This is the second and final part of an interview with the incredible Disney artist Phil Wilson.
Read Part One here:
Phil has an amazing ability to illustrate and paint practically anything from Disney characters to dinosaurs to the most detailed realism images. His versatility of skill combined with speed of applicationmakes him a champion artist. One of the very best living artists in the world today, please take your time to enjoy all of the interesting information that Phil has shared with us here in this interview.
Phil offers some tips and advice for newcomers and some fascinating details about the life of an illustrator. Thanks so much Phil for taking the time out of your life to answer these for us.
Interview Cont’d with Phil Wilson by Cindy Wider
Q: Can you tell us all about how you came to work for Disney and what it was like?
A: Oddly enough, Disney actually approached me!! At the time, a business partner, Jim Allan, and myself owned and operated our own animation studio, where we did several commercials, two half hour TV specials, “Allison and the Magic Bubble” for HBO and “A Star For Jeremy” for Showtime cable, a hit music video for Tom Petty, “Runnin’ Down A Dream”, and contributed to the feature film “Creepshow 2”.
One of the guys that worked for us had left to work with a local book packager who had sold the idea to Disney for the ‘Columbus’ book. Disney then told them to “find someone to do it”. Not knowing who to approach about this, our former employee had them contact me. I was of course thrilled to do it, and that’s what led to the on-going relationship with Disney. I never had to present a portfolio, since that first book became my ‘audition’. If they hadn’t liked it, it would have ended right there and then. I continued doing the Disney work while still running our animation studio at the time,…which often meant 12 to 13 hour days!
Q: You created 9 original Disney characters, which ones are they?
A: I created several new characters for a Disney book titled “Disney’s Christmas With All The Trimmings” which included Bartholomew Beaver, three un-named bears, Noel the Puppy, a ‘Disney style Santa Claus, and two elves: Elvin & Elvis. I also created a few characters for Mickey mouse Magazine and Little Mermaid Magazine including ‘Big Al the Lumberjack’ and his huskie ‘Masha’, as well as a Sting-ray artist and other secondary characters.
Q: How is your Disney work licensed? Do you have a licensing agent, if so tell us about them…who they are and how you came to be represented by them.
A: The work is either licensed through Disney Press, or other Disney licensees such as The Bradford Exchange or Gibson Card Co. I have a personal agent, Cliff Knecht, who’s been my agent for more than 25 years, who handles all contract signings with the various licensees.
Q: Where do you get your ideas and inspirations from?
A: Most of my clients have a specific idea in mind when they contact me, which makes a lot of the work much easier. But when a client approached me with just a vague idea of what they want,..then you have to ‘brainstorm’ until something just ‘hits’ you. It might take an hour or two or sometimes only a few minutes for that creative ‘lightning bolt’ to hit!
When I’m doing my own self-started projects,..I usually have an idea that came to me by seeing something somewhere that really connects with me, or maybe from a movie I’ve just seen. When doing the dinosaur paintings, there’s enough new discoveries being found all the time, that there’s never a lack of brand new dinosaurs that can be illustrated, and that remains a constant source of material.
When it comes to client work, there’s nothing like a tight deadline to get the creative “juices” flowing!!!
Advice for Reference
Q: Where do you find most of your reference materials for your illustrations. For example the images ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Mammoth’ ?
A: Indiana Jones was a composite of about three photo references, which I combined, a black & white photo of Indiana Jones and a couple Mayan tomb photos I used for background inspiration. The Mammoth & Saber-toothed cat painting was done using animal anatomy books showing elephants and lion anatomy as well as small toy models for perspective.
Q: Your list of achievements in illustration is incredible. You must work very quickly to achieve so much. Do you have any tips, secrets or methods that you would love to share with our viewers to help them move faster and to achieve more?
A: Again, thanks for the compliment! I’ve developed a reputation over the 46 years I’ve been in the business so far, for working extremely fast, and I’m proud to say I’ve NEVER missed a single deadline in all these years so far. I often finish projects early by days or even weeks, much to the delight of my clients, of course!
This mostly comes simply from experience and becoming completely comfortable with whatever media you happen to be using, knowing how it reacts and how far you can ‘push it’. Also, when you love what you’re doing, it’s hard to just put a job aside at 5:00…so I often enjoy working into the evening on things I’m having fun with, often finishing a full page book illustration in a single day or completing a full-blown major dinosaur illustration in as little as 4 days.
A Mammoth Interest in Dinosuars
Q: How did you first become interested in dinosaurs…real ones! Can you tell us all about that…anything you like.
