Aug 25 2008 1:00pm

Michael Whelan: Galleries v. Illustration

Michael Whelan

As mentioned before, IO Gallery, in Connecticut, will host an exhibit of Michael Whelan’s and Scott Fischer's paintings, September 6th-October 12th.

Michael Whelan made the switch from illustration to primarily being a gallery painter about 10-15 years ago. I asked him a couple of questions about that evolution. (Note: Only someone with Michael’s talent and hard-earned career can call illustration a source of “steady cash flow”! )

Michael Whelan : Destiny's RoadWas the transition from illustration to galleries difficult, artistically and/or from a business point of view?

Not from an artistic side, certainly. It has been incredibly liberating to be free to select my own subjects, sizes, and all that.

The business side, however, takes a lot of getting used to. Particularly hard is the adjustment going from regular paychecks to getting paid at random times, never sure when or if something will sell. Also, it’s nerve-wracking to put in a year’s work towards the gamble of a one-man show, where you could as easily sell nothing as sell out everything. There are no guarantees, and the art market is notoriously subject to economic downturns, fancies, fads and stylistic whims, not to mention being at the mercy of the aptitude of the gallery salespeople themselves. And I thought I was going to alleviate my stress levels by leaving illustration for gallery painting! Ha!

But all that is balanced by the luxury of being able to spend the time I feel I need to develop an idea of my own. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, “It's all in the difference between painting for pay and getting paid for what you are painting.”

Since you’ve made the switch to doing gallery work, is there anything about illustration that you miss?

Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the steady cash flow. Working as an illustrator for 30 years it was easy for me to get used to the job security and steady income that illustration work affords. Also, it was relatively easy to figure out how the game worked and what the rules were, so to speak.

Michael Whelan

The fine art world is another universe altogether, where the only sure rules I can note with certainty are (1) that promotion is more important to success than any other single factor , and (2) it is extremely rare for any artist to be able to make a living on selling their artwork alone. Even the most successful (leaving aside pop superstars like Koons and Hirst) must chase after grants and fellowships in order to make ends meet. The odds are stacked ever so high against any artist trying to survive in the gallery market alone.

I also miss the knowledge that interested people can keep up with my work when it is published on thousands of book covers. When one sells a painting right away and it disappears into a collection, few people ever get to see what you're doing!

One other point in answer to your question: when one is illustrating, if one does a substandard job one always has the fallback position of being able to blame it on the art director. When you are painting for galleries you have only one person you can blame for poor work: yourself!

Samantha Brandt
1. Talia
Last fall, I was thrilled to learn Michael Whelan is a local. He gave a talk at the town library. It was quite a full house. He's a great speaker; I learned quite a bit about his art I hadn't realized before.

I dig my signed print, too.
kelly futerer
2. kelly futerer
Hi Irene,And great insight by MW -- (You know this is our first show with MW? He has been with another gallery for about 10 years in N.H.)

He forgot to add that it is very hard to drop the genre label as a "Illustrator" and move a career into the gallery/fine art market - this is our mission to change with young illustrators. But the good news is the market seems to be taking the blinders off, Look at the Met. showing comic Super Hero's. As soon as the major Museum's open their eyes, galleries follow, then collectors, etc... It has been a hard road seeing genius's like MW being passed over by major Museum's in the past because the work was considered to be solely illustration - and the word alone usually conjures up a "paid job" = commercial. (Stigma must stop!!)
Also the double edge sword is that so many Illustrators work on non archival materials like paper Illustration board and treat their work as a job for print instead of an oil on canvas that can be printed for an ad. Robert Andrew Parker is a long friend/artist of mine and half of his things are water damaged and not properly treated in order to stand the test of time... This is so sad to me! The works usually do sell for more than a couple thousand dollars (Especially because he never made a name for himself out side of the genre market until later)
It is our mission to educate both the public and the artist on how to make a smooth transition into a more versatile market/while gaining notoriety as "Fine artist" in both fields. Look at Shelly Wan = she will do this, MW is doing it. But it will happen!! K Please tell me what you think and thanks!
Samantha Brandt
3. Talia
Heh, its true. I can't help but think of Michael Whelan predominantly for his coverwork (well, I must have 10 books with his art on them laying about the house ;p).
Irene Gallo
4. Irene
It is a shame that artists can't be more fluid between the two worlds. Gary Ruddell has an amazing gallery career now but I know he had to fight these issues in the beginning.

The Dahesh museum in NY ran an exhibit on the golden age illustration and even the NYTimes had to note how "fine art" it was:
Christine Evelyn Squires
5. ces
I wondered where Whelan had disappeared to. He used to be all over the place - books, calendars, posters, etc - and then he just - disappeared.

Wonderful interview Irene! maybe we should being back the old system of "patrons" . . .
Tara Chang
6. tlchang
That is one unfortunate side effect of the gallery arena - it is very difficult to follow some people's work vs. the relative ease of (successful) illustration.

There's nothing like seeing things in person, but in lieu of that, I'm looking forward to more online fine art 'museums' and 'galleries to remedy this!
kelly futerer
7. Ruby1
I have a painting of a "fantasy" fairy signed V.Tor in the corner. I believe it was originally purchased in Oklahoma. Do you know anything about it?
kelly futerer
8. richard nelson
I have a painting done by Victor I purchased the painting from him at a small studio he painded from in south Kansas City. Does anyone know his more recent history, or s there anyone making a market from his work. Thanks, RMN
kelly futerer
9. RamboRat
I have just come across a painting signed V. Tor. It is very haunting. I don't know the name of the painting. I found it in an estate sale for $3 bucks. It now has a permanent place on my wall. I wish I knew something about who painted it.

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