Wilson McLean arrived in New York City in 1966. Twenty-eight years old and married with two children, he had come to America to fulfill a childhood dream to become a famous illustrator. He wanted to use his considerable drawing and painting talentnot to show in galleriesbut to create illustrations for the many American magazines he had admired back in England. He was in the right place at the right time, when illustration was in wide use and commercial images had real social impact. Art directors at magazines and advertising agencies in the late 1960s and the 1970s were on the lookout for artists who were skilled draftsmen and painters. Discovering new talent was part of the job description, and in McLean they found a fresh vision.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, McLean moved with his family to a working-class suburb of London after World War II. His exceptional drawing ability was obvious by the time he was 12 years old. Other than an occasional sketch of his mother, he seldom drew from life; instead, he copied illustrationsblack-and-white line drawings of cowboys and fighter pilots from The Boys Own adventure annuals and other illustrated books. He was consumed by the process, drawing the images over and over again. At 13, he went to a school that offered art classes, and for the first time he knew what it was to draw from life. Finally receiving real instruction, McLean began to feel that becoming an artist could be a reality. He won the schools top art award for artistic excellence and received Lives of Great Artists, a book of black-and-white drawings that included the works of such artists as Rembrandt and Caravaggio.
It was the first time I really saw any art, McLean says. There were no books in our house, and I think I must have been 16 before I ever went to a museum.
Based on his talent and ambition, McLean was offered a scholarship at 15 to attend a professional art school. It was a great opportunity, but his art education would have to wait. His father, a foreman in a dry cleaning factory, was in a car accident that crushed his collarbone and a leg, preventing him from ever holding a fulltime job again.
Of that time McLean says, I remember the headmaster pleading for me to stay in school. My mother left the decision up to me, but knowing how dire the financial situation was at home, I really didnt think I had a choice. I felt I owed it to my mother to get a job, so I went to work in a factory.
But his drive to make art never abated. Weekends were spent copying paintings from any book he could find, and he looked for opportunities to get work that had some meaning for him. His first job was for Phelps Silk Screen Painting, a studio that made silk screens and signs for local businesses, and McLean was hired as messenger, janitor, and general clean-up boy. It wasnt illustration yet, so he kept copying and drawing and painting on the weekends. A year later he got work at a studio on Fleet Street in London. They didnt do illustrations but he was out of the suburbs. He says, The job was really useful to me. I became the super messenger, running all over London getting to know every news shop that sold magazines with illustrations in them. I found American magazines like Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, and Argosy, which displayed full-color storytelling images.
I was very excited by the macho illustrations of unshaven men in combat or on the Texas range. This kind of drama wasnt in English illustration at that time. English illustration was more genteel, more conservative, less flashy. I saw Norman Rockwells work and admired his skill, but couldnt relate to his world. The adventure illustrations of Fred Ludekins and Harold Von Schmidt seemed more exotic and fed my love of history.
Just when McLean finally landed decent paying work from a newspaper, he turned18, and mandatory military service began. Sent to Yemen, a British protectorate at the time, he stayed for two years and drew to keep my sanity and not for pleasure. After the army McLean returned to his messenger job, but started taking evening drawing and painting classes in earnest at Chelsea St. Martins and The Central Art School. There were no illustration classes, so his portfolio featured life drawings and paintings. He applied for a job doing paste-ups and mechanicals at Womans Own, a popular British magazine that featured illustration and even reprinted some American work.
Daily, McLean was surrounded by transparencies of illustrations by the big names in American illustration at the timeJoe Bowler, Joe DeMers, and Coby Whitmore. But it was the work of a new illustrator, Bernie Fuchs, that really excited him. A little too modern for me, was the comment from the magazines art director, but Fuchss approach to illustration was to become a major influence on McLeans early work.
I liked the way he used the camera to design his illustrations. The work was photo-based, of course, but very inventive, and it had a freshness to it that I found missing in Coby Whitmore and Joe Bowler. I set up my own darkroom, bought a lucigraph, and started setting up more complicated photo sessions with models and props.
It worked. Womans Own gave him his first of many assignments. A year later McLean was making a living as a freelance illustrator. In 1968, he met his mentor at the Society of Illustrators in New York. Bernie Fuchs, it turned out was already aware of McLeans work. They were colleagues, finally, and it was a memorable occasion.
When I first came to America I knew my work looked too much like Bernies, McLean says, so I began to reinvent my style. I sold the lucigraph and began to rely more on my drawing ability. I started looking at the work of painters instead of illustrators for inspiration.
The work of Kitjai, an American painter living in London, caught his imaginationthe scale distortion and picture geometry was of particular influenceand McLeans work changed dramatically. More line, more ambiguity, and less realism were evident in his work, although his interest and ability to paint realistically remained. Magritte, the Belgian surrealist said, One should paint each object in a picture as accurately as possible. McLean developed his own form of surrealism that even today is echoed in both his illustration work and gallery paintings. But, unlike Magritte, whose surreal images have a singular, focused impact, McLean will visually tell two stories, one on top of the other. The first story will feature an image or scene of heightened reality, while the second story, which lies beneath, is more vague, more mysterious.
During the 1970s and 1980s, he was able to bring this approach into his advertising work. A time of great productivity, Mclean produced award-winning work for the top creatives in the business, including Milton Glaser; Herb Lubalin; Don Smolen; John DeCesare; Bill Gold; Keith Bright and Bob Dion at Chiat Day; Walter Bernard at Time; John Berg at CBS Records; Richard Gangel at Sports Illustrated; Arthur Paul, Tom Staebler and Kerig Pop at Playboy; Frank Metz at Simon & Schuster; Bennett Robinson at Corporate Graphics; and Terry McCaffrey at the U.S. Postal Service. He has produced commemorative stamps for the Royal Mail; illustrated the childrens book, If the Earth; and taught in workshops nationwide.
Though he now paints for gallery exhibition, McLean says, The habit and love of illustration is part of me. I have come to accept the fact that my work started in my childhood drawings. I will continue to explore my own language of realism and ambiguity because thats what interests me. It is a wonderful thing to do and get paid for and I shudder to think what would have happened to me without it. I have accepted the fact that my drawing and painting are rooted in tradition. I dont believe that tradition will die. Thats what keeps me young.
Chair, MFA Illustration department, School of Visual Arts, New York