Voices of Experience - Cindy Wheeler

Voices of Experience

Cindy Wheeler

Green Cathedral, Watercolor, © Cindy Wheeler
Green Cathedral          Watercolor

   Cindy Wheeler's love of the light and the landscape comes from a childhood growing up on a mountain top in North Carolina. Since then, life has taken her around the world and recently back to her beloved Blue Ridge Mountains. Her design work and work with wildlife have informed her artistic passion and she has continued to paint while navigating careers in graphic design, illustration, writing and working with cheetahs and other big cats. We asked Wheeler to tell us about growing up in the stimulating environment of the Appalachian mountains, her education at Auburn University, painting on the east and west coasts and working with wildlife.

Rural Mail, Watercolor, Cindy Wheeler
Rural Mail               Watercolor

   The landscape I grew up in, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, is very inspiring with the atmospheric layers of greens, blues and purples. I was raised on the top of a mountain, so that was a view I came to almost take for granted, but for the constant visitors who reminded me just how unique and lucky we were to be surrounded with such beauty. My father loved to whittle things large and small. He always had a totem pole in the works in the driveway and loved to make funny characters out of wood. He encouraged my creativity constantly. He had a sister (my Aunt Sally) who was an accomplished portrait painter whom I thought hung the moon and stars. She worked in pastels and oils. When she died, she willed me her pastels.

   I had a phenomenal professor and friend, Anthony Guy Bost, at Auburn University where I majored in what then was called “Commercial Art,” now known as Graphic Design. He had worked at all the big design firms in Atlanta and NYC and had an uncanny eye for design, and a wonderful sense of humor, which he incorporated into all his work. He took a few of us in the Art Department under his wing and opened the doors to the world of art and design like no other, including taking us to NYC and giving us a personal tour of all his favorite places, and touring every single art museum we could squeeze into our schedule. He taught us to push ourselves past mediocrity and taught us how to “see.” “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” I have applied his lessons to everything I have done in my life—not just painting, since. It was a great gift.

   You had a long and successful career writing and illustrating children’s books. Has your illustration work influenced your current painting? And are your children’s books still available?

Marmalade's Nap by Cindy Wheeler   For my senior thesis project at Auburn, I chose to do a children’s book, having no idea how long and complicated a process that would turn out to be! To receive an A for the project, my instructor, Mr. Bost said I had to “sell” the book to a NYC publisher, launching me into a 20-year career. I didn’t sell the book immediately—it took a couple of years and my first book wasn’t the one I did for my class, but an entirely different book. (I still got an A in the class!) I worked at a bookstore for a year in Nashville, TN in the Children’s Book Department and became familiar with what the different publishers did. With that information, I contacted an agent who told me that the only way I would break into the NYC publishing world was to move to NYC, so I did. I moved to Brooklyn Heights, NY and worked as a waitress in midtown Manhattan while I searched for a publisher for my newly created Marmalade book idea. I sold my book a year later and continued to write and/or illustrate 26 more books over the course of 15 years. It was a daunting learning curve, as the printing technology was very antiquated back in the 80s and I had much to learn in a short amount of time. All my books are now out of print, sadly, but I had a great run, and have moved on to painting, and a whole new set of daunting learning curves!

   We know that you’ve lived on both the east coast and the west coast. Can you describe what has inspired you most about those very different landscapes? How has your palette changed from one coast to the other?

   I grew up in NC, lived in New York for 10 years, back to NC for 12 years, then out to California in 2001. The minute I stepped off the plane in Northern CA, I was in LOVE with the light. I was not aware of the amazing difference in the quality of light from coast to coast. From NC to NYC, light quality was much the same, but California is unique and intoxicating. I began learning how to do pastels at a little community art center buried up in the golden hills in Marin outside of San Francisco and fell in love with the California landscape. I love pastels but have since learned how difficult they are to move around and store (having moved every 2 years for 15 years!), and to ship, and to frame, so I have since made myself go back to watercolor and forward to oil. Each medium has its own demands and protocols. t. But when I see a painting subject, it seems to dictate what medium would best represent the emotion and essence that draws me to it.

American River Sunset, Pastel, © Cindy Wheeler
American River Sunset                Pastel

Drake's Bay, Oil, © Cindy Wheeler
Drake's Bay               Oil

   I think of myself as a watercolor painter, because that is what I used to do all my children’s book art in, but I have been thrilled with the forgiveness of pastels, and once I have become a little more used to oil, really appreciate the softness and flexibility they offer. I also have painted in acrylic, and will use it out of doors, because the paintings dry quickly. Unfortunately, the paintings DO dry quickly and that makes acrylic tricky to work with.

