Have there been different influences on your personal work than on your illustration?
Yes. The greatest influence on my personal work is my own life. My current work and the things I am experiencing seem to spiral automatically into metaphors that can be painted and made into images that are important to me.
When did you start moving away from illustration?
In 1988 I had a serious creative block and I created my first 2 Passage paintings as a means of escape from my depression. It worked, but I was never the same again. From that point on I was looking forward to my next opportunity to paint something for myself.
Do you wish you had started earlier or had never begun as an illustrator?
I probably should have dedicated all my efforts to my personal work sooner, but I do not regret my years as an illustrator in the slightest. It was excellent training and mostly fun and rewarding. Also, I don’t feel that I was ready to begin my personal work until I was almost 40. I had to do the preparatory work, mature somewhat, experience things worth making art about…all of that.
How is your approach to your personal work different from your approach to illustration?
When I do an illustration, there are a host of people I am aiming to please – the reader, the author, the publisher – and myself. There is nothing like that with my personal work. I am compelled to do it. I don’t even have a conscious thought like “today I’ll go in my studio and paint something from my own imagination”. I just do it.
Where do you get your ideas?
They come from all sorts of places:
- Intellectual musings sparked by events in my life or things I’ve learned in books or elsewhere.
- Images that appear in my mind at random times and places.
- Images or concepts suggested to me during dreams, waking dreams, or during meditation.
It’s important that I cultivate and maintain an open attitude to these influences, to stay as open as I can to things which may be trying to speak to me and suggest new images. It took many years for me to come to that realization. This may be what people mean when they say “talent.”
Was it difficult to go from illustration to fine art?
Not so much. It was a very gradual process.
The difficult thing for me was to learn that I couldn’t do both at the same time. I found that I can’t simply turn a mental switch and hop from one modality to the other without a significant adjustment period in between. I wish it weren’t so. I wasted a lot of time figuring that out!
How did you find an audience for your fine art?
At first, I didn’t think about a possible audience, I just had to do it. A few years later, I approached Bantam Books about doing another art book and this time 2/3 of it would feature my illustration and 1/3 would be my personal work. I received a large enough advance that I could afford to take off almost a year to design and write the book and to do several personal paintings. THE ART OF MICHAEL WHELAN was published in 1993 and the Mill Pond Press, a well-established limited edition print company, published prints of several of the paintings.
Were you surprised by the positive reactions to your personal work?
Yes, very surprised. I was happy doing the paintings for myself and it has taken me some time to realize that they were connecting with people, because the works are so different from what I was known for and are quite personal to me.
Are you going to publish another coffee table art book?
I hope so. In the meantime, this website will have to serve.
Where do you exhibit and sell your fine art?
I sell some of it directly from my studio and through this website, but my primary gallery is Tree’s Place in Cape Cod, Massachussetts.
My family and I were vacationing on Cape Cod and I went to Tree’s Place to see work by one of my favorite artists Robert Vickrey. The owner at the time, Julian Baird, found out who I was and I told him about my personal work. He asked me to send him a copy of my book. I did and a week later he drove down to Connecticut, took back some paintings, and sold them. The following year I had a very successful one man show there. I had a second one man show in 1999 and was honored to have a two-man show with Mr. Vickrey in 2002.
Do you exhibit in other galleries?
Sometimes. I’m not very prolific and I’m in the happy but awkward position of selling most of my personal work. Up until now, I haven’t been able to accumulate enough paintings to maintain a continual stream of work in more than one gallery in addition to selling works myself.
Why do you take the time to put in symbols and so much detail into your work?
That’s the way my visions look to me. The symbols are used to communicate ideas and other intangibles in a sort of visual shorthand. In general, I relegate certain sets of related symbols to certain sets of paintings that are linked in concept or theme.
- For example, the “bubble” in my Passage paintings represents undying mentality, or consciousness, or “soul.”
- The Virtues paintings all contain Dactyloceras ammonite fossils as a symbol of loss and extinction.
Is it hard for a former illustrator to make it as a fine artist?
Often it is. There has been a deep-seated bias against illustration in the fine art world for a long time, but there are signs that it is easing somewhat. It probably had more to do with the fact that most illustrators worked realistically than for any other reason. Now that Realism seems to be on the rebound, the barriers against illustrators seem to be lifting a little.
It seems odd that it would ever be so, considering the historical record. Just think of all the famous American artists who began as illustrators: Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Remington, Parrish, Andy Warhol, to name a few.
Do you ever have trouble thinking of something to paint?
No – quite the opposite. I hope I live long enough to paint the ideas I have already had! As I get older, I find the possibilities rain in on me all the time. The problem is distinguishing between the relative merits of the ideas and choosing which ones are worth spending time on.
What is your biggest challenge for you now?
Making the best use of my time as possible. I’m just hoping to live long enough to get a fair chunk of my personal work done.