Some say that being an artist is a calling but, for the first 40 years of his working career, Wallace Wyss didn’t hear the call. Wyss, living in Southern California, shares his story about how he became a Ferrari artist with our interviewer.
Photography and art work: Wallace Wyss
Did you start out as an artist?
No, growing up in Detroit, I wanted to be an artist, and actually entered college as an art student but when an ad agency came along and dangled a summer intern job as a copywriter, I switched to journalism and followed graduation started an ad-writing career (Chevrolet ads). Four years later, I switched to the job of automotive writer in California.
Was it out on the West Coast you fell in love with Ferraris? How did that happen?
At Motor Trend, where I was associate editor, I was lucky enough to meet an associate art director whose passion was Ferraris and watched him paint portraits of Ferraris for various publications. I think even help start CAVALLINO…
But when did you start as an artist?
It didn’t occur to me to be an artist. Another few decades went by, during which I wrote 18 car histories, including three books on Ferrari.
So it wasn’t until the 1990s that you first made a car painting?
Yes, either 2008 or 2009, there was a car show on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, so I packed some of my new Shelby biography and then decided to make an oil portrait of Carroll Shelby to show with my book on Shelby: the first one, Shelby’s Wildlife, done in 1977, had sold 50,000 copies. I met a magazine publisher in a booth and showed him the books and the portrait and he said he wanted the portrait and I explained that the portrait was done just to promote the book and I wasn’t selling art but he was insistent so I sold the painting, but then decided then and there I had to learn how to make prints because I couldn’t go around selling my originals.
How many paintings have you made since?
That was in the early 2000s and since then I have made over 100 oil portraits, most of them of Ferraris.
Like I was saying, I grew up in Detroit. Even though there were several thousand car designers in town, only a select few in town—like ‘Chuck’ Jordan, the design chief at GM– owned Ferraris. Whenever I got to see one and hear one, I was excited. When I moved out to California and hung out with the Ferrari Owner’s Club I was blown away to see full-on Le Mans race cars like the Ferrari 250 LM, a 412 P and 250 GTOs being driven on the street. I used to sneak out the fastest cars in the Motor Trend garage on weekends in attempts to try to follow them on their canyon runs, but they would soon leave me in the dust. Kind of like trying to race a $200 horse against thoroughbreds.
What is your choice of media?
I like the look of regular oils but they take much too long to dry—days even, so I adopted acrylics.
Where do you get your inspirational source material?
I attend probably twelve car events a year. First and foremost Pebble Beach. My goal is to find interesting Ferraris and capture them on digital, and then make prints to guide me in painting a portrait that will ‘capture a car’s essence.’
Isn’t that photorealism?
Though some of my work could be described as that, I run the gamut from that to impressionistic. I think an artist goes beyond a photographer in that he or she captures not only what you can photograph but, if he or she is lucky, they capture what you don’t see, the presence of the car.
So Ferraris have presence?
Most of them. A few do not like the single headlight of the Ferrari 330 GT. My favorites are Ferrari race cars. If I can compare Ferraris to lesser cars by citing the thoroughbred horse field, where I am also involved with a breeding operation. You can tell when you are looking at a registered thoroughbred compared to just any old horse. It has the DNA. It’s built for one thing—to win.
What about settings?
I prefer to portray a car with the background I first photographed it in, if that background has any ambiance (i.e. “this is the first time the car was shown after its restoration, at Pebble…) but if it’s the wrong background, I sometimes have to pick a suitable one. I remember on my Ferrari P3/4 painting, when I photographed it driving by at Pebble, there was a modern pickup truck behind it that just ruined the mood so I went for a white background.
What’s your favorite event to shoot at Monterey?
For several years I have been attending the car event in Carmel Village during Monterey Car Week where the general public can see the some of the cars scheduled for the Sunday concourse toodle through town. There I’m intent on capturing not only the right car but the crowd admiring it. Why? Because a lot of the people that you see at that free show are just in Carmel accidental. They didn’t know the whole town is car crazy that week and sometimes you can see in their faces that they are just bowled over by the sight of these fantastic cars, cars that would never appear in their own town’s streets.
What era Ferraris do you prefer capturing in your portraits?
My favorite Ferraris are the Sixties race cars, the ones I discovered when I came to Los Angeles, the ones I had rides in like the Ferrari 250 P and the 250 GTO. But I am slowly warming up to newer models and when I am commissioned to paint a car, I have to look at what I like about it…
What’s your media?
I print most of my prints on heavy art paper, 11 x 17 inch or as canvas giclées which, after printing, I embellish with oil.
What’s your favorite size for giclee prints?
I can do as small as 12 x 16 inch, but when you see that in a 1,000 sq. ft. living room, it gets lost. So now I’m doing 20 x 30 inch.
What do you call that when they are wrapped around the wood frame?
They are “gallery wrapped” so you don’t need a separate frame.
So, with all this passion for Ferraris, the question naturally occurs. Do you have, in point of fact, owned any?
Two, one the predictable for a newbie, a Rosso Corsa 308 GTS like Thomas Magnum drove in Magnum P.I., but miraculously I realized that the way to go was cars made when Enzo was alive so I sold that Ferrari, which I had bought new, at a big loss in order to buy an old Ferrari from a Hollywood movie producer who had bought it solely to have something to drive around the Cannes Film Festival.
What model was that?
It was a Ferrari 365 GTC/4 in a sort of International Harvester Green and had cloth upholstery. Of course again like a newbie I painted it ‘resale red’ but I kept the upholstery.
Did you restore it?
I would have to say ‘street restoration’. I bought it as a driver, so I drove it to many car shows, even as far as Monterey, which is a 1,000 mile round trip. I really enjoyed that car because of its robust V12 engine sound (especially when downshifting through the Malibu tunnel), and drove it for four years. It was a really obscure model at the time, and it’s only now that they have come to be appreciated.
What gallery can we find you in?
I’m open to hearing from galleries. One place for sure is each August. I have a booth at Concorso Italiano in Seaside, CA during Car Week.
Do you have a general comment about choosing Ferraris to depict in your art?
I don’t regret it, I also do some Porsches but Ferraris, for more than six decades, have continued to push the envelope so I can’t not look at a Ferrari. It’s a continual learning process, educating myself on the old ones and coming to appreciate the new ones.
Last question. Do you have any advice for those taking pictures of their favorite Ferrari?
Well, I used to run into Ansel Adams at Pebble Beach (Adams was honorary judge) and his slogan was always ‘paint with light.’ So I go to a car event as early as possible, with the best shots obtained when I get there when it’s still dark and pick out two or three cars to shoot in advance. Then, as the sun comes up, it ‘paints’ each car with light. That’s what I try to capture in my paintings, the form of the car as depicted by the rising light.
We’d like to thank Mr. Wyss for his time. He can be reached out to for commissioned pieces through firstname.lastname@example.org.