MORGAN WEISTLING'S FATHER HAD HIM DRAWING ON HIS LAP AT THE AGE OF ONE. THEN, EARLY IN HIS CHILDHOOD, HE BEGAN DRAWING FROM HIS FATHER'S ANDREW LOOMIS BOOKS AND PRINCE VALIANT COMICS. DURING HIS HIGH SCHOOL YEARS, WEISTLING RECEIVED TRAINING FROM RETIRED ILLUSTRATOR FRED FIXLER, WHERE HE LEARNED MANY OF THE SKILLS HE RELIES ON IN HIS ART TODAY. AT NINETEEN, WEISTLING WAS HIRED TO WORK FOR A MAJOR MOVIE POSTER AGENCY IN HOLLYWOOD. AFTER FOURTEEN YEARS WORKING THERE, HE DECIDED TO MAKE THE MOVE INTO THE FINE ART WORLD, WHICH HAS LED HIM ON THE PATH TO THE WELL-RECOGNIZED ARTIST HE IS TODAY.
Das Bork: What was it like going from movie poster art to doing fine art?
Morgan Weistling: Well, I painted posters for Bloody Pom Poms and Trident Force, and I do love doing that action stuff. It was fun doing explosions and such for a while.
DB: Oh, yeah. I remember reading that you rented a helicopter.
MW: Yeah, for $500 an hour you could rent a helicopter. I had him hover about twenty feet over me so I could photograph the bottom of it.
DB: No way.
MW: I needed that shot for Last Action Hero with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I needed to paint the bottom of a helicopter. At that time, they would give you unlimited budgets. Just do whatever it takes. That was fun! I went to junkyards and would buy crashed Ninja motorcycles, and then Iíd set them on fire in my driveway so I could photograph what it would look like. My neighbors were always freaking out about it. "What is he doing over there?!?"
MW: Because I was one of those guys that really wanted to see what it would really look like. I didnít just want to make it up. I wanted to see what fire would look like coming out of an engine and all that kind of stuff. And that has also come into my fine art because of the way I am. Everything has to be researched and has to be just the way I want to see it. I donít like to make it up.
DB: Where do you get the props for your work?
MW: The costume stuff I have made for me by a seamstress. I actually have a Civil War seamstress that makes all the stuff for me. Then I have to go to swap meets and antique stores for the rest. My studio is full of this crud. So that's the part of it that's a little tiring, because I have to keep buying new stuff. I just canít keep using the same bucket over and over again.
DB: But it's kind of neat though. The props and research you do is kind of in the same vein of N.C. Wyeth.
MW: Well, yeah. Growing up, my heroes were Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Dean Cornwell, and [Norman] Rockwell. So the big illustrators were a big influence on me, and they still are.
DB: So what was it like going from illustration to fine art? Your first show was a big success; was it weird for you, or were you surprised at all?
MW: Well, it's not like you get a show the first thing off. I had been selling for the first few months. I donít remember how long it took to get my one-man show put together. You know, I probably had a year to put it together. I was already seeing the response, so I was already getting the good idea that people were interested in my work. Of course at that time, I was so cheap that even I could afford the paintings. That's how cheap they were, so no wonder they were selling. But youíve got to start out somewhere, and I had to start out at the bottom all over again. Because I had worked up to a point where, in my movie posters, my usual price was $20,000 to $25,000 for a poster. And you know, that was just fantastic! That was euphoria! Iíd work on one painting and we were set for quite a while. Then I went down and put my whole heart and soul into real painting, fine art paintings, which I thought were worth more than anything Iíd ever done. Iím selling them for $1,500 and Iím going, "Oh my gosh. How am I ever going to make a living doing this?" It was kind of depressing in a way. Everyone loved the work, but I wasnít making any money doing it. That's one thing I found out about fine art is that it's truly not hard to get a name. It's fairly easy. There are magazines there to support you, and if you're hot and new, all of a sudden everyone wants to do an article on you and everyone knows your name. But it doesnít turn into money in any quick time. Itís been seven years for me, and Iím just starting to get to the point where I feel like I could make a living at it. It's really a slower process than people might think it is. So my first one-man show was a big success. I sold out, which is great, but Iíd love to get all those paintings back and sell them again.
MW: But at that point, I thought Iíd better get into some shows. That was my next thought, that I should win some awards and get my name connected to some awards. So that was my next goal.
DB: What were some of the awards?
