Since the 1960s, artist William Wegman has captured his beloved Weimaraners in iconic poses that have appeared in books for adults and children, postcards, calendars and posters, to name a few. But it has been a decade since Wegman released a new children’s book, and he does so now with a twist on his familiar approach.
In his new picture book, Flo & Wendell, Wegman goes back to his roots as an artist, adding colorful splashes of paint to his photos of the expressive dogs.
Speaking by phone from his home in Maine, Wegman explains that the concept for the book developed not just from the idea of adding illustrations, but also from the spot-on, very human-like rivalry of two of his own Weimaraner puppies, who are also siblings.
“It really came about because of Flo’s character with her actual half-brother, who is a year younger,” he says. “Their relationship was both nurturing and competitive—or combative—as dogs. I also have my own children, so I had a chance to witness that, but really, it’s what everybody knows about big sisters or little brothers or visa versa. It’s something you see whether it’s your own children or someone else’s.”
As the story unfolds in Flo & Wendell, Flo is revealed as something of a dramatic ham, a quality shared by the real Flo. “She loves the camera! She absolutely does, the same way that my dog Fay did. Topper [who appears in the book as Wendell] likes it, too, but Flo’s much more competitive. She wants it, and she’ll knock the other dogs off to get up on the modeling stand.”
As with all the Wegman dogs, modeling becomes a fun, positive experience and that was no exception for Flo, the camera queen. “When I started working with her, I had a dog named Penny who I was working on for a National Geographic cover every day practically. And so, when Flo was very young, I would set her next to Penny, so she’d think she was having her picture taken. And I think that made her really like it. She got to see her hero Penny pose, and then when it was her turn she thought it was something.”
That kind of excitement in Wegman’s studio seems to be rewarding for his dogs, who don’t receive doggie treats or canine cookies for posing. “Big strobe lights go off, and it’s a pleasant experience for them. It’s like God talking—a big ‘stay’ and a big flash of light. If you pet them, it becomes a positive. I don’t give them treats because I don’t want them drooling all over, and that is exactly what they would do.” A bit unsightly for the camera, of course.
Wegman, who took a lot of pictures of both Flo and Topper (aka Wendell) when they were seven or eight weeks old, points out that the photos of each dog in the book are kept in character. In choosing the head shots of Flo in the story, Wegman explains, “There’s just a finite number of pictures of Flo when she was eight weeks old which I used in this book. We had to recycle through those heads of expression if I wanted to keep that character legitimate, which I do. That’s one thing that I do that’s different probably from the Lassie situation is that I don’t have many dogs playing other characters. So Flo is Flo. I don’t have some other random Weimaraner becoming Flo.”
Selecting just the right photos with the exact expressions, then mixing those with Wegman’s painted additions, is an exciting combination that helps the story unfold naturally. For the artist/photographer, the emphasis was on getting all the layers perfectly balanced on each page. “The first images I did of this type of character were kind of electrifying. I did one that is actually one of the pages introducing Wendell. That was the first time I made a painted figure that was flushed out like that. And it was so exciting and funny that I then developed a personality around that—then all the words started to fall in place.”
Appealing to the youngest readers (and listeners) with simple, loose form and bright colors, Wegman purposely downplays the details of clothing and body features, amplifying the dog’s vivid expressions. “It just comes alive before my eyes as I’m sitting there. It usually starts with a certain color—for instance with Flo, who always wears that pinkish kind of shirt—and I just start throwing the brush into a direction the arm might be.” Then along with that informal painting style, Wegman says, “The photographic aspect snaps it into a nice kind of clarity. Like I guess if you’re a cook and that’s your feature dish, you want to set the table with some side dishes that make your main dish work.” (A video demonstration of this technique is a don’t-miss at Wegmanworld.com.)
This new approach to depicting his Weimaraners may surprise some of Wegman’s fans, but to him, painting has always been a part of his life. “That’s what I did. That’s why I went to art school, and then somehow I got involved in early usage of video back in the late 1960s and early ’70s and used photo as a way of breaking through into new media. At the time it was considered new for artists to be using photography and video. And I found just a really electrifying way of using that. Painting seemed just absolutely part of the 19th century or at least it seemed to peter out by 1960-something. But because I have an innate love of it, I started to do it again. Way before I even thought of doing children’s books, I started to do paintings.”
An artist with such a rich history has seen tremendous changes in technology over the years, and those changes have influenced his art, Wegman says. “I use to use the Polaroid camera, which at one time was the very new and startling thing that took gigantic 24” X 20” pictures instantly, and that seemed really fast and very brazenly exciting. And I used that very effectively for many years. Then I got more into the digital. But I noticed that when I took a digital picture of a dog for instance, dressed up, you might have imagined that was all photoshopped and that the dog wasn’t really there collaborating, in a way, so that issue became less interesting. . . . So I think that’s another reason why the painted books and so forth have become more interesting for me. I still use the digital cameras for photographs with the adult dogs, and they do all kinds of crazy stuff, but less and less are they made into especially human characters. I’m still photographing them as adult dogs in situations and occasionally they are in outfits but, I don’t know, it’s just different.”
Wegman and his talented family are similar to the mom, dad and kids in Flo & Wendell, each one involved with the arts. Wegman’s wife, Christine Burgin (who designed the layout for the book), his 18-year-old son, Atlas, and 15-year-old daughter, Lola, and four Weimaraners, Candy, Bobbin, Flo and Topper, all divide their time between homes in Maine and New York City.
Wegman says the dogs adapt to just about any environment, whether loping along Maine’s winding nature trails or enjoying the city smells of a busy bike path in New York. “All the art projects go into suitcases and the dogs sit in a large SUV and enjoy the eight-hour drive between Maine and New York,” he says. And although according to Wegman, the big dogs love the big city, if you took their picture when they’re in New York, their expressions would say, “When are we going back to Maine?”
Images from Flo & Wendell © copyright 2013 by William Wegman. Reprinted with permission of Dial Books for Young Readers.