“I started in art, switched to writing and didn’t get back to art until 40 years later,” recalls automotive historian Wallace Alfred Wyss. Among his ten books are two on Ferrari, three on Corvette and three on Shelby. His most recent is SHELBY The Man The Car The Legend. But for this interview, we are catching up on his artwork.
Q. You say you started in art but left it. Can you explain?
Wyss: I went to Wayne State University in Detroit with every intention of being an art major. But then I heard an ad agency was hiring summer interns and that there were two openings—for an artist and one for a writer. By the time I applied I was told the art spot was filled so I suddenly said :”OK I’m your writer” and went back to the school and changed majors to journalism ,with minors in advertising and marketing.
Q. So you made your first painting when?
Wyss: In 2007. 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 a n 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 said “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. Originally all your paintings were of Shelby cars?
Wyss: For the first year or so, I wanted to promote my books on the GT40 (including Ford GT40 and the New Ford GT with Al Axelrod, Brian Winer ) and on Shelby (SHELBY The Man The Cars The Legend and COBRA & SHELBY MUSTANG Photo Archive) so I made paintings of a chrome Kirkham 427, a Gulf GT40 that won LeMans, an ’06 Ford GT, small block Cobras and so forth. But then I decided to do some Ferraris and Porsches and other cars that have interested me through the years. I still haven’t painted my favorite car, a Bizzarrini Strada because I don’t have a good picture of one. I’ve photographed several but the light was never quite right to “define” the voluptuous shape.
Q. Do you always work from pictures?
Wyss: Yes. I have tried to draw a car from scratch and you need so much equipment like elipse guides to do the wheels and such that I just can’t work with them so I take a photograph from my collection of 10,000 and work with that as a reference.
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 only available in black and white. I 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: I sometimes comb websites to see what colors a car was back when it was racing. Sometimes I still get it wrong—in the Gurney painting I think the lettering in the roundel was supposed to be dark blue, not black, but I didn’t find that out until I finished the painting.
Q. Would you be pleased with the title “super-realist?”
Wyss: I have also heard that style called “hyper-realism.” It only applies to some of my work, for instance my Gulf GT40 at Monterey. It’s hard to tell that painting from a photograph. But other times I go for very fanciful, with the background just vague colors like my Ferrari 500 Mondial at Monterey. I am still searching for a style I can call my own.
Q. Do you go back and change things in your work?
Wyss: Sometimes if I printed out a big one on canvas (called a giclee, pronounced GHEE CLAY) I might decide to paint right over portions of it, creating what is called an “embellished” giclee. But it no longer has a number in a limited edition because then by virtue of being modified, it has become a one-off. That’s what I did with my ’06 Ford GT painting that I sold at the Mecum auction at Monterey. There’s only one with that color scheme where other giclees of my original all look alike.
Q. Are all your paintings “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 when 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.
Q. What’s your media?
Wyss: I started doing watercolors but grew frustrated with the transparency so went to acrylics which can be both transparent and opaque depending on how much water you thin them out with and eventually would like to go to full oils. Some of my works are collages, in that I will cut out parts of other paintings and glue them into the painting so those would have to be “mixed media.” I don’t sell the originals though, only the prints, so it’s difficult to tell from the print if the original was all one sheet or if it’s a collage.
Q. Who are your favorite artists?
Wyss: Just about all the artists of 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 Harold Cleworth for his paintings that look good from a way off, and Nicola Wood for her subtleties in her Cadillac paintings. I would say the AFAS show at Pebble Beach is my favorite day of the year. If you see me there, you’ll see that I’m happy as a pig in mud.
Q. When you shoot pictures for reference, what camera and lens do you use?
Wyss: I have an old beat up Nikon F3 and lately went back from a 50mm to a 28 mm lens. That’s a wide angle and makes cars look more dramatic. A 28 is about as much as you can push it in wide angle because otherwise it distorts the car too much. A 35mm distorts less and is safer for a more “normal” look. I might buy a 35mm again, though equipment for film cameras is getting hard to find. I also use a 36-86 zoom.
Q. You don’t shoot digital?
Wyss: I still shoot film, I hear too many excuses from digital photographers about batteries being weak, so they can’t shoot. I don’t want to take a chance, as I spend a lot of money to get to a race and can’t be stopped by dead batteries. The shutter is still manual in my Nikon if push comes to shove. I also shoot color slides because it’s easier to choose which ones to make into paintings but it costs me 10 times more for slide film and 3 times more to process it than print film. so it’s a tough decision. I also carry a $1.98 backup camera I bought at a thrift shop—I use that to rib the guys with expensive cameras , saying “It’s not the camera—it’s the eye.”
Q. Where do you see car art going?
Wyss: I’m afraid that, in the world of fine art, in the past any image depicting a car is shunted off to a back tributary but I see signs that some car art may someday achieve “fine art” status. For instance Jack Vettriano’s painting “Bluebird at Bonneville”—depicting Sir Malcom Campbell Bonneville speed record car (see http://www.squidoo.com/jack-vettriano), sold for almost a million dollars recently. I think that sale opened some eyes in the fine arts community about automotive art—that depictions of cars are not just for greasy fingered car people.
Q. What car will you paint next?
Wyss: I shot maybe 200 pictures at the 2009 Monterey Historic, and other events at Monterey. I haven’t really culled them yet to see what strikes my fancy. I am torn between continuing to do old classics of the Fifties and Sixties –cars from my era, essentially—or do brand new cars like the Ferrari 458 Italia which I haven’t seen yet in person. I just completed a painting of the new Ferrari California Spyder. I really don’t make a decision on which one to do until I have 5 to 10 8” x 12” color photos in front of me and one “grabs” me and says “Paint me.”
Q. What’s your advice for those who want to take photos of cars that could be “art?”
Wyss: To always have your camera ready when you are at an event or a track and look for photo ops–such as when I saw two little girls being put into a classic car at a concours, I waited around to photograph them in the car. But I would say that only 1% of all the photos I’ve taken have potential to even be considered for a painting.
Q. Where can one order your art?
Wyss: I have a dealer, Albaco, near Chicago. He has some of the 12” x 18” reproductions pictured on his website Albaco. He only has a few offered but if you want to see a fuller display go to VeloceToday.
To contact Wallace Wyss, email [email protected].