Discover the craft behind designing a custom Red Bull MTB helmet
© Stacy Glaser
Over the last five years artist Stacy Glaser has painted hundreds of Red Bull helmets. Here he tells us about his craft and the depth of customisation that can go into one of these works of art.
In just 12 years American artist Stacy Glaser has gone from painting custom helmets after hours at automotive shops in his adopted home of Vancouver to customising lids for some of the biggest names in professional mountain biking and in the process making a living from it.
Below, he tells us how he built his career from scratch and takes us through the customization process of a Red Bull helmet, an art he has mastered since stepping into the mountain biking scene.
Word of mouth
Glaser, who grew up in rural New Jersey, was already a mountain biker before he's move to Canada. The freeride mecca of the Sea-to-Sky region (North Vancouver, Squamish and Whistler) was one of the big reasons he ended up in Vancouver, where he enrolled at a local art school.
“After art school ended, I kind of just did my own thing for a while,” says Glaser. “I was mountain biking a lot. So, it was brilliant. I was riding with some local pros for a while and then started painting helmets for them. It was in 2008 that I kind of started doing it casually.”
I was riding with some local pros for a while and then started painting helmets for them
By this time Glaser had created a variety of art in different genres but painting helmets offered a unique challenge. “When I started painting with the airbrush and doing that style, it was on helmets. The helmet was a way that I could sell the art without it just being a canvas – it had a double function. It's an interesting surface to commercialise art.”
Over the years, Glaser painted helmets for some of the world’s best mountain bikers including Tracy Hannah, Geoff Gulevich and the Coastal Crew.
“I’d done a lot of trading and work with companies -- like Rocky Mountain and Pinkbike -- and athletes over the years and that brought me up and helped me get more recognition in the industry. That was a big part of how I developed my business without advertising. It's all about referrals and the word of mouth.”
It’s all in the details
The first helmet that Glaser painted for Red Bull was for Darren Berrecloth in 2015.
“I would never have even thought about contacting Red Bull, I just assumed they had people doing it already,” Glaser admits.
Five years later, he now paints helmets for nearly all the Canadian Red Bull athletes across sports (that require helmets) and a few other notables.
“Red Bull needed Emil’s done here, right before Crankworx Whistler in 2017 -- they had just decided to sign him,” says Glaser. “That was how I connected with Red Bull Sweden and I've done most of the helmets for Johansson since.”
Rather than revelling in the excitement of seeing his work on the world stage, Glaser tends to focus on the technical aspects.
“For me, seeing that the logos can be read and that it looks proper in the photos is important and seeing also, that a lot of those little details do add up, that's nice to know.”
Seeing his helmets on the big screen or from a distance at a live event, it’s nearly impossible to know the level of detail he has worked into the classic Red Bull design. The challenge becomes getting enough meaningful design on the helmets before they get too complex.
“I really try to find a balance between having it be really busy and legible,” says Glaser. The helmets have really specific guidelines as the overarching theme, but each has personal elements for the athlete incorporated.
With the Red Bull helmets, pretty much every single one is unique. They're all different. So, that's cool.
Glaser's way of working is unique
The design and painting of the helmets is labour-intensive. Helmets can take up to four days to complete, based on the complexity of the art. Once the helmet is received, Glaser has to take it apart, prep it, and get the base white layer down. There’s a whole day of doing the logos, then he does the custom graphics, and then there is a finishing process.
“The best way I describe my process is that I paint the helmets backwards.”
What he is referring to is that the first layers of stencils put on the helmets will visually look like they are on top when it is complete.
"I've always painted things this way, it just makes sense to me in a linear way, so I don't have to go back and forth [between the layers]. Whatever is visually on top, like the Red Bull logo, is essentially what I paint first. When I undo everything at the end it comes back to being on top rather than painting the background and then having to paint that level on top of the background.”
In Glaser’s experience, when comparing techniques with other artists who paint Red Bull helmets, his process is quite unique. “It would be interesting to hear their opinions on my process seeing that we get the same results in the end.”
The layering design process in Photoshop is similar to the way that Glaser paints the helmet, giving each project a consistent flow.
“As I’m doing the drawing, I’m creating the stencil, so that’s some of the process combined in one step, usually I do all the graphic designing in-house which gives me better control and saves time. I've got it pretty dialled with the Red Bull helmets now, but I've done projects where I’ve just jumped into it and sometimes I'll struggle because I didn’t plan enough.”
While Glaser frequently has multiple helmets to paint and can create a bit of an assembly line process in his shop, coming up with the design for each athlete can be as unique as the final helmet itself.
“Some of the athletes are more hands-on than others. Some are just happy with whatever I do as I've developed a bit of a relationship with them. And some are more involved, they want to see drawings first and go back and forth a little bit.”
A new helmet for The Claw
Glaser was comfortable when working on the latest work helmet for mountain bike legend Darren Berrecloth earlier in 2020. Berrecloth has a signature bold style and a few trademark characteristics that have been used on all of his helmets. From there, Glaser added some new elements that he hasn’t done before including topo lines. In Berrecloth's words, his new design is a reflection of his world.
“They represent travelling, earth, all the different sports that he does," says Glaser. "There’s the bear that's on top that has been his signature graphic since well before I started painting his helmets. And then he usually has a tree element on either side. I've incorporated the claw slash mark in the last series of helmets for him too.”
Glaser’s craftsmanship has always amazed me how he can come up with such insane graphics time after time! Always been a big fan.
While the Red Bull helmets make up the majority of his workload, Glaser still finds time to do a handful of custom commissions throughout the year. And he enjoys the process of working one-on-one with individuals to develop and create their vision in combination with his skill and talent.
“I really thank Red Bull and applaud them for really supporting the helmet painting industry. It's a very small niche within a niche. But just by enhancing motorsports and other sports, they have enhanced this industry and indirectly created a job for me.”