He will be in Atlanta on Sunday to introduce a new children's book, "Flo & Wendell Explore" (Dial, $17.99), a whimsical tale of sibling puppies going on a close-to-home camping trip that melds photographs of the dogs' adorable mugs with scenes that Wegman painted in kid-cheery colors. The just-released picture-book, for ages 3 to 5, is the sequel to last summer's romp with the dynamic duo, "Flo & Wendell."
We caught up to the artist-author, 70, at his summer home in Maine.
Q: Is it surprising to a lot of folks at your appearances that William Wegman is a painter, too?
A: It is. In fact, I was really quite the artist growing up. I always liked to draw and paint. I went to art school (majored in painting at the Massachusetts College of Art, then earned an M.F.A. in painting from the University of Illinois), found out there was much more to art than painting and drawing and ended up leaving that and getting into video, photo, performance art and all kinds of other things. Then when I was in my mid-40s, I kind of came back into it. Now I have a parallel life of photography and painting and sometimes video stuff.
Q: Have you shown your paintings a lot?
A: Yes, quite a bit and I'm certainly never going to get as much attention as I do for the dogs. But something about that has to do with how things get reproduced, too, because the photos are almost built to show up everywhere. And paintings just look good when you're right in front of them.
Q: Where did the idea come from to combine photography and painting in the “Flo & Wendell” books?
A: These were some photos of puppies that my assistant had printed up for me, and I started to (embellish) them in different ways, as I had in the '70s. Since the mid-'90s, I've been painting around postcards — connecting one to another, (connecting images) that aren't supposed to be connected. So when I got a hold of these images of Flo as a 7- to 8-week-old puppy (she's now 3), I started to paint her as a character … and I thought, "Gee maybe this could be a whole kind of story I could develop from these situations."
Q: So the images led you to the words or vice versa?
A: You bounce back and forth. There's always a dead end that you reach where you have to search and push.
Q: You’ve created some 20 children’s books. What have you learned along the way?
A: When I had my kids — I'm old, I had my first kid at 50 and he's now 19 — it really changed the way I thought about kids. I started to do children's books before I had kids, and then I had a revelation when I was raising my own. One thing I did was to abridge a lot of the older books. A parent does not want to stay up all night reading. He wants the kid to fall asleep right away. You want to come to "The end … happily ever after" a lot sooner.
Q: I’ve read that one of the reasons you like Weimaraners is their elegant gray coats. From a composition standpoint, what else about gray appeals?
A: As they say, gray goes with anything. Their nickname is the gray ghost. … They disappear when you set the background. If I'm photographing them in the studio against yellow background paper, you'd think they were yellow Labs almost. They kind of change to that color. Their fur is really made up of little mirrors. They're very sensitive to light and shade and tone.
I can imagine a bulldog has, like, one look. Getting them to look like a zillion other things like I have with Weimaraners would be kind of challenging.
Q: Be careful. You’re about to visit the land of the Georgia bulldog!
A: Sorry! Actually, I photograph bulldogs a lot. They're the mascot of the Chelsea Piers, where I played hockey and got to be friends with the GM there, who had four bulldogs and I was always being asked to dress them up and pose them. And when I brought them to my studio, my dogs were terrified of them. The (bulldogs) came in and pooped and peed and threw up and foamed all over the place. It was just hilariously chaotic.
Q: On a video of your appearance at last year’s National Book Festival in Washington, you said that you thought dog lovers tended to project thoughts of their pets far deeper than they actually think. You don’t think they’re Ph.D.-level thinkers?
A: Maybe they are. But I know I never had a thought about eating a dead frog off a dirt road, which is what (my four) dogs are thinking about this summer up in Maine. They're different than us. They're not us. I've never eaten a dead frog off a dirt road that's been run over by a car!