I first got acquainted with Alan and his work through being part of the illustrator blog site Drawger back around 2006. We may have had some conversations online but the first time we became proper friends is when we met up in New York City when he was down visiting from Massachusetts where he lives. I was living in New York at the time so whenever I had an opportunity to meet an illustrator that came into town, I tried to make time. We went out for drinks and drew on napkins. Little did I know then that only a couple of years later, I would be moving up to Boston myself.
When I did move to Boston, Alan and the Boston illustrator contingent were so kind and were wonderful in helping me adjust to the new city.
That's what I think about when I think about Alan: A kind, stand-up guy that I can always count on. He's helped me with moving, painting my studio when I first moved in and even help cook when I have had gatherings at the house. Sitting here writing this, another instance of 'time flies' comes over me because a decade has passed since we first met.
Alan's work is mind-boggling to me. Even though I tried early on in my career, I simply am not built to do realism. Anyone who is capable of doing it always technically intrigues me. There aren't many artists I know that can do detailed realistic work at the speed Alan is capable of working. I noticed his speed when we were sharing a sketchbook. He's also capable of adjusting his style and working method to the job at hand. His drawing ability and incredibly adept use of various media gives him the ability to do so much and meet various clients needs. Oil painting? Sure. Watercolors and inks? Of course! Graphite? Are you kidding? Alan can do it.
Over the last 10 years of knowing Alan the lunches, dinners and parties we've all had and been to, we've talked about so many different angles of life, illustration and art that this interview could be a never-ending thread. Here is only a sliver of Alan as I know him, where he came from and what he's doing now.
All artwork © Alan Witschonke
All Photography © Scott Bakal
Equipment: Canon 5D Mark II; Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM Lens; Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM, Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash; Umbrellas; Reflectors
If I remember correctly, you were born in Massachusetts and went to RISD for illustration?
I was born in Somerville, New Jersey but we moved to Darien, CT when I was young. I graduated from RISD in 1975 with a BFA in Illustration. After I graduated, I could have commuted to NYC from Darien, but I didn't want to live at home with my parents. I was ready for independence.
What kept you in the Boston area?
I had been to Boston a few times and liked the city, so I thought I'd see what the art scene was like there. Led by newspapers such as the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper, illustration was suddenly a hot commodity and the guru Art Directors such as Ronn Campisi, Terry Koppel and others were winning design awards and using illustration on a regular basis. The advertising agencies were choosing illustration over photography. The explosion of the high-tech and medical sectors also resulted in a lot of work for illustrators. Today, it's rare for me to get an assignment from a local source. But in the fertile period, 99% of my work was with Boston clients. That spike continued for me until the late '80's, when things started to calm down.
Despite the increased difficulty in finding work, I had started growing roots in Boston by this time, so inertia just kept me here.
I was actually surprised to find out how many illustrators lived up in Massachusetts when I moved here. There is a large hub of illustrators and artists here. It’s been nice to meet so many in the community.
Why realism? Have you been working like that since the beginning?
Yes. It was always important to me to draw accurately. I learned as much as I could about perspective. I was most intrigued by the realist painters like Vermeer and Ingres. I thought that the closer one could get to that, the better the artist. But at the same time, I was exposed to a wide range of artistic styles, mostly from my mother’s vast collection of books about art, and illustrated literary classics.
From there, I got to people like Durer, Andrew Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and German woodcut artist Fritz Eichenberg. In high school I learned about contemporary graphic design and illustration and that was really an eye-opener. But it wasn’t until I got to college and took a course in art of the Far East that I really started to understand and appreciate all kinds of visual interpretation, including abstraction.
I’m still tilted towards realism though because it just feels more natural to me. I have experimented over the years with introducing more spontaneous elements into my work such as collage, roughening up the surface and a "looser" painting style. I continue to paint in a straightforward realistic style if the job calls for it. My non-client, personal work tends to be a little bit more adventurous.
We were sharing a sketchbook and passing it back and forth for a while and you seemed to push your boundaries by adding textures and such but the realism within it was just as tight as your usual finals. It was so hard to paint within the work you did!
Sharing a sketchbook has been fun. The challenge comes from integrating my more painterly style with your more linear style, and making it complementary. But sometimes those happy accidents happen. That’s what’s most satisfying and what keeps it going. Just remember that you have my permission to completely obliterate anything I’ve done in the book!
