Phil Wheeler Illustrator Interview

Phil Wheeler

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Can you recall the first time you realized you were going to be an illustrator? What were your earliest impressions?
I don’t think I really realized I was going to be an illustrator until the day I got my first paid commission.

Before that, I think it was all a bit of a dream. The commission was for a book cover which I assumed would be the first of many. I haven’t done a single one since.

Who or what influenced your art when you were young?
My parents were always very supportive of my artistic endeavors and took an interest in my art. I was also influenced by books and comics I read as a kid. I would copy characters from Asterix books, for instance. I was particularly influenced by the 70s aesthetic that characterized books like “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak and David McKee’s artwork for Mr. Benn. I have strong memories of watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus with Terry Gilliam’s animations and designs.

Do you remember what your first artwork looked like? Do you still have it?
It wasn’t my first artwork, but I drew a car my mother made a big fuss about because it was drawn in perspective. I think she still has it somewhere.

Why did you choose illustration as your life’s work instead of, for example, filmmaking, law, or even medicine?
I chose illustration because I wanted to do something creative. I tried cartooning initially but I wasn’t very good at it. Illustration suited me better. Also this career gives you freedom; freedom to be your own boss and to work how and where you want to. Working as an illustrator has allowed me to move from the UK in 2003. Today, I live and work in Spain.

Did you study art in school?
I did, but only after completing a degree in philosophy and politics. After a year or so, I went back to college and studied illustration in Swindon, UK.

Where does your inspiration come from; your impulse to make art? Do you have a source for your ideas?
I take a lot of inspiration from the world around me. Nature is undeniably an important source of inspiration. I’m also inspired by other people’s creativity. Pattern, textiles, architecture, product design, even the design on paving stones can inspire me. I often get ideas while watching television or listening to music.

How would you describe the process of creating art?
It varies. It’s not a fixed thing for me. Sometimes an idea comes first and dictates my approach. Other times the idea only manifests itself after playing around with images.

At the moment I would describe my process as: gathering, thinking, playing a bit and then whittling-down, refining and finishing. Though, that makes the process sound far more organized and less painless than it actually is.

Do you have a favorite illustrator? What is it about that illustrator’s work you like?
I don’t have a favorite illustrator but I do have illustrators whose work interests or inspires me at particular moments in time.

For example, at the moment, I am enjoying David Hockney and R. B. Kitaj. I am also very keen on the work of Kustaa Saksi, whose images, ‘Wow’ me.

If you could do something else, other than creating art, what would it be?
I’d be a drummer in a band or maybe a percussionist.

Do you remember your first set of paints, pens, or markers?
I recall a really nice set of pencils when I was relatively young: full range 6H to 6B. They were just the coolest thing.

If you could give a viewer clues to understanding your art, what would you say?
That’s a hard question because I think most illustrators would want their work to be understood and appreciated without needing too much explanation. My work tends to be quite busy, so maybe spend a bit of time looking at it; there maybe something hidden in there.

Why does art matter to you? Why might it matter to the world?
A healthy and diverse art scene is a sign of a healthy society. When society encourages and treasures the arts, it is celebrating human creativity and the shared human experience. For that reason, art matters to me and to the world.

If you could look back or forward a hundred years, do you think the life of an illustrator was or will be better than today?
Society is freer and more liberal today than a hundred years ago (at least in this part of the world) so there is much more scope for artistic expression. I also believe that there are more avenues and options available today for creative activities. Perhaps, in these ways, life for the illustrator has improved. In these uncertain times, however, we shouldn’t take the progress that has been made for granted.