Every morning at 4:00 am, Carlos Rivas starts his day at Universal Studios Hollywood, California. He is always ready for an interesting and challenging day with a spray gun in his hand.
Not everyone gets to spend their day painting theme park figures. At Universal, Carlos is part of a team of scenic artists. “I get to utilize all the skills I’ve learned over the years repairing figures, painting faux finishes, adding multiple colors, airbrushing and so much more,” Carlos said.
These theme park characters get a lot of action every day in family photos and selfies, so there is definitely wear and tear on the figures. “You never know what kind of challenge you will come across, if a figure is scratched or cracked in an unusual or tight spot, I have to figure out how I’m going to repair and paint it so it looks picture-worthy again,” he noted. His go-tos are the SATAminijet 4400, SATAgraph 4, or one of his large SATA guns - it all depends on the job and the space he has to work with. “It’s rewarding to know that when the park opens for the day all the park figures and amusements are looking their best, and that my experience helped me to get to where I am right now.”
In the Early Years
Carlos had passion for cars like many other young kids his age growing up in southern California. Going to car shows and collecting lowrider magazines were some of his favorite hobbies. “All the beautiful custom candy paint jobs caught my eye, with the metal flake, patterns, and graphics, it was a dream of mine to be able to do this myself,” Carlos recalled. So, he began working on his neighbors’ and friends’ cars: stripping the cars to the metal, doing body work, prepping, sanding, painting, anxious to learn the trade.
Carlos jumped right into candies at an early age, learning everything he could. “The first candy you do, you really don’t know what you’re doing. After that first one is out of the way, now you know where you messed up and how you have to treat it,” Carlos said. “I caught on quick because I had a passion for it, I love to lay down a beautiful candy paint job. The hardest thing to paint is a solid straight candy, I love the deep, rich colors over a silver base, the candy lights up and just pops!”
In the 90s, he started working for Andres Auto Body in North Hollywood, CA. The owner, Andre Duquette sent him to Dupont refinish classes where he took a hands-on color tri-coat class to learn how to properly spot in a three-stage pearl paint job.
Andre also owns Valley Car Colours where Carlos learned how to mix paint, color match and help customers with questions about mixing and applications. “They are a distributor of SATA, so this is where I first started using SATA spray guns and I realized it was my spray gun of choice,” he said.
To this day, Carlos still has a strong relationship with the Duquette family, Andres’ children and now owners, Travis and Ashley. They continue to provide him with his SATA needs and the use of their spray booths to help him accomplish his projects. “The Duquette family has played a major role in my life,” Carlos emphasized. “They are a part of my support network.”
In early 2000, Carlos opened up his own body shop called Royal Custom Auto Body, where he did custom painting and insurance work. He painted a lot of custom candy paint jobs and was contacted by Lexington Scenery and Props in Los Angeles, CA to do a custom candy apple red paint job for a traveling museum exhibit. They were impressed with Carlos’ work and later hired him permanently.
When working for Lexington Scenery and Props, Carlos was able to use all his artistic skills in faux finishes such as woodgraining, rock work, aging, airbrushing and automotive finishes. He began learning how to paint theme park characters – he was blessed to be a part of the crew who worked on Justice League figures. The company also did a lot of work with museums, art shows, and permanent exhibits.
One of Carlos’ most interesting experiences was learning about 3D Pop Art at a company that did art fabrication for 3D artists. Every day was something new, painting molds with a lot of different shapes, sizes, and figures. Many of the 3D Pop Art pieces are then displayed by the artist at different art galleries around the country. “I told my wife, Susan, one day I’m going to create my own pieces and have them in an art gallery,” Carlos quipped.
All of this experience led to where he is right now at Universal.
Expressing Art in Many Forms
“I love art and appreciate the hard work artists put in to creating something beautiful,” Carlos stated. Because of his love for a beautiful candy paint job, and his dream of one day having his own 3D art in a gallery, he has been creating his own molds he calls ‘Candy Cat’. He is enjoying designing cats that look like they got dipped into a gallon of candy paint, with dazzling metal flake along with a beautiful candy paint job. “The ideas are endless! There’s so much that I can do with this, so I am always thinking outside the box, trying to be original,” he stated.
Right now, Carlos is working on a blue bandana Candy Cat with white paisley, and also a Sugar Skull Candy Cat. His Candy Cats are probably the hardest thing he’s ever had to paint due to all the odd shapes and small spaces. To paint something that isn’t flat he just follows the same rule as every other object, paint the front, back, then top, sides, and bottom.
He’s also playing around with more mold ideas, 2022 is going to be the year to work hard on his art pieces, and he is excited to have started on his journey.
Another way Carlos expresses his art is on custom lowriders, not only does he do fantastic graphics and shades on some of these lowriders, but also beautiful murals. He’s painted many lowriders that have won Best in Class, Best Metal Flake, and more. One lowrider he’s very proud of is the 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo “Orgullo Mexicano” that he painted for a client. Not only did it win Best Lowrider of the Year three years in a row, but it’s also museum worthy appearing in the Robert Peterson Museum, in Los Angeles, CA.
Carlos had the privilege of getting to know Wild Bill Carter, a West Coast legend in the custom painting world. “He was someone I looked up to,” Carlos remembered. “I rented his spray booth while working on some classic cars.” He enjoyed their visits, and the time Bill Carter took to share his photo albums and pass along helpful tips. “Carter had a classic old school style that never went out of style, he was a master of his craft, creating beautiful fades and color combinations.”
Another of his favorite artists is Jeff Koons, who designs Balloon Animals using stainless steel, Carlos favorite is the iconic Balloon Dog. The Balloon Dogs are polished to a mirror finish, then they’re candied and clear coated. “His work is amazing,” Carlos commented. “I’m always up for a challenge, even if I could paint a little one, I would be ecstatic.”
Carlos’ Words of Advice
When it comes to painting you need to have a passion for it. Everything is a learning process; it won’t happen overnight but with some patience it will happen.
Pay attention to details from the beginning to the end, there are so many elements that you have to work in, temperature, humidity, and more. Remember that every step matters which includes the foundation.
Not enough can be said about the foundation being the most important part of the process, everything else is just icing on the cake. If your foundation is not done properly, your paint will fail. You don’t want a nice paint job to crack on you because you didn’t prep the foundation correctly.
“Every step is critical to me, clean, clean, and clean! Clean and wipe down between every step to remove any impurities because if you don’t, then the paint won’t adhere properly, and it will fail,” he said. “Another important step is when sanding be sure everywhere you sand is dull and there are not any shiny surfaces anywhere, especially check in crevices. If you cut corners then it won’t last, but If you do things right you will succeed.”