(Updated from Classic Car Passion website)
Wallace Alfred Wyss…. an Interview with the artist…
WALLACE WYSS is a native of Detroit but moved to California in 1969 to continue his work as an automotive writer. Before that, he had been in advertising , writing ads for Chevrolet in the original “muscle car” era of the ’60s. In 2009 he made his first painting and is now transitioning into the world of fine art. He gave us this exclusive interview.
Q. As a writer, what magazines did you work for?
Wyss: I started on Motor Trend, then went to CAR LIFE, and then when that magazine went bust, rejoined Motor Trend in 1970 and stayed until 1972. Then decades later I contributed to Car and Driver. Plus I wrote for magazines in many countries, from Japan to Australia.
Q. What about your books?
Wyss: I wrote the first one Shelby’s Wildlife: the Cobras and the Mustangs, in 1977. That was a sort of hit-50,000 sold over 17 years in print, and then wrote approximately nine more in the intervening years.
Q. During all this time you didn’t know you were an artist?
Wyss: I had planned to major in art in college but immediately switched to writing when a summer intern program was opened offering a job in advertising copywriting. After graduation I first wrote Oldsmobile ads then switched to the agency with the Chevrolet account.
Q. What were your books on?
Wyss: One on the rotary engine, two on Ferrari, one on Porsche, one on drag racing, three on Corvette and three on Shelby. The most recent are a series under the blanket title “Incredible Barn Finds” all from Enthusiast Books, Hudson, WI.
Q. So you made your first painting when?
Wyss: I did it purely as a promotional effort. I was going to the Beverly Hills car show on Rodeo Drive with the idea of promoting my book on Shelby which had just come out. I brought along an oil painting I had made of Carroll Shelby when he was an up-and-coming race driver and a small picture of the painting. I sold the book to a publisher I met there and when I showed him the picture of the painting, he asked “Where’s the painting?” and I said “In my car, six blocks away.” He said “Go get it, you sold that too.” On the long walk back, I thought “If they want my art, I’ll be an artist.”
Q. So Shelby cars featured in your first paintings?
Wyss: Yes, I knew I was going to be doing a few book signings at bookstores, so wanted to have something to put on the book singing table. So, for the first year or so, I made paintings of a chrome Kirkham 427(a Cobra replica–Ed.) , a Gulf GT40 that won LeMans, an ’06 Ford GT, small block Cobras and so forth. After that year, I decided to do some Ferraris and Porsches and other cars that have interested me through the years. Ironically some of my favorite cars I still haven’t painted because I don’t have good reference photos. Maybe I have a photo but it wasn’t shot at the right time of day for the light to “define” the voluptuous shape. So now I am going to car events late in the day to get that “golden light.”
Q. Would we recognize the photograph from seeing the painting?
Wyss: Sometimes-it depends on how realistic I want to get. For instance in my painting of Dan Gurney in the Targa Florio in a Cobra 289, I was using a Ford PR photograph that was only made available in black and white. I taped the picture on the corner of my paper and told myself ‘If I can’t mix the color of the car right, I won’t do it’ but when the color came out correct on the car, I decided to go ahead and make the whole painting.
Q. Do you do a lot of research on your period paintings?
Wyss: A lot of car art collectors are bugs on accuracy. So I have to make some effort to make sure the color of the car is right if it’s a race car. For instance once I painted a ’63 Cobra with a hardtop at LeMans but made the car red. Fortunately I hadn’t ordered any prints before I checked a few websites and found out the colors of the two Cobras at LeMans that year were light green on one car and white on the other.
So I have to repaint the car to get the color right before I make any reproductions.
Q. Would you be pleased with the title “super-realist?”
Wyss: I think another term for that style now in vogue is “hyper-realism.” That adjective would only apply to some of my work, for instance my Gulf GT40 at Monterey. It’s hard to tell the background in that painting from a photograph. But other times , when there is a problem with the background, say a 1995 truck in back of a ’59 Ferrari Testa Rossa, I will either blank out the background in white or render it in dark shadows so as not to distract from the car.
Yet not every painting has this abstracted background. I am still searching for a style I can call my own.
Q. Do you go back and change things in your work?
Wyss: Rarely. Only say one out of 20 paintings I print on canvas as a “giclee”( pronounced GHEE CLAY) Sometimes as I see that around my house, I become dissatisfied with it , maybe the colors, and paint right over portions of it, creating what in the art world is called an “embellished” giclee. It no longer can carry the number it was assigned in a limited edition because, by virtue of being modified, it has become a one-off. But if they were all run off as giclee prints and I didn’t touch them with a brush they could be numbered as a signed limited edition.
Q. When you paint a race car that is in modern vintage racing, do you make the whole painting “period?”
Wyss: No, only a few depict racing in the original era of the car since I wasn’t around racetracks in the Fifties and didn’t shoot photos at the races I went to in the Sixties. Most are from vintage racing. The problem with vintage racing is that, in the open cars, the owner might have spent hundreds of thousands making his car authentic, but as soon as he puts on that modern full face helmet he destroys the “period” look of my photo. I haven’t decided whether to paint old style helmets on the drivers or not. If I do, then
I can’t label the event I saw it at because if you were
there you know they weren’t using vintage helmets.
Q. What’s your favorite media?
Wyss: I started doing watercolors but grew frustrated with the transparency so I switched to acrylics which can be both transparent and opaque depending on how much water you thin them out with.
Q. Who are your favorite automotive artists?
Wyss: Just about everyone in a very exclusive group called the “Automotive Fine Arts Society.” I think Ken Dallison is the best in watercolors, then I like Jay Koka for his willingness to change styles and Nicola Wood for her subtleties. I would say the AFAS show at Pebble Beach is my favorite day of the year. When you see me there, you’ll see that I’m happy as a pig in mud.
Q. Any advice on shooting pictures?
The time of the day is the most critical in terms of “shooting for art.” I used to favor mornings but now, because of fog, I prefer late afternoon particularly if it is a sunny day. The problem is, most events end too early and end at say 4:30 pm when the light is just starting to get good at 6:30 pm!
Q. Where do you see car art going?
Wyss: Except for a handful of artists like Geo Hamm, in the world of fine art, any painting depicting a car was shunted off to a back tributary.
I believe the sale of a single painting may change all that. When Jack Vettriano’s painting “Bluebird at Bonneville”-depicting Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bonneville speed record car (see http://www.squidoo.com/jack-vettriano), sold for almost a million dollars recently, I think those in the fine arts community had to readjust their prejudice against automotive art, and realize that depictions of cars are not just for greasy-fingered car people-that there are many connoisseurs of the fine arts who also collect automobiles like Ralph Lauren. I predict there will be more almost million dollar sales of automotive art in the next decade.
Q. What prices are you work selling for?
Wyss: My 11” x 17” prints on watercolour paper are currently priced at $45. That includes shipping them rolled up, within the US. Giclee prints on canvas start at $250.00, and the price varies according to size.
For commissioned work, I have a price chart on size and those need an advance deposit, plus we have to accept the pictures sent as suitable for inspiring the painting….