenagers back in the early
1950s were going to the salt flat races out in the dry
lakes areas of California. They were seeing these
low-slung, Track T race cars and stuff like that that
people would drive there.
People were also getting their cars customized. They
would chop the roofs and channel the body over the chassis.
They would be doing all this modification that would take
three, four, maybe six months to do. So why not make your
car look just as hot and cool by painting flames on it in
much less time? It started out with single-color flames
with a single-color pinstripe. Then they added a few more
colors, and it completely took off.
Q: I notice a lot of the cars you do are ones from
the 1940s and 1950s.
A: Those are generally the accepted cars to flame.
But what is interesting is that the decades are moving up.
Right now 1960s and some 1970s cars are being turned into
customs. But, yes, most are 1940s and 1950s cars,
fat-fender Fords, Chevys and Buicks, chopped Mercs [with a
few inches taken off the roofs].
Q: How about flaming a 2001 Toyota Corolla? Not
A: Well, yesterday I just flamed a little 
Scion. I put some retro wheels on it. I mean anything is
fair game for me. I've even been blasphemous and
flame-painted period Ferraris.
Q: Are there any major do's and don'ts to
A: These days it's hard to say. I think it's all
about looking at the body lines of the car, trying to find
a flame style that matches the flow or look of the car. I
suppose there are do's and don'ts. Certain people wouldn't
put their paint work to a particular group of cars.
Q: What led you to write the book?
A: I couldn't find information anywhere. There
wasn't a book like it, and there seemed to me there was
this need. Now there are all these car shows on TV. And
what's great is that the painters themselves are starting
to get featured on shows like Orange County Choppers and
MTV's Pimp My Ride.
When I started flaming miniature cars, getting really
interested in it, I started to get interested in the life
histories of the people who made this art form what it is
and started calling a few of them. I thought, Why don't I
write a book?
Q: How did you research 'Up in Flames'?
A: I had the opportunity last fall to live in an
early 1970s Airstream RV for three weeks with the
photographer, Paul Westbrook. His work is outstanding. We
traveled from L.A. to San Francisco and visited six of the
flame painters' studios. We didn't know where our next
meal, or shower, was coming from. It was the trip of a
Q: Looking around your museum, there seem to be a
lot of flame styles.
A: Yes, there is a crab claw flame that started in
the 1950s. Those were the earlier, short stubby flames that
eventually began to get a little more fluid in the late
1950s. Later still, the hubs inside the branches became
more oval, almost swimming tadpolelike.
Then there are overlapping flames, ghost flames,
shadow flames and cryptic flames that are more triangular
and angular. There are also tribal flames that look like
dragon tails and spikes. The art form is being limited only
by each flame painter's imagination.
Q: For you, why miniature and not life-size cars?
A: Well, for one, I don't have a lot of room to do
the big cars [laughs]. With big cars, there is a whole lot
more to it. I understand the process completely, but it's
having the right space to work in, a lint-free environment.
You need all the spray equipment and to be able to work
with automobile paint. I would never pretend to be able to
do that, although I've threatened to flame paint my
Q: You've flamed pool cues, coffee mugs. OK. But
A: [Laughs] Toasted Tweet Suites are what I call
them. I don't know. It's just one more thing to try my hand
at. Birdhouses have a broad surface to work on.
Q: You do these cars just for yourself?
A: Yes. I've done a couple of commissions, but I'm
not out there beating the bushes looking to flame people's
miniature cars. But if they call and ask, I'd certainly do
Q: If I commissioned you to flame my keyboard mouse,
where would you start?
A: Ah, I would do a sketch of it. Put tracing paper
over it and look at all the dimensions. Then I would create
a pencil sketch based on those dimensions. I do the same
with the cars. I look for all the body seams, window
openings, and then I physically lay the design on top of
the car. Then I take frisket paper — an adhesive clear
film — put that over the top of my sketch and take an X-acto
knife and cut it out. Then I paint it, clean it up and then
Q: What is your next die-cast car you're going to
A: A 1937 Ford Zephyr. Pretty exotic, isn't it?
Q: Any large-scale works in your future?
A: I'm perfectly happy doing it this way. I would
really like to get another book going if I can, maybe about
the next generation of flame painters. I'd also like to get
a book up and running on all my miniatures. I just haven't
found the right publisher yet.
Q: Do the Hot Wheels or Matchbox people know about
A: I don't know if they do or not. Getting my foot
in the door has been really tough. When I was in California
last fall, I met with one of the die-cast companies, and
they were ready to hire me on the spot, but I wasn't ready
to quit my job and pack up the family and move to
California. I would consider offering my services long
distance and freelance; it's a viable option.
Q: Has your family — your children — commissioned you
to flame anything?
A: I wish they would [laughs]. I did birdhouses for
my son and daughter. They don't know what they think of
Q: What was the longest period you've gone without
A: Well, this last time it was about two or three
months, which was way too long for me [laughs].
Q: What spurs you on to do another car?
A: I just love it. I love the little cars, and the
die-cast companies are coming out with cooler models month
after month. It's just something that grabbed ahold of me,
and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Q: Does it pain you to see a naked, unflamed
A: [Laughs.] I suppose it does.