MW: Well, I got into the Autry Museum-- the Masters of the American West show. Second year into it, I got a Peopleís Choice Award, which was cool. Then I got into the Prix de West Show in Oklahoma at the Cowboy Hall of Fame. Second year into that I won the Prix de West Award, the main award, where the museum buys the painting and keeps it on permanent display. So that was really cool. That was a big deal. I also won the Peopleís Choice Award that same night. I was the youngest person to win that award. So that was all cool stuff. But then the next morning you go, "Okay, is life going to be different?"
MW: In fine art, all you have to do is one bad painting and everyone wonders if youíre slipping. Itís still got all the pressures on it of people expecting things from you. In illustration, art directors are expecting from me. And now itís common, everyday people expecting things from me.
DB: Itís a lot of pressure. A lot of people are going to be looking at the stuff.
MW: A lot of people. For me, ever since I was in art school, Iíve always painted for myself and for other artists. That's who I really try to think about, because a normal, everyday person would look at a painting, no matter how loose it is, and say, "That looks just like a photograph!" You know, I donít really want to hear that. But the greatest compliment from other artists would be, "Man, I really like the edges you did on that." That's like, "Yeah, good. Iím glad that Iíve kept it to a skill level that other artists think is okay." If you start to lose the respect of other artists, then slowly that will dribble down to normal people.
DB: Well, Iíve got to say that youíre one of the guys I look at for good edge work.
MW: Thanks, I appreciate that. Fred Fixler helped out a lot with that.
DB: Okay, I want to talk about style and technique for a bit. First off, how do you describe your style?
MW: I guess Iím an impressionistic realist because, for me, Iím painting impressions of things. Iím not painting them literally. I wouldnít say Iím [Claude] Monet. For me, itís impressionism in figurative work. Theyíre not color studies-- theyíre impressionistic realist paintings.
DB: You say itís impressionistic because--
MW: It's very painterly. In other words, when you get close, it doesnít look like much. Itís very abstract. But the more you step back, the more it comes together. So that's always been my kind of love when I look at other paintings. When I get up close, I like to see thick paint and dabs of color. I donít want to see eyelashes. That's just my personal taste. What cracks me up is that real tight painters-- who I respect highly-- do what they do because it's their personality. But then theyíll talk to me and tell me how much they wish they could paint loose. And Iím thinking, "How funny is it that here you are, an artist expressing yourself in supposedly the way your personality is, and yet you're painting in a completely contrary manner than what you like about other peopleís artwork?" They donít study other tight painters, they love the looser painters. Theyíre always talking about Scott Burdick and Dan Gerhartz and Richard Schmid. Theyíre never satisfied with the fact that they are painting hair on the back of a wolf, or eyelashes.
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DB: Why is that, do you think?
MW: I donít know. If I had a dollar every time a tight realist told me that... I donít understand.
DB: When I look at tight paintings I think they're really good, but the process just seems painful to me.
MW: Well, I think after a while it gets painful for the artist. It must get to the point where youíve already made your name known being that, and it must be very hard to break away from that. It must be horrible to be stuck in that position. That's why, from the very beginning with fine art, I made sure I painted the way I really wanted to paint. You know, I didnít really try to figure out what people wanted. I just said to myself, "Iím going to do what I thought I was going to do when I was back in art school." Iím not going to think about what I did as an illustrator, which was very tight stuff. I was competing with photorealistic stuff, so I just threw all that away. I wasnít going to project drawings anymore. I was just going to start from scratch and paint the way I thought a real artist was supposed to do it. My technique came out of doing everything contrary to what I did as an illustrator.
DB: Even your color. I wanted to talk about that for a bit. You work with a cool color palette, I think. Is that accurate?
MW: Yeah. And that's not because Iím thinking that I want to paint cool. The paintings that I paint outdoors with sunlight arenít that way at all. But I paint a lot in my studio, which is with the northern light. I live in California, which means I have no clouds-- there are no clouds in California. I have a blue sky every single day, and it's really blue. Where I live, there is no smog. So it's so blue in my room that when a model sits down in front of me, all I see is blues and greens and purples. My palette has become what my studio gives me.
DB: Do you set up your palette in that way, by the types of colors you use?
