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October 2009 Issue
Wallace Wyss - Artist Profile
The Automotive Chronicles

Wallace A. WyssWallace Alfred Wyss (pronounced to rhyme with "Reese") is a native of Detroit who has lived out on the West Coast since 1969 when he came to California to work for CAR LIFE magazine. For almost four decades until 2007, he was a magazine writer and book author when he made his first oil painting. That started his move into the fine arts world. We caught up with him at a concours and asked him about his new direction. — Ed.


Q. Are you still a book author?
Wyss: If the right car comes along, I'd like to chronicle it. Last time it was the Ford GT40 — I've always loved that car and when Ford showed a concept car called GT40 in 2002, it got me started on that trail and I co-authored a book entitled 'Ford GT40 and the New Ford GT', a limited edition book that I am happy to report has become an instant collectible.

Q. What got you started in art?
Wyss: Way back, when I grew up in Detroit, I wanted to be an art major. But then an ad agency put out a call for summer interns and I found out the art slots were full so I chose copywriter and then changed my major to journalism.

Q. So you made your first painting when?
Wyss: I had three books on Shelby-related cars coming out in 2007. I figured maybe at the Beverly Hills car show on Rodeo Drive I could sell a few so I brought them along and was walking through the show when I met a magazine publisher. I sold him a book and thought, "Maybe he'd like to see the painting I did of Shelby. " I showed him a snapshot of the painting and he asked: "Where is it?"" and I said it was in the car. He said, "Go get it, you sold that, too." On the long walk back to the show carrying the painting, I thought, "If they want my art, I'll be an artist."

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Maserati A6GCS
"You rarely see a Pininfarina-bodied Maserati coupe — so I just had to paint this one." - Wyss
Alfa 33 Stradale
"I chose to do this because it’s a very rare car with the greatest lines of the Sixties mid-engined cars." - Wyss

Ferrari 250GT Lusso
"The Ferrari 250GT Lusso is often called 'the most beautiful Ferrari'. I think the P3/4 is better looking but maybe I’ll give it the award for most beautiful street car." - Wyss
Cobra Daytona
"This was inspired by a Ford PR shot. I did a different background but I think I captured the Cobra-at-speed feeling." - Wyss

Ferrari 250GTO, Series 1
"I shoot racing shots with a telephoto. This is all I could capture of a 250GTO as I did a side pan shot at Monterey but I thought painting half a GTO is better than none." - Wyss
Ford GT40
"I saw this GT40 at Monterey
and didn’t realize later that it’s the most
historic GT40, having won LeMans not
once but twice." - Wyss

Ferrari 500 Mondial
"The Ferrari 500 Mondial, maybe because it’s a four cylinder, hardly gets mentioned but I think it’s a beautiful car when it has the Pininfarina body. This painting was inspired by one I shot at Monterey." - Wyss
"Dan Gurney was a hero of mine in the Sixties and I was pleased to find a Ford publicity shot of him in the ’64 Targa Florio in a 289 Cobra. The original was in black and white so I had to research the color of the team Cobra." - Wyss

Q. Do you sell originals or prints?
Wyss: I call them "reproductions." Yes, my originals are quite small sometimes and also require some correction before I can reproduce them, so I prefer to sell reproductions on watercolour paper in signed and numbered limited edition series. I can also print them on canvas, and "gallery wrap" them, which means the canvas is stretched around the corners of a wooden frame support. And sometimes I paint over the canvas print,. That's something called "embellishing a print," and in that case it becomes a one-off painting again, no longer a print identical to others in the limited edition.

Q. Why did you only do Shelby cars at first?
Wyss: As I said, I had several books on Shelby related cars, including Ford GT40 and the New Ford GT with Al Axelrod, Brian Winer, SHELBY The Man The Cars The Legend and COBRA & SHELBY MUSTANG Photo Archive so I thought I'd make paintings of the same cars to show at book signings. I did a polished Kirkham 427 Cobra, a Gulf GT40 that won LeMans, a '06 Ford GT, small block Cobras and so forth. But after the first year as an artist. 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. Just having the angle right doesn't do it for me — I need the natural light to be defining the car's form.

