Whitehot Magazine

William Wray on George Lucas, Norman Rockwell, MAD Magazine, Ren and Stimpy and How We Think About Illustration vs. Painting

William Wray in the studio in 2012, photo by Greg Preston from his book The Artist Within 2


The following is a conversation I had recently. Well known LA based artist William Wray spoke to me about a number of different subjects relating to his life as a cartoonist, illustrator and painter. I met Will when he invited me to be in the group show he's curating called "PINK" - opening in LA this November. It was a perfect time to take advantage of the connect with Will and shamelessly promote his group show at Castelli Art Space

Noah Becker: How would you describe this idea you have about illustration vs. painting? Is it the difference between an illustrator and a painter or what exactly are you thinking about with this idea?

William Wray: I think a good example would be when I posted something on social media about the George Lucas museum opening in LA. There was a shit-storm of people going “Oh god, WHY! WHY! Why?! Who cares about that illustration crap? 

Becker: You mean George Lucas’s Norman Rockwell Museum?  

Wray: Yes, that this guy collects Norman Rockwell and other artists and combine that with the Hollywood designs. What does this have to do with contemporary art one might ask? Why do we need this museum seems to be the vehement question? Many feel we don’t, but I think that we can all play together in the same sandbox.

William Wray, Anti-Hero, 24x16, Oil on Wood, 2014. This painting almost made it as a Marvel cover for Dead Pool, but Wray said no for legal reasons.

William Wray, Back Alley, 2014/2017, 14x11, oil

Becker: So you were defending Norman Rockwell as being more than just an illustrator?

Wray: Yes. The idea of illustration being a lower art form. The recently created conceit that if your work is of a narrative nature, it might be something less than something completely conceptual in nature. That’s a prejudice that I think is worth trying to change.

Becker: What do you see as the difference between illustration and more conceptually driven art that is supposed to be taken more seriously?

Wray: Tracey Emin for example, her unmade bed piece. That kind of thing is distained by the typical narrative artist who’s in the periphery of the contemporary art world. Then the people who like Emin’s bed might feel the same dislike about the typical narrative artist. Both camps have been at odds for such a long time; maybe it‘s time to have little group art shows like PINK to see if just maybe those two worlds can hang together without the room catching fire.

William Wray, Backdoor, 2013, 24x24, oil. Behind Wray's favorite Thai Restaurant. Mundane subjects made interesting by Wray with pushed color.

William Wray, Princess of Van Nuys, 2017, oil

Becker: Are you saying that the “Pink” show you are curating is in some way going to deal with these issues?

Wray: I hope so.

Becker: Right ok.

Wray: The George Lucas museum can be a few blocks from the Broad and it’s OK to enjoy both.

Becker: Francis Bacon was the one who went on about the difference between painting and illustration but he wasn’t going on about it in the way you are. His narrative was different but I’ve heard a variation on this theme in discussions being had in different art cities. In terms of painting Bacon was talking about non-illustrative work as having the element of chance in the way it is made. There have been different artists who work in what could be called illustration that I think have really made something significant.

Wray:  I would cite Francis Bacon as someone who in his style united the worlds of drawing and realism and abstract art. Looking back on art history, the marriage of the two disciplines was too short a period of exploration. I would have liked to see a deeper integration of these worlds. I feel like that kind of coalescing of styles is coming back now. Obviously I would say that, because I think of myself as being an artist who is mixing everything. And what artist is not self obsessed?

Becker: Yeah, I mean we’re all narcissists to a certain extent.

Wray: Yeah.

Comic book cover "Gay Wolf" drawing by Will Wray

William Wray, Breathe in- Breathe out, 2017, 24x24 inches 

William Wray, abstraction, 2017, oil

William Wray, Partners in Crime, oil

William Wray, Joey, 2017, 11x14, oil

William Wray, Launch, 2017, 32x24, oil on wood 

Becker: Hmm.

Wray: There’s an illustrator you should check out named Brad Holland. Do you know his work?

Becker: No, I don’t.

Wray: You might want to look him up. He’s the guy; you remember in Playboy on the other side of the fold out, it would be a limerick with an illustration in it of a woman doing something kind of magical? It was a pen and ink and color wash thing – that was his work.

Becker: Wait let me Google that. And…ah ok I see - yes I remember this. I love this stuff, these are great drawings!

Wray: He was basically an editorial illustrator that was so personal and so unique that I think he overrides the typical definition of an illustrator. You know they take the job and make the illustration under the direction of the art director. Well, Brad Holland in my opinion is too unique to do that and Playboy let him fly.

Color study from Spumco Ren and Stimpy

Becker: So then to change it up a bit, because we’re talking about illustration a bit, I’ll ask you about MAD Magazine and your time there. Most don’t know that I’m a huge MAD Magazine fan and former MAD collector. Are you still involved with MAD Magazine?

Wray: No, they changed art directors and I couldn’t get along with the new one, so I left MAD Magazine. Then one of the main editors retired and that editor really championed my work in the magazine so that added to why I left MAD Magazine.

Rejected Mad cover for the new raunchy Mad 1996

Monroe brush ink 2004

Inking a panel from my Monroe strip in Mad 

Becker: What kinds of things would you do for MAD Magazine?

Wray: I did a comic strip for MAD for ten years with a writer from the Jimmy Kimmel Show, (Tony Barbieri) our strip was called “Monroe,” and was MAD’s first real-time comic strip. Everything else they’ve ever done was “A MAD Look at This” etc. They had never done moment-to-moment comedy strip like we did.

Becker: Ok.

Wray: I literally got the job because of my background in comics telling stories. And they said we want you to kind of edit the writer’s story telling into comic form. So I then suggested to them, “Do we have to use that crappy old font that you guys like using for the lettering. Can we use a comic book letterer who could do different fonts for different characters dialogue?” So they said you hire a guy. So I was editing the strips and illustrating them to a certain point before editorial final approval, kind of packaging the whole art thing.

Becker: Ah, sounds like a lot of effort. 

 One Pink Motherfucker, 2017 

Wray: What it did was that process made me possessive of the strip, at a certain point when they hired a new art director, (he was very old school) and had his own direction. We butted heads, I moved on.

Becker: Now I’ll ask you about Ren and Stimpy and your role there?

Wray: I was the head of background painting at Spumco. Later a writer and director on the series when it went to Nick. I worked for Bob Camp who was the show-runner and main director. I set up the painting department to run it self Via Scott Wills being in charge.

Becker: So now after all this are you just making paintings and not doing comics or animation?

Wray: I’m mostly just painting, last year I did a comic book with Ashley Wood. It was a beautifully printed, very expensive comic book and VERY dark in story content. I jump back into comics once in a while and I flop over into animation. I’m working on a short film with a friend. Have you ever seen the Story Corps cartoons? It’s about ordinary people with extraordinary lives. The Rauch Bros and I did those for years, now painting success has give me the opportunity to work on a new film With Tim Rouch that’s totally original no editorial. A real Art cartoon with narrative and conceptual elements. What’s funny is we never talked about my current painting in this interview… Next time for my solo show next year. WM


Noah Becker

Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023. 


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