News Column

Born to draw: Castle Shannon illustrator Phil Wilson has done it all

June 21, 2014

By Rex Rutkoski, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

June 21--When Phil Wilson was all of 5, his mother made what has proven to be a telling entry in his baby journal.

"He really likes to draw," she wrote.

Wilson, 65, smiles at that remembrance.

"It's something I couldn't imagine not being able to do," he says. "It is as necessary to my existence as breathing."

The prolific, award-winning, nationally known illustrator -- who has compiled an artist's dream list of opportunities and clients -- remains energized by his work and the stunning variety it offers.

The Castle Shannon resident, a native of Oil City, takes particular pride in never having missed a deadline, completing jobs days and, sometimes, weeks early.

Wilson, whose work often is distributed internationally, cannot foresee ever growing tired of what he does and has no plans to retire.

"There's always so much to create and to paint that there's never a lack of something to develop," he says.

Wilson just completed his illustration from his 78th children's book, through the years contributing to such major publishing houses as Walt Disney, Golden Books, HarperCollins and National Geographic books, among others. He created nine original Disney characters for the books and magazines he illustrated for the company, including its Little Mermaid and Mickey Mouse magazines. He has illustrated more than 80 collectors art plates featuring classic Disney characters for the Bradford Exchange.

"I love the fact that there is a vast variety of styles and work in this field, and I love to pursue all of them," he says. "I've never agreed with artists who claim that you need to develop one style and be known for that one style to succeed.

"I've really had several careers in one," he says. "There isn't really much left on my career 'bucket list.' I'm surprised and somewhat in disbelief at what I've been fortunate enough to have done."

Hitting the big time

As a former partner and co-owner for 20 years (1979-1999), with Jim Allan of Pleasant Hills, of the Pittsburgh-based Allan & Wilson animation studio, he contributed to animation on two feature films ("Creepshow" and "Creepshow 2") and a hit music video ("Runnin' Down a Dream") for Tom Petty, which Rolling Stone magazine named one of the Top 5 videos of 1989. The studio also did work on two half-hour television specials: "Allison & the Magic Bubble" for HBO and "A Star for Jeremy" for Showtime, the latter of which earned Wilson and Allan a bronze achievement award at the International Film and Television Festival of New York.

The team also animated television commercials.

"He is an amazingly versatile artist, with an amazing eye for detail, and a great friend," says Allan, former art director for Allegheny County'sPlanning Department. They have never had an argument, Allan says.

They currently have developed an animation course at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen, where they regularly talk to students.

Wilson's art has appeared on CBS "60 Minutes," VH1/MTV, and in such national publications as Entertainment Weekly, People and Popular Mechanics. Add to that all of his advertising art for billboards, restaurants, hotels, food packaging, video and DVD packaging, and he has a feeling that he already has "done it all."

Digging deep

Wilson twice received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Educational Press Association of America for his dinosaur illustrations that accompanied world-renowned paleontologist Jack Horner's "Dino-Speak" articles for Wild Outdoor World magazine.

Horner, who invited Wilson on a dig, is known for his groundbreaking discoveries of the first dinosaur eggs in the Western Hemisphere, among other achievements. He served as the technical adviser for all of the "Jurassic Park" movies and is the inspiration for the movie's lead character, Dr. Alan Grant (portrayed by Sam Neill). Horner and Wilson have been discussing a joint book project.

Wilson fully illustrated a Dinosaur Monopoly game called "Dig'n Dinos."

"Anything from this point on is icing on the cake," Wilson says of his career.

His working style ranges from cartoon to highly detailed photo-realism, with specialization in classic Disney character art and scientifically accurate dinosaur illustrations. He prefers watercolor or acrylic, applying traditional techniques as well as airbrush.

He does not work digitally, preferring the tactile feel of the brush on board and "having the original art in your hands afterwards," he says.

Friend and fellow artist John Manders of Franklin, who has a studio in Oil City and is a former illustration instructor at Pittsburgh Technical Institute, is amazed at Wilson's versatility.

"He can switch on a dime from drawing Mickey Mouse cartoons to realistic, heavily researched dinosaur pictures. He has a reputation among dinosaur specialists for getting it right," says Manders.

In addition to Horner, Wilson also has worked with internationally renowned paleontologists Peter Dodson and Robert Bakker.

Whether he is painting a rampaging T-rex or a scene from "Winnie the Pooh," Wilson says his technique remains basically the same. "It's just a matter of dealing with light and shadow, color and tone, shape and form to depict the subject accurately," he explains.

When he was very young, he thought he might want to be a paleontologist because of his deep love for dinosaurs. "But that lasted about 15 minutes when I found out that you had to spend a lot of time in hot desert regions, digging in 100-plus-degree weather," he says. "Suddenly, being an artist held a lot more appeal for me."

Dinos and Disney

Dinosaurs and Disney have been two of his biggest interests since childhood.

"The fact that I was able to turn them into two of my biggest career-makers is still astonishing to me," he says. "I couldn't have written a better script."

Wilson hopes that when people view his illustrations, they come away with a warm feeling from their childhood, especially regarding his Disney art.

"I've tried to instill the quality and the style of the original films into the illustrations, and I hope that brings the same happy reactions that the films gave to them."

With his dinosaurs he hopes to give the viewer a sense of ''being there," by depicting scenes that are "kind of a moment in time," captured as though someone just happened upon them, he says.

A growing source of illustration jobs for artists, including himself, comes of late from independent self-publishers, someone perhaps writing their first book.

"We love working with him, and our authors love his work," says Bryan Carroll, senior project manager for Greenleaf Book Group in Austin. The independent publishing company has hired Wilson multiple times to illustrate its children's books.

"He is a true professional, and he gives everything in his power to make the client happy," says agent Cliff Knecht of Ben Avon, who has represented Wilson for 27 years. "And, as I have told clients over the years, he is the fastest artist on the planet."

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or


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