A: I’m probably like every other kid that grows up loving dinosaurs. My interest started way back when I was around 5 or 6 years old and I just never lost my fascination for them. Add to that the recent resurgence of discoveries and new information being found and the huge success of films like “Jurassic Park”, and they’ve taken on a whole new “life”! What I think captures my imagination, along with that of most dinosaur fans is that they were so strange,…and so BIG! These are the REAL dragons of our past,..so bizarre and alien to anything that exists today, that it’s sometimes hard to imagine them actually walking around on this earth of ours! ….just Magnificent creatures!
Q: Please tell us who or what inspires you to be the best you can be as an artist/ illustrator.
A: There are SO many great artists and illustrators out there, that there’s never a lack of inspiration for any of us in this field. Seeing something that another artist has done that you admire is a great way to make you want to “do one better”! There are so many artists I admire for so many different reasons,…great Disney artists such as Eyvind Earle, Marc Davis, Bill Tytla, and of course, Walt Disney himself! Great animators such as Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, Chuck Jones, and so many more. Great illustrators such as Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, James Bama, John Sibbick, James Gurney, John Gurche, and so, so many others! The list goes on forever! These people continually spur me on to be better and better and never stop striving to make every painting better than the last.
Disney Dream Come True
Q: Could you tell us three of the most memorable moments in your artistic career so far?
A: Getting that first Disney assignment certainly stands out in my mind! Getting to be a part of the rich Disney legacy was a ‘dream come true’.
Being able to spend all these years doing dinosaur illustration, and what’s more, being able to work with such world-renowned dinosaur experts as Dr. Jack Horner, Peter Dodson, and others,….what a thrill for a guy who’s always loved the subject.
And a third would have to be starting my own animation company with a friend, Jim Allan, and for 20 years turning out two half-hour TV special, several commercials, a hit music video for Tom Petty, and contributing to two feature films. Seeing my work up there on the ‘big screen’, and my name in the end credits is something I used to dream about as a kid!
More To Come
Q: What do you aspire to achieve next in your already prolific career? Do you have any significant goals that you aim to achieve?
A: I’ve been fortunate enough in my career thus far, that I can only hope that I can continue to work in the field I love for many more years. Since I’ve already illustrated 75 children’s books, I’d kind of like to round that number off to 100 if possible,….I guess that’s the only significant goal I have at this point! People often ask me when I’ll retire,…but I tell them, “What would be the point,…I’d still just paint!!!”
Q: Please tell us about any significant awards you have won or special projects that have made an impact on your life.
A: Well, let’s see,….our animated TV special “A Star For Jeremy” won the bronze 1983 New York International Film & TV Award for children’s programming,…I received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Educational Press Association of America two years in a row for my dinosaur illustrations that accompanied Jack Horner’s magazine articles “Dino-Speak” for Wild Outdoor World Magazine. I was Inducted into two halls of fame: The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and The Pennsylvania Association of Private School Administrators (PAPSA) both in 1994, and several local and regional ADDY awards in advertising, and several gallery show awards, including Best Of Show.
Special projects that have made an impact on me, I’ve covered mostly in my answers previously above,…any of the Disney projects, ..the dinosaur work,…the animated film work,…the children’s books, etc. etc.
Balancing Art & Life
Q: How do you maintain a successful work/life balance?
A: To say “I love my work, and my work IS my life”, would not be too much of an exaggeration, but that being said, I DO still enjoy my ‘off-time’ away from the drawing board as well. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends, many friends whom I’ve known since high school I still see quite often,….and I have many hobbies,….for instance, I love playing guitar, reading, movies, playing cards, etc.
I also maintain a close friendship with many colleagues in this business, which helps to have people who understand the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ associated with this business, to compare notes with.
Q: Do you have any suggestions to help other artists to make a successful career in illustration?
A: I always tell new people in this business to be as versatile as they can,…not to ‘pigeon-hole’ themselves into one genre or style. The more styles and media that they can master, the more work opportunities will come to them.
And never stop observing, seeing, doing,…..sketch all the time, practice new media that you’re not adept at, ‘push the envelope’, challenge yourself,…..and you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll improve! I’ve got 46 years in this business and I’m STILL learning,…still developing, always striving to top the last thing I did. That’s what keeps the work fresh, exciting, and rewarding! I can’t imagine myself doing anything else for a living!
This ends the second and final part of our two part interview with Phil. Please leave a comment about Phil’s work below, we would love to hear from you. If you have any questions at all feel free to ask.