Sketching With Rich Lee.
Making passion an art form.
San Francisco illustrator Rich Lee was a late bloomer to motorcycles. He didn’t start paying attention to them until he was about 15 or 16. As with most teenagers, he wanted something fast and cool to drive but couldn’t afford a nice car. He’s sure there were other influences at the time, but the one thing that sticks out in his mind in how he started going down the rabbit hole of motorcycles was going to Barnes & Nobles at the 280 Metro Center in Daly City.
Q: How and when did you first discover motorcycles?
A couple of friends and I would frequent that bookstore and I found myself going through the motorcycle magazines such as Cycle World and Performance Bikes, to name a few. I remember ogling over the pictures of the Smokin’ Joe’s F3 and the green and purple Kawasaki ZX-7R. I knew nothing of riding and bikes, but there was just something about those and other bikes that just sucked me in. Of course, I didn’t realize how expensive bikes could be and that my original inspiration to look for a cheaper alternative to cars was out the window.
Shortly after high school, on a whim, I replied to a job posting from Golden Gate Cycles seeking a service writer. I didn’t have a bike yet and I didn’t have much, if any, hands-on experience but I thought I’d apply anyway and I ended up working at that dealership for several years. It was literally a life changing experience in how much I learned about motorcycles and motorcyclists.
Within a year or so I ended up buying my first motorcycle from an acquaintance — a red 1992 CBR600F2. It was an old race bike with some cosmetic damages, quarter turn throttle, and safety wire all over. A few coworkers advised against getting an old race bike, but I was in love!
Q: I've known many artists inside and outside our family. When did you realize you had the drive, talent and determination to make it your career?
Shit, sometimes I look at my bills and wonder if this whole illustration thing was the right path to take. I feel fortunate that I get paid to draw for a living — I mean, that’s pretty cool. I grew up loving comics and drawing, and as far as I can remember, I never stopped drawing. Even when I was at the moto shop, I’d sketch random things in the notepads and work orders.
In regards to motorcycle related art, a lot of the stuff I saw in comics and other depictions of bikes, it felt as if the artist who drew them didn’t ride and couldn’t tell you what was the brake lever from the shifter. Not that that was necessary to move a story along but it was details that, as a rider myself, I would pick up on.
My goal when drawing motorcycles was to (hopefully) show how it feels to ride and how the bike feels alive. There’s a special visual interaction between a person and the machine that happens on a motorcycle that you don’t necessarily see in cars and other vehicles.
Anyhow, that’s a vision and goal of mine when it comes to illustrating motorcycles. I am eternally grateful for the reach of the internet that I’ve had positive feedback from riders around the world.
Circling back to the question of drive, talent, and determination — I’m not really sure how to answer that. In terms of drive and determination, at the most basic level, I’ll do what I can to provide for my family. If someone were to pay me to draw the coolest looking nail, or whatever, I’ll do my best to earn that business.
As for talent — that’s something where I’m constantly looking for different inspirations to add to my skill set. I tell my eldest son often that there is no perfection or reaching “the end” — there’s always something to learn and get better at.
Q: Tell me about the art you've produced for Dorna and MotoGP, and how that relationship evolved.
Up until this point, I’ve only worked with Dorna for one year, a partial season actually. They contacted me in May or June of 2019, a few months after I was laid-off from an advertising agency.
Basically, they picked out some work from my website and said that they wanted to develop a comic strip of sorts for each round of the 2019 season. They settled on the name “Rumblestrip” and I quickly got to work designing the logo as well as producing all the illustrations.
In general, after a race meeting, my contact person would email me some highlights or art direction in what they wanted me to portray in the strip. I’d receive these by Monday morning and I’d try to get some rough sketches by Monday or Tuesday. Usually feedback was quick and I would be completing the drawing by Thursday or Friday.
The thing that was tough was all the sponsor logos on the GP bikes. I literally didn’t have the time to add as much detail to each bike/sponsor as I normally would. I ended up getting down the main colors of the bikes, racer numbers, and title sponsors. If I had time, or wanted to emphasize a particular panel, I’d add more of the sponsors.
My contact person(s) were fluent in English, but I felt there was still a communication barrier and throughout the experience I felt I wasn’t communicating as effectively and comfortably as I could and should.
With that said; it was a good experience and I’m proud (and surprised) to say that I worked with Dorna on MotoGP.
Q: What other clients have you produced art for in the past few years?
With regards to motorcycles, starting with the most recent: Rottweiler Performance, American Motorcyclist Association, Cycle World, Motorcyclist Magazine, Upshift Magazine, BMW of San Francisco, Dorna, and Urban Moto.
Q: What bikes do you own, and where do you enjoy riding?
I currently have a 2005 Honda CBR600RR and a 2002 Suzuki DL1000. Unfortunately since lock down and everything associated with that, I haven’t been able to ride. Home schooling and other obligations have led me to take out the battery tender and put that to use.
It’s sad and interesting that my eldest son (who is seven) remembers getting excited when he heard my bike coming down the block on my way home from work. He would wait patiently by the garage door for me to take off my gear before giving me a hug. My two-year-old however, started crying when I started up the 600RR today. I think my toddler has only seen me ride a couple of times in his life! It’s like my two kids know different versions of me. Not sure if that makes sense; but… yeah.
Hopefully, when the boys get a little more independent, I can start puttering around again. I’ll keep my CBR as it’s easier and quicker for me to split lanes around town, but I’ll probably replace the DL with something newer.
Q: What bikes would you like to own, and where would you love to ride?
I still think the original Ducati 916 was pure sex but, I would love to own a Ducati 998 for the living room. Pure fantasy-wise, I’d love to own a 500cc GP bike and have a blast around the old Hockenheim track. Watching videos of the World Superbike and the GP guys blast into the forest was one of the visuals that drew me into motorcycle racing.
Realistically now, my bucket list ride would have to be traversing the Mongolian steppes. There’s something about the vastness and deep history of Mongolia that has captured my imagination for a while now. As for what bike to go on, it would have to be some sort of ADV bike. I liked riding my DL1000 but there’s so many options out there nowadays and I haven’t really looked into them. Since I’ve been working with Rottweiler Performance I’ve been paying attention to KTMs and some of their Super Adventure lines are interesting.
Q: Do you see bikes and art in your sons’ futures?
As of right now, they’re both on bicycles (the youngest is on a balance bike). The younger one is the type of kid that goes head first off a couch so he’s the one I’m more concerned about.
The older one has been watching the GP races with me starting in 2019 when I was doing all that MotoGP stuff. He’s more interested in motorcycles and racing so we’ll see how it goes but have no real urge to put them on bikes right here and now. I think if we lived outside the city and we had more open land, I’d love to have them putter around on dirt bikes.
As for art, it’s totally up to them. I want to show them what I know and if it catches on then — who knows? I think the same can be said with motorcycles, martial arts, and anything else I’ve put time into — I’ll do my best to expose different things to them and if it’s something they show interest in, then I’ll guide and hopefully not get in their way. I just want them to make good and productive choices moving forward.