Q. Do you 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 tires and take up so much time doing diminishing line perspective and such that I just don't have the patience, so I take a photograph from my collection of 10,000 images 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 as inspiration a Ford PR photograph only available in black and white. I told myself if I would paint the car first, and if I can't mix the color of the car right, I will abandon the effort but when the color came out correct on the car, I decided to go ahead and complete the whole painting.

Q. Do you do a lot of research on your period paintings?
Wyss: When I am painting a race car in its original racing livery, I refer to websites like Atlas F1 Bulletin Board to see what livery the car wore in some of its races. I think an artist doing a portrait of a historic car in its original era owes that to his or her audience. For instance, I did a painting of a red Cobra racing at LeMans in '63 but found out later the two Cobras racing at LeMans that year were white and sort of a green apple color so now that painting can't be reproduced until I paint the car the right color.

Q. Why would you want to do a painting when a good photograph exists?
Wyss: First of all, I have many photographs of my own that I like as photographs so I don't paint them because they convey the essence of the car without being a painting. But sometimes at Monterey or a concours I shoot a car with a background that looks too modern-I don't want a 1995 Chevy crewcab in back of a '59 Ferrari Testa Rossa. So I paint a painting and bland out the background so you can appreciate the Ferrari and not be bothered by the presence of the Chevy crewcab.

Q. Would you be pleased with the title "super-realist?"
Wyss: Recently when I looked that up, I find that the term is now also called "hyper-realism." It only applies to some of my work, For instance in my painting of the Gulf GT40 at Monterey, it's hard to tell that painting from a photograph. But other times I go very abstract on the car or the background like my work 'Ferrari 500 Mondial' at Monterey. I am still searching for a style I can call my own.

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 did attend 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 period-authentic, but as soon as he dons 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 since that would be more authentic to the car's original look but then would no longer represent what I saw at the vintage race.

Q. What's your favorite media?
Wyss: I started working in 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. I would eventually 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 called "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 automotive artists?
Wyss: For many years my favorite event is the annual show of the Automotive Fine Arts Society on the turf at Pebble Beach. 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 am still trying to figure out the techniques of Dennis Brown's work.

Q. Is modern work of classic cars collectible?
Wyss: I can't say for my own, since I am the newbie but I think in the case of limited editions of some famous artists that could be the case. I can't say they will appreciate in value but there's a chance they could be worth collecting. Especially editions made for a particular concours. I am just glad that Jack Vettriano, a British artist, had his painting "Bluebird" (showing a land speed record car) go for almost a million dollars because that one sale brought all paintings using automobiles as subjects up a notch in status. Car artists are no longer on the outside of the art world looking in.

Q. When you shoot pictures for reference, what camera and lens do you prefer?
Wyss: I have an old beat up Nikon F3 and lately have put away my 50mm lens because it's "too boring a view" in favor of a wide angle 28 mm lens that makes cars look a touch 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 lens again. I also use a 36-86 zoom.

Q. You don't shoot digital?
Wyss: No, call me old school but 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 or concours ($500 to go to Monterey '09) and can't be stopped by dead batteries. The shutter is still manual in my Nikon so if push comes to shove I can still shoot. 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. 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 depicting brand new models like the Ferrari 458 Italia which I have yet to see in person. I just completed a painting of the new Ferrari California Spyder. I really put off making a decision until I have 5 to 10 8"x12" color photos in front of me and one reaches out 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 to constantly be on the lookout for photo ops-such as when I saw two little girls being put into a classic car at a concours, I waited around just to photograph them in the car. But I would say that only 1% of all the photos I've taken throughout the years have potential to even be considered for a painting.

Signed and numbered works can be ordered directly from the artist.
E-mail: Ed.

Articles by Wallace Wyss related to automotive literature
One Historian Mourns the Passing of the Black and White Glossy
Review: Two Press booklets on the Rolls Phantom Drophead coupe
The Automotive Chronicles, October 2009
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