Whether it's a quince leaf that trembles in the breeze outside, or a moth that flies in the window, Nicholas Wilton finds nature is his greatest creative inspiration. That's not hard to believe when you consider that he is surrounded by five acres nestled into the hills of West Marin in Northern California.
Wilton perfectly fits this fairytale landscape, a place with a timeless appeal; these mist-shrouded mountains could be in Slovenia or in Scotland, but they are an hour's drive north of San Francisco. He draws content and inspiration from the view out his studio window and from his frequent runs in the woods near his home. "The time I spend on the trails creates a space for thoughts and ideas to work themselves out," Nick says.
Given to testing his strength and will, he believes that you create value by the energy you put into things. For Wilton, it's never less than a thousand percent. For example, last summer he ran in the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile run that begins in Squaw Valley, in the Sierra Nevada mountains and ends in Auburn, California. The grueling course traverses a remote and rugged landscape that is accessible only to hikers, horses and helicopters. The temperature rose to 110° in the canyons and many hours were spent running with only the light of a headlamp illuminating the trail. "Setting off in pursuit of something just beyond your grasp relates as much to long distance running as it does to painting. Both require a leap of faith," he says.
This type of preparation and effort are hallmarks of Wilton's work—and of his life—he has built a successful illustration business through talent, drive and shrewd marketing acumen. His process has led to a market for his work; the iconography and composition of his paintings have garnered a wide array of clients from Yoga Journal to Forbes, from Birkenstock to the UCLA annual report. With a lot of sweat equity, Nicholas and his wife, illustrator Jennie Oppenheimer, transformed the ramshackle property they bought at a real estate auction, into a comfortable and stylish home that the couple share with their daughters, Lyla, ten, and Hannah, eight. His studio is a short walk up a cobblestone path, a cozy building with a sliding glass door and ample views to the outdoors.
them. The medium of stained glass is very shape oriented and he began to develop a library of archetypal symbols that he could combine and recombine.
Drawn to art at an early age, at fourteen Wilton took a workshop with the well-known stained glass artist Ludwig Schaffrath. After the workshop, he began to take on commissions. He remembers he couldn't drive at the time, but he would visit a client's home, get a feeling for the people and then create a window for
Born in San Francisco, Wilton, 42, grew up in Marin County. He attended the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he met Jennie, and then received a B.F.A. degree from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where the two were classmates with illustrators Joel Nakamura, Rafael Lopez and Noah Woods.
"I have been profoundly inspired by Nick," says Noah Woods, whose friendship with Wilton dates back twenty years. "There has always been this passionate spirit and a kind-hearted soulfulness that seamlessly, unmistakably reflects back into the quiet lushness and gentle depth of his art."
Nicholas and Jennie are avid and intrepid travelers who have biked or hiked their way through parts of Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, India, New Zealand, Australia and Europe. He is drawn to the adventures of early naturalists and explorers like Sir Hans Sloane, James Cook and Charles Darwin—people seeing things for the first time. That is the approach he takes in his illustration, viewing simple natural elements with a fresh eye, transferring line into mythological symbols that are washed with rich, potent color.
"When I take an assignment, I go after the feeling," Wilton says. He begins his illustration process with a black-and-white sketch, and adds a gouache wash. He has an arsenal of tools he uses to scrape, scratch and otherwise degrade his paintings; this surface manipulation is an integral part of his technique. "All my surfaces have a weathered quality because I've worked on them a long time. That creates an interest because there are ghost images of things; there's a complexity that's inferred by the actual surface."
A series of miniature paintings that he began sending to an e-mail list of friends act as stepping stones to his creative process. They line a shelf above a worktable in his studio: a branchless tree encircled by a snake, a drooping poppy, a shadowed spiral with the likeness of that moth that flew in the window one morning. "This began with my desire to share my more experimental work with a few artist friends," Wilton explains. "Lacking time to visit with them in person or have them come by the studio, I just e-mailed them the images. The comments and artwork sent back was stimulating. Since then the list of recipients has grown.
"The notion that I could finish a picture at 7 a.m. and by 7:05 have someone from Australia and another from Chicago seeing and responding to the same image at the same point in time fascinated me. What began to happen, interestingly enough, was the reaction and this instantaneous 'global gallery' began to direct, in some ways, the subsequent images. This outside public component to these paintings has broadened them, and in fact has become an integral part of the work."
Folding his six-foot-four frame into a chair, he describes elements of his art. Wilton bisects space in interesting ways; his paintings move the eye from arc to circle to intense areas of detail. He says he achieves a contrast of mood as he works on a painting, and this contrast is evident to the viewer of the finished illustration.
On his Web site, www.nicholaswilton.com, one finds a portfolio of his commercial illustration, the e-mail series and fine art paintings. He moves with fluidity from commercial illustration to fine art; the worlds intersect easily and often, each informing and inspiring the other.
Nicholas and Jennie teach seminars and workshops based upon a method he developed, called ArtPlane, a technique employing fundamental painting principles combined with a more intuitive approach to the creative process. Unlike some artists, he enjoys deconstructing his art, examining meanings and techniques, and analyzing the origin of the elements. But the allure of his work is that people can apply their own meanings. By using symbolic archetypal imagery, Wilton's work allows the viewer into the piece on a deeper level—his paintings are at once personal, and universal. "People will fill up the picture with their own ideas, which is to me a little more compelling. They can apply meaning to it," he says.
"I try to leave some ambiguity in my work. The challenge of creating images that not only communicate clear ideas but that also offer the possibility of further inquiry, interests me. And besides, it's much more fun." ca