MW: Actually, our palette is set up more naturally for this, because we all use white. No matter what white you use, it's always a cold white. White isnít warm. So when you mix white into any color you are cooling it down. So if anybody has ever experienced what they call "chalky color", itís probably because they are trying to paint something that is lit with a warm light, yet they are trying to paint it with a cold white. Warm light does not translate well with cold white. So it's kind of nice to paint with northern light because itís actually more consistent with the way our palettes work. With watercolors, they are able to get away from that chalkiness because it's a totally different process in how to get a nice warm light. But the more you want to lighten something up, what are you going to use? In art school, Naples yellow was about the lightest warm color you could use to lighten things with, but Naples yellow has lead in it. And I said to myself, "If Iím going to do this for the next fifty years, I donít think Iím going to use Naples yellow."
DB: Thatís probably a good idea.
MW: So I paint with northern light now.
DB: I want to talk about your larger paintings, like your ones with multiple figures in it, like "Twilight Dancers" and "The Family Trade". How do you approach doing those?
MW: On the larger paintings, for me, I donít really think about the fact that they are multiple figures, because Iíve worked in illustration doing nothing but multiple figures. I worked on the Police Academy posters, and every poster was ten people and twenty hands. I got really good at hands.
DB: I would just hide the hands.
MW: (laughs) There were hands in every painting because everyone had to be holding a gun. But paintings like "The Family Trade" are all born out of a really simple idea, like something silly sounding. Like, "I like blacksmiths." So Iíll sit there and think, "Well, I really like blacksmiths, and I like the whole idea of having this stuff on his arms, like soot and fire and metal." It's a great combination of great painting ideas. So Iíll do a little pencil sketch, and then comes the hard part. "Who am I going to get to be a blacksmith, and where am I going to get a blacksmith shop?" These are the kinds of things that will keep an idea on paper only, unless you get out on the road and start finding that stuff. Sometimes it takes a month or two to find all this stuff. I always see myself as a movie director and producer and the writer. I have to come up with the idea, come up with the sets, I have to hire the actors, I have to put this whole thing together, and itís exhausting. The painting is easy. Iím not kidding, it's so easy when youíve got it all together. Then you go, "Oh, thank god I donít have to talk to one more model and do all this work." Itís just so much more fun to just sit down when all of that is done and just paint for a while. If someone asked me how long it took me to do "The Family Trade", Iím thinking, "Well, it took about three weeks to actually paint it, but it took two months to find all the actors."
DB: Yeah. Youíve got the anvil, youíve got the clothing... where did you get the setting?
MW: Well, at first I did a lot of research in books, looking at a lot of blacksmith shops. Then I just happened to go to an amusement park where we live called Knottís Berry Farm. They had a blacksmith shop, and it was 100 years old. It was transplanted from another spot, it was a real shop, and they did real blacksmithing there for people to watch. So I talked to them and said, "Hey, Iím an artist who would love to do a painting using this as a backdrop. Can I photograph all this stuff?" And they said sure. I had to come back a couple times because I kept getting angles I didnít want. It took a while to get what I wanted, and I really just pieced it together. Itís not really exactly how it appears, because I like to compose things so that there are no tangences so that the eye will travel around. So I was moving stuff and constantly piecing it together. So it is basically a Knottís Berry Farm blacksmith shop, and then I had to pose the models in my studio to match the light. Because, obviously, I couldnít paint it at Knottís Berry Farm, so I had to simulate the whole thing here in my studio, the whole bit. I had gone through three blacksmiths before I got the guy that I liked. I had painted one guy who had a big belly, and it just kept not looking right, so I repainted that guy all over. I completely finished the painting, and then I completely repainted the blacksmith guy. I will not send it out of the studio unless itís the way I wanted. So it takes a while and it costs a lot. By the time Iím done, it might sell for what seems like a lot of money, but I think I could make more money working at Taco Bell if I look at how many hours I spent on it.
DB: Who are some of the models you put in your paintings?
MW: I go to Civil War reenactments. I find a lot of people who are interested in living in the past. Most of them have a look to them, too, that looks like they lived a hundred years ago, so a lot of them bring their own costumes. Like in "Twilight Dancers"-- that was at a Civil War reenactment, and all the actors have an actual dance at night. I had seen it before and realized I had to paint this thing. So I put it together as an idea, and then I had to go to the dance. That was a mess because I shot it at twilight. I photographed that one because people arenít going to be posing live for that. Shooting people dancing with hardly any light and no flash, all you get are what looks like ghosts moving around. So I did have to pose a couple back here at my studio and have them dance. It took a while to get the look. I wanted it to feel like it had movement to it. If you ever see the original, itís very loose; thereís not a lot of detail. There's an impression that thereís a lot of detail, but these things are really big dabs of color. I was inspired to paint that one, to be honest, kind of like a Dean Cornwell. You familiar with his work?
