Vintage motorcycle portraiture gets artist’s motor running

KENNY KEMP | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Artist John Panek secures artwork to the easel. He draws vintage motorcycles with colored pencils on heavyweight rag paper.
KENNY KEMP | Sunday Gazette-Mail
John Panek is surrounded by his vintage motorcycle artwork.
KENNY KEMP | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Bathed in natural light, artist John Panek draws a vintage motorcycle in his studio.
KENNY KEMP | Sunday Gazette-Mail
John Panek uses dozens of colored pencils to create his vintage motorcycle art.

SHINNSTON, W.Va. — John Panek has vintage motorcycling in his blood.

You would often find him as a young man still at work after the night was done and a motorcycle race concluded.

“Many a time, the sun was rising and I was still working on those things because after every race you’d pull the top of the motor off, you’d touch up the valves.”

He got his first racing bike from a straight-up trade — gun for wheels. “I had a .357 Magnum Ruger revolver that I traded for a BSA 1947 350 single. That’s where it went from there.

“BSA in the ’50s was the largest-selling motorcycle in the world. It was a British brand. My group was attracted to British motorcycles. We were anti-Harley. We were Triumph and BSAs and stuff like that.”

Panek, 73, who contracted polio in his eighth-grade year, didn’t let that stop him from riding a motorcycle.

What stopped him was a terrible crash in 1964.

“Went off the road into a tree. Kind of ended my motorcycle career as far as active riding.”

But drawing motorcycles, specifically vintage ones, has now become a part of his creative life.

Panek has a website,, from which people can custom order paintings of their vintage motorcycles.

It helps to have lots of photographs.

“When I do one, we take about 50 photographs. I get a real large amount of photographs going. That way I’ve got a real log of information to go from.”

But when painting vintage cycles, sometimes you have to be careful.

“It’s whoever restored them, if they restored them accurately is the problem. You can do a painting and follow what someone has done and go back to catalogs originally, and it’s wrong.

“A lot of people are chrome-crazy. When they do a restoration, they overdo the chrome. So I’ve gone through a lot of original factory catalogs, and I’ve been able to see original stuff.”

Panek, a graduate of the American Academy of Art in Chicago, has always been a good artist.

“I was drawing all my life. When I was in grade school, I was the best artist in class, all the way through.”

He met his future wife, a West Virginia native, in Chicago, and they married in 1975.

But she always wanted to return to the Mountain State.

“We came looking for property here. We ended up coming through Shinnston so much,” he said.

In 1994, they bought a house that the couple has since transformed into the Gillum House Bed and Breakfast.

Panek joined the Ohio Valley BSA motorcycle owners group.

“I really got into the vintage stuff, and had been drawing all along, but I never really put a lot of tremendous effort into it. Early 2000s and I just got involved with the vintage stuff.”

Panek uses colored pencils on heavyweight rag paper to depict his vintage motorcycles.

He has been a featured artist at Tom McKee’s Sky Ranch All Brands Motorcycle Event in Terra Alta.

“Through him and through Mountain Fest, my paintings have been seen all over, and they’re literally really getting all over the country now, more and more.”

His drawings are as accurate as can be.

“I do a lot of research. I’ve got a vast library on vintage motorcycles, especially the British bikes. I belong to the Ohio Valley BSA owners group; there’s a bunch of really good judges for shows that if I have questions I can ask them.

“I always had the interest in them. I guess that’s why I’m fairly decent at drawing them. I set up racers, I spoked my own wheels. I can tell you almost all motorcycles running have 40 spokes, 20 on each side. And I used to spoke ’em all. I had my own truing things and all that.

“Norman Rockwell said paint what you know best, because that way you’ll be able to convince people that it’s real. He’s one of my heroes, and Frederic Remington is my all-time hero as far as beautiful artists. He left a lot of beautiful art. I’ve chased all over the country seeing his stuff.”

Panek’s paintings generally start around $2,000 and he figures he generally puts in more than 200 hours into each one of them.

“The collectors, they’re the real ones that I do paintings for. The guys that own an Indian that’s worth $50,000 to $75,000. I did a painting of a Vincent Black Lightning, which was a high-end Vincent. Vincents, they consider it sort of the Cadillac of the British industry — very high performance. The early ones were made from melted-down Spitfire engines and Hurricane engines after World War II. That machine, who knows who much it’s worth. I’ve heard $100,000; I’ve heard $200,000.

“The accuracy is one of my main features,” Panek said. “The best possible way to illustrate a machine that I know how, I will do.

“It’s been fun to do and I wake up every morning and I just can’t wait to get at it.”

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