Beaver Lake, Oil, © Cindy Wheeler
Beaver Lake               Oil

Eno River, Oil, © Cindy Wheeler
Eno River               Oil

   You’ve had the opportunity to travel to paint landscapes in other parts of the world. Where have you painted that was particularly inspirational to you?

   I’ve taken a couple of John Hulsey and Ann Trusty’s fabulous overseas painting workshops, one in Aix-en-Provence, and another in Tuscany, Italy. I became fascinated with the castle hill towns, surrounded by beautiful stone walls, (so different from my NC mountain home!) and the fields of vineyards and poppies and tall deep green cypress trees in curving rows. We stood in the very spot Van Gogh painted in Arles and painted the Rhone River which was at once humbling and thrilling. I took advantage of a couple of days at the end of one of the trips to go to Monet’s home in Giverny to see his magnificent gardens which was like walking through his paintings in real life. All these experiences were like nothing I had ever seen before creating a desire to hone my skills in order to capture what I see and love about an image, or place, and communicate that passionate information to another person visually.

Pienza Wall Watercolor Cindy Wheeler
Pienza Wall               Watercolor

Italian Flower Pot, Watercolor, © Cindy Wheeler
Italian Flower Pot               Watercolor

   I am so inspired with lighting, whether it is a landscape, or a pot of flowers. A beam of sunlight can “turn a subject on” in my eyes. Color and atmosphere are also triggering for me. Beautiful colors are seductive and can be a real challenge to capture and reproduce. One of the “easy” characteristics of pastel, is you can simply pick up a stick of chalk in the color you are looking for to add that highlight or shadow. When I switched to oils, I had quite a time learning to mix the brilliant colors that attracted me to a subject without creating mud.

   My pastel teacher in Marin taught us to make notans—little thumbnail value sketches of our subject to establish the lights and darks. Understanding value changes is so important and training the eye to see the value changes takes time. The notans help a lot. I also love to take photographs and I do a lot of my composition with the camera lens. I love painting outside, which I find excruciatingly hard, but the colors I get are incomparable to anything I do indoors. I love painting indoors from one of my photos because there is no wind, there are no bugs, and the light does not change, but the colors are never as good. Creating a plein air color sketch and working from that sketch indoors is a happy medium.

   Would you please tell us something about your time working with wildlife and the artwork that came from that time?

   I worked in South Africa as a volunteer for 6 months in 2006-07, helping raise baby cheetahs, and became quite attached to one cheetah, named Hemmingway. I have always wanted to do a painting of Hemmingway but was concerned about being able to communicating the deep love and admiration I had for the big cat. I was more comfortable with painting landscapes, but not humans, and not animals. About a year ago, I bought a tall canvas and used a photo I had taken so many years ago and have had on my desk since then. I sketched the painting onto the canvas, got out my oils and stepped back three days later to a finished painting of my beloved big spotted cat looking over his shoulder at me. To this day, it is one of my favorites. The personality, passion and essence of Hemmingway is there, and it never ceases to capture people’s attention when they come in the room. My friend Bob swears the big cat’s eyes follow him wherever he goes. It is so good for us to try new things. Being afraid of failure can paralyze you. In the world of art critics, Hemmingway might not make a ripple, but in my heart, it is the painting of all paintings and that’s what really matters.

Hemmingway, Oil, © Cindy Wheeler
Hemmingway               Oil

   Any words of wisdom you might give to beginning artists?

   I am always a “beginner” and never assume I have figured anything out. I suppose that opens me up to constantly trying new things, also ironically, makes me chronically unhappy with my paintings because I see techniques and flaws that I wish I had done differently. Seeing those failed techniques and all the flaws means I have learned something, though and will be a little bit better next time.

   Here is a big one for me. Some days you can paint, and some days you cannot. That is just the way it is. Do not be discouraged by the days you cannot. Just come back tomorrow. An artist once told me, “We have “X” number of bad paintings in us before we get to the good ones. We might as well go ahead and get those out of the way!”  Love that. Sometimes we must wait 14 years to tackle a topic that we think we cannot possibly bring anything to, and then we do it. Paint for yourself but learn from others. Many painters have worked very hard to learn some wonderful techniques and shortcuts and generously share their information with us. Never be afraid to learn from others and then apply what you like to what you love.

   Immerse yourself in art that you love. I love to go to museums and spend time on the paintings that speak to me to try to understand why they are successful at drawing me in. I always come home inspired to paint. Creating time for painting is essential (and always a challenge).

Photograph of Artist Cindy Wheeler Painting in Tuscany





To see more of Cindy Wheeler's work, go to:

All artwork copyright Cindy Wheeler

Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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