DB: Yeah, Iím familiar with his work.
MW: A lot of people thought I was doing an Anders Zorn rip-off, but it was Dean Cornwell who I was ripping off in terms of style. I just wanted to make sure that I could keep that thing loose, because if I would start to tighten up a head or a dress the movement of the dance would stop.
DB: In the art world, youíve been doing this for a while now, both illustration and fine art. In your experience, what are peopleís attitudes towards art today?
MW: Well, Iíll just say that when I was an illustrator all I had contact with were art directors. I never got to talk to a human being outside of that, about what they thought of my work. Nobody cared... I was anonymous. In some ways, being anonymous was great because you could get away with murder, because no one cares.
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MW: You donít have to please the world. People donít have to know why you painted something. But the thing I hated was, I had to be told what to do. Art directors generally didnít know what a soft edge was. They thought I had blurred something by accident.
DB: Yeah, I know what you mean.
MW: "No, that's a soft edge." "Well, weíd rather have a hard outline around it." Delete. So that's the life I led for fourteen years. So here I was trained to not do that, and I was told to do that for fourteen years. When I did my very first fine art painting that I was going to do for myself, I said I was just going to walk around to galleries and just show it. When I got reactions from gallery owners that said, "Oh my gosh, I love these edges. You know, this reminds me of...." Theyíd name [John Singer] Sargent, theyíd name [Nicolai] Fechin, and I was going, "These are names no one even dared mention in the illustration world." These people knew who I was influenced by, and it freaked me out. I was like, "Oh my gosh, I think I found home."
DB: Man, that must have been a great feeling.
MW: It was. I practically cried that day. Because really, I was doing the other stuff for fourteen years, so that was euphoric. So my first year or two was euphoric, just being able to paint edges and have fun and, you know, people liked it and all that. So that was great. It really is the same for me in the end; nothing really changed. It just gets a little more political, thatís all. It's easy to make your splash, but it's hard to keep your splashes splashing. So youíre always having to worry about, "Well, I canít disappear from the art scene. I gotta always make sure Iím doing something that people are talking about." You start worrying about that all the time, and that's the only part that's a bummer. But itís not a perfect world. If we didnít have to think that way, we'd probably just get lazy as artists and not try very hard. The attitudes from the people are still the same. I find that art collectors and art gallery directors are beautiful people, because they appreciate what we want to do for a living, which is to just still be children. Iím living the life of a child, so how could I complain about this? "My god, they are wanting to spend $10,000 on a painting that was basically me playing around?" You know, Iím not going to complain about this life. We could get cynical for a while; it can feel like a treadmill at times. But then I watch a friend lay bricks for a living, and then I think, "Okay, it's alright. Iíll do another painting."
DB: Any advice you have for new and emerging artists?
MW: Yeah. I notice that people, when they first start out, end up looking like someone else thatís just suddenly made a success. It's like, right now there's no where else to go but fine art. It used to be that you had big choices, but right now it seems like nobody has a choice but fine art. So they look in the magazines and see whatís out there already. Itís like they find out whoís selling, and then Iíll see more carbon copies of what somebody else is doing, and it really is so boring. So I think my number one advice is, if youíre starting out, find your voice about what youíre interested in. I mean, I get emails almost daily, like, "Do you think people will buy this and that?" You will get tired of it because you think someone else wants it. Be original, and people will notice you immediately. That's the best way to get attention, is to be original. If you are into muscle cars and you dig Mustangs, hey, figure out how to work that into your art. You will love your life for the rest of your life if youíre painting what you love. If you love painting your wife all the time, paint your wife. Do ten paintings of your wife, and people will feel how much you love what youíre doing; if youíre painting what you love and painting a subject matter that is near and dear to your heart. That's the most important thing a person can do. Iím painting exactly what I want to paint for all the different reasons I have. I like costumes, I like make-believe, I like fun-- whatever it is, that's what I paint.
DB: Okay, I've got one last question. Itís one we ask everyone we interview. In your opinion, do dogs have lips?
MW: (pauses, laughs) Yes, in having grown up with a dog my whole life-- I donít have one anymore-- but I can say for certain that dachshunds have lips.
DB: Sounds good.
MW: And I have a lot of documentation to back it up.
CHECK OUT THE WORKSHOP WE DID ON MORGAN BY CLICKING HERE.