Eyes on Watercolor: Jeremy Wheeler takes the bold step to get soft in his new collection of paintings at Ann Arbor Art Center


Self-portrait watercolor by Jeremy Wheeler.

Self-portrait watercolor by Jeremy Wheeler.

When watercolor paintings started turning up on Jeremy Wheeler's social media accounts, I initially thought he was promoting the work of a friend.

One piece in particular I remember was of Naru, the protagonist warrior in the Predator series prequel Prey. While Wheeler is known for paintings inspired by science fiction and horror films, his use of watercolors for Naru captured the ghostly mystery of her character, not just her strength.

It's absolutely gorgeous.

The cozy, creamy vibe of watercolors such as this is the polar opposite of the bold pop art that brought Wheeler acclaim.

The long-time Ann Arbor creative is best known for his loud, psychedelic concert-poster work and stark, powerful interpretations of movie scenes. Bold lines, hard edges, and kinetic energy were intrinsic to his style.

But Wheeler's move toward the (literally) more fluid and flowing medium of watercolors happened at a time when the whole world slowed down due to Covid-19. Calling his exploration of watercolors a "respite" during the pandemic, there's a quiet, meditative quality to his works in the medium. While Wheeler used the watercolors to continue exploring portraits and figures of film, music, and TV actors, actresses, and characters who inspire him—he was a critic for AllMovie for 12 years—the results were warmer, lighter, and more delicate than his previous work in other mediums.

Fittingly, the title of his first watercolors exhibit matches the sensibilities exuded in the paintings: Soft Collections runs at the Ann Arbor Art Center (A2AC) through March 28, and many works are still available for purchase. While Wheeler is a highly trained fine artist, he used the Art Resources videos made by A2AC, where he serves as the marketing manager, to help guide him in a medium that he hadn't previously worked in very much.

He was attracted by the speed of watercolors compared to the more laborious process of his more standard style, but Wheeler also loved the way he could keep re-wetting the paints until he could find the right balance. That process of trial and error is not afforded in ink washes, which can provide a similar look to watercolors but is more permanent and inflexible in comparison.

I spoke to Wheeler about watercolors and more, and you can see two recent videos he made discussing his work: one with the Detroit Institute of Arts and the other a live painting session he made for A2AC in conjunction with Soft Collections.

Q: I thought I read that part of the reason watercolor attracted you was that you wanted to explore a calmer side of creation—maybe as a response to the chaos of the past few years. Instead of the more graphic nature of your poster work, which is filled with sharp energy, there's a meditative quality to your watercolors.
A: Yeah, my watercolors are just about the opposite of the work I've been known for, including posters, blacklight screenprints, comics, record covers, and high-contrast black-and-white illustrations. Watercolors offered me a well-needed respite during the early days of the pandemic. In fact, it's fitting that my first solo watercolor show is happening at the A2AC since their free Art Resources videos inspired me to get into the medium. Overall, I find the medium to be quite soothing to make. Plus, they're fast. Watercolors are far less of a time-suck than my previous work, and I'm amazed at how many I can crank out quickly. Overall, I consider this a most gratifying start to the second act of my art career, and I can feel myself getting better at them each time I sit down at the drawing table. That's exciting!

Jeremy Wheeler's watercolor painting of Naru from the film Prey.

Jeremy Wheeler's watercolor painting of Naru from the film Prey.

Q: Why did you end up focusing so deeply on portraiture—something that you certainly explore in your poster work, but it's nearly the entirety of the Soft Collections?
A: I've found so much joy in capturing someone's essence, which is especially intriguing when working with watercolor since it lends itself so well to creating focal points for the viewer. In my previous pop artwork, focal points existed by balancing bright colors next to deep blacks (i.e., blacklight artwork). In watercolor, I can build up layers of delicate opacity that naturally draw your eyes to where I want them to go—in this case, the eyes. Eyes hold much power in the human face, so they are often the most critical parts of my pieces.

While portraiture is undoubtedly a large part of Soft Collections, other pieces do take up gallery space, including a collection of full figure portraits related to the Alien and Predator film series as well as oversized illustrations homaging Hayao Miyazaki's classic films, which give a nice balance to the walls of soft portraiture.

Q: Who are some watercolor artists you love?
A: I'm a lifelong fan of Bill Sienkiewicz, who brought fine art to comic books in the 1980s. His work may be rooted in mixed media, but his watercolors are a constant source of inspiration for me. Brighton's Matt Murphy is also an exceptional watercolor portrait artist whose work I marvel at. Given my deep background in comics, music, and movies, my traditional artistic inspirations don't go nearly as deep as others, giving me a bit more of a blank canvas to make my stamp on the medium.

The Muppets band Electric Mayhem watercolor by Jeremy Wheeler.

The Muppets band Electric Mayhem watercolor by Jeremy Wheeler.

Q: I imagine not every watercolor you've done the past few years made it into the Soft Collections. What was the criterion you used to pick the works in this exhibit?
A: Some pieces that didn't make the cut were sold over the last few years. Of those, many Muppets were repainted to make it into Soft Collections, while others just could not be found in time for the show—speaking directly of my earliest John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsberg pieces. For the most part, Soft Collections represents around 90% of my watercolor output, with my best dozen pieces having just been made within the last month.

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley from the Alien franchise in a Jeremy Wheeler watercolor titled "Mother."

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley from the Alien franchise in a Jeremy Wheeler watercolor titled Mother.

Q: What's next for you artistically?
A: I'll continue working with Hero Complex Gallery in L.A., offering affordable prints of a few of the collections seen in the show. Additional portraits of Wes Anderson characters will likely be the next thing I paint, as the ones in Soft Collections were focused purely on the theme of love within his films, and I have grander plans of mapping out all of his characters. In the most immediate future, I'm looking forward to a bit of downtime to focus more on building an A-Frame LEGO set that has been taunting me as I prepped for the Soft Collections

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

"Soft Collections" is at the Ann Arbor Art Center through March 28. Many works are still available for purchase. Ann Arbor District Library cardholders may also check out works by Wheeler from the Art Prints collection.