What were your parents like? Did you come from artistic upbringing?
My parents were very supportive of my pursuing an art career. I’ll always be grateful for that. My father wasn’t quite sold until I painted a watercolor of an old man working at a maple syrup refinery. He liked the rendering in that one.
No one in my family was interested enough in art to continue with it past high school, but my mother was a real art lover. She bought hundreds of books about art, which I pored over. It was like having a lending library in your own home. She was particularly interested in Japanese Sumi brush painting. She even bought the supplies to try it herself, but never carved out enough time for it. She also covered the walls with framed art — even a few of my paintings!
Were you always the 'drawer' in class during your elementary and high school days?
Yes, I was always drawing in school. I did the posters for the dances and entered the local town art show each year. I remember getting 2nd prize in a “Safe Boating” poster competition in high school. I worked on graphic novels with other classmates who preferred drawing to studying. I would sometimes get commissions from my friends, although I don’t remember any of them actually paying me — things like painting the name of their band on the front of the bass drum. I was lucky to get approval for full-time independent study the last semester of my senior year at Darien High School. My project involved package design, but it was primarily the illustrations on the packages that I really enjoyed doing.
What brought you to decide on art and illustration?
Probably the greatest early influence on my decision to become an illustrator was one of my high school art teachers, Ron Brunetti. When he arrived, he was just out of art school, and he gave us assignments that were college-level. He worked us hard and exposed us to all kinds of art and design. He used to bring in Graphis magazine and the Society of Illustrators annuals and we were just blown away by those. Living in Darien, CT, I was just a short train ride from NYC, so I used to go in to see the great art museums and galleries there, especially when there was a show of one of my favorite artists. A big treat was going to the SOI annual show every year. I remember thinking, “This is the best art in the world!” When I got my first piece in the annual show I thought, OK, I can die now. I’ve achieved my life goal.
When we all get together for our occasional lunches with the gang and talk about our ups and downs, I think about how long it took me to get to a point where I was doing well enough that it wasn’t such a brutal struggle.
How long did that take for you?
When I first started freelancing, I was in a group living situation with 4 other roommates so my expenses were really low. I didn't even have a car, but all of my clients were in Boston so I just took public transportation or my bike everywhere. I didn't have any major student loans to pay off because RISD was still pretty inexpensive in those days and, with my parent’s assistance, we were able to pay off the tuition balance pretty quickly.
And as I mentioned earlier, it was Boomtown in Boston for illustration when I moved up here, so I hit the ground running. I quickly got to the point where I had more work than I could handle. But if you look at my career as a whole, I’ve had a rather unorthodox income curve. It seems like I’m always trying to catch up to what I made in the early to mid-career years. What has made the difference in the post-explosion years has been the ability to branch out into lots of different markets. When I started illustrating non-fiction children’s books and cookbooks, I knew I’d be OK.
Jumping back a bit, it's good to hear you had such a supportive family. How did this translate to your kids? It seems you followed your parents lead in bringing the arts to your two boys because they seem to be wrapped up in their own arts as well.
We didn't have to bring the arts to our kids – it was always inside them. With both parents as working, freelance illustrators, they were exposed to that world from day one. They saw the work we were doing. We took them to art museums and galleries all the time. We hung out with other artists. Now they have both graduated from art school and are pursuing their own art careers. I have since re-married, and Diana is just as supportive and invested in seeing the boys succeed in art.
When I first met you in New York City, I saw you as a stoic sort of fellow. Reserved and professional would be good words.
When you get to know me, I'm not that reserved!
How about personal work?
Being in this business as long as I have, I have had plenty of opportunity to do personal work usually when there is a lull in the commissioned work. Sometimes these pieces are done to promote my business, or are the result of a new medium I want to learn. Sometimes they are for an upcoming gallery exhibit or are unplanned images in a sketchbook. And sometimes they are just based on topics or stories or people that I am interested in.
I remember when we did a tandem lecture together with Rob Dunlavey up in New Hampshire and you did a bunch of jazz portraits…
Yes! That series was actually quite important to my career. They got me more involved with portraiture and with oil painting and collage as my media of choice. The initial ones were done for a gallery exhibit and they just continued from there.
Another series that I started three years ago was completely indulgent: images of yoga poses with snakes super-imposed on them. There was no intellectual meaning to these pieces; they were done purely for aesthetic reasons. Like the jazz series, these contain collage elements and textured backgrounds. I have sketches for another 13 of these to complete the set of 20.
