Michael Whelan: Galleries v. Illustration

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 Road
Was 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!


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