For a number of years, I contributed a piece to a fund-raising event at the New Art Center in Brookline. The theme of the annual show was "Altars + Icons" and one could interpret that title in any way one wanted. I loved working on these projects because they were so wide open. Most of the pieces I did for this exhibit were three-dimensional. I was never really into sculpture, but the substrate or body of these pieces was usually found wood or wood that I cut, shaped or constructed with two-dimensional painting on top. It was just another way of working that was slightly out of my comfort zone and that I haven’t used for client work.
Sometimes the challenge to do a personal piece is from friends. A weekend-long social gathering of illustrators that I attended had a participation "requirement" -- to either design or illustrate the box for the Jose Cuervo Reserva label. I re-purposed a wooden box from a wine bottle that I had lying around and painted it with iconic Mexican imagery and folk art in oils and gold leaf. It got into the SOI Annual show in the "Unpublished" category.
I once created two digital collages based on the same tree. Not very news-worthy considering how many artists work completely digitally. But for me it was somewhat of a breakthrough. I had never done an entire piece on the computer. It was just something I wanted to try, so I did. I must say, they took a lot less time than doing oil paintings.
Switching gears, you're a pretty stellar cook and seem to get really into making dishes. I love cooking as well and always trying to push the boundaries of what I can cook or trying to make my experiments better.
I enjoy cooking, but I'm not ready to open a restaurant yet! For me, it's just a relaxing pastime that is satisfying when it comes out well. Similarly to doing a painting, you've got the visual challenge of balancing colors, textures and composition on the plate, but with the added test of making all the flavors work together. I usually stay close to the recipe the first time I cook something, the next time I improvise a bit. What better way to chill with friends than over a nice home-cooked meal?
Do you have any other interests?
I've always had a love for making music. Much to my neighbors' dismay, I played the drums from age 10 through college. Then I wanted a change so I fooled around with saxophone and flute. Sometime in the early '90's I started to get a little more serious about the tenor saxophone. I had been listening to a lot of Jazz and I wanted to understand the music better, so at this time I took lessons for about 4 or 5 years, practicing 1 - 2 hours a day. I started playing fairly regularly with two friends who are not only gifted and talented musicians, they are also amazing illustrators. James Steinberg and Rob Saunders were my lifeline to the music. We would get together for a weekend of playing music, talking shop and cooking great meals. It was idyllic. Why I stopped playing the tenor, I don't really know. Perfectionist that I am, maybe I was getting too frustrated with the complexity of Jazz music and the difficulty of playing it well. Whatever, I gradually let it slide but I will always have fond memories of playing with those guys. (They are both still actively playing music and illustrating). Little-known fact: I also enjoy playing spoons to Irish jigs and reels.
I also love to write and I've taken a few creative writing courses and done a few poetry readings.
You've done poetry readings? That’s new information to me. Are you still doing that and writing?
Most of my creative writing occurred during RISD. That’s where I took the writing courses. I also had a couple of poet friends from University of Rhode Island who published an annual Literary/Arts magazine called Harbinger (later called Northeast Journal). I helped them with the design and layout and to read the submissions that came in from all over the country to select the ones that would be in the magazine. I was lucky enough to get one of my poems, (with illustration), into one of the editions. The readings were just informal evenings with friends.
For the last couple of years, you've been working on a massive painting for the Lamar Soutter Library at University of Massachusetts Medical School. I was just over your house and that thing is crazy! Knowing how detailed your work is at 11x14 then seeing the same attention to detail at 7 feet is incredible!
Talk about that job and will this lead into more work like this?
The painting is 6’ x 7’! This was a lucky commission. Dr. Leonard Morse had a decades-long dream to hire an artist to commemorate the contributions towards a polio virus by Dr. John Enders and his team. Dr. Morse raised the funds for the painting completely through contributions.
Yes, I would love to do more portrait commissions! This one was a challenge because it was so big and because all three men are deceased. Their discovery was in the mid-fifties and it was difficult to find suitable reference material. It’s much better being able to shoot my own reference.
In a way, I feel like I’ve come full circle with my portrait paintings. I’m back to studying and revering the old masters, (as I try to mimic their techniques!), just as I did when I was starting out. I will always continue illustrating but the portrait painting is very satisfying as well.