Walter Foster artist William Powell has been drawing and painting for what seems like forever. “I was a sign painter in New York in 1948, painting on the sides of buildings,” Bill says of his start as a professional artist.
Bill’s artistic career took an exciting turn in the 60s when he started working with The Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development organization (FFRDC) originally established by Congress. The Aerospace Corporation conducts research and development for organizations such as the U.S Air Force, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Both my wife (Bev) and I were proud to be a part of this fine organization. We loved our work and mission. We both worked on many programs including man in space; space vehicle programs such as Atlas, Nike, Titan, Athena, Sidewinder, Minuteman; national security; and much more. It was exciting work.”
Bill joined the art department in the San Bernardino Division in 1961 and eventually became the lead graphic artist, working directly with engineers, scientists, doctors and civilian professionals to create visual concepts of theoretical projects. Bill’s team created artists' concepts in the form of visual graphic illustrations of everything from space vehicles to three-dimensional models, many of which were presented to Congress for additional funding and program approval. His illustrations won several awards from TIMA (Technical Illustrators and Management Association).
When The Aerospace Corporation moved its facilities in 1971, Bill and his wife chose not to move with the company. Bill took the plunge to become a full-time freelance artist and illustrator, a move fully supported by his wife. “I have the dearest wife,” Bill says. “She has always supported me and believed in me.”
Bill didn’t always plan to teach art. But one day a teacher friend asked him to substitute teach his art class while he was in the hospital. “I told him, ‘I can’t teach.’ But I did it anyway,” says Bill. When Bill’s friend ended up not coming back to teach, Bill decided to stay. He had 300 students and a waiting list of 400.
“In one of my classes, a student had a Walter Foster book, and I noticed that the section on color was wrong,” Bill recalls. He wrote to Walter Foster himself, just to let him know. “He asked me what I would do differently, and after I told him he invited me to come down and talk about it more.” Bill published Understanding Color with Walter Foster in 1976 and has authored or contributed to more than 32 publications since, including his newest release 1500 Color Mixing Recipes for Oil, Acrylic & Watercolor.
Recognized as one of America’s foremost colorists, Bill says that color is a personal experience.
“I’ve always told students to think of color as visual flavor. A cook can stand in the kitchen and recognize the different flavors and spices and know how they work together and go together. A painter can do the same thing with tubes of paints.”
Though an accomplished artist, Bill never even took a formal painting lesson. When he went to New York to become a cartoonist, he took page layout classes and an anatomy course. “I figured if I could draw the body I could draw anything,” says Bill, who later went to Europe to study the masters at the Louvre. “Studying the work of the masters was so inspiring,” Bill says.“I started my first painting when I was in England. I learned to paint all the mediums on my own.”
Bill’s experience as an artist and instructor includes oil, watercolor, acrylic, gouache, colored pencil, and pastel, with subjects ranging from landscapes and seascapes to still life, portraiture, and wildlife. “I love all the mediums,” says Bill, “but I’ve always leaned towards oil. I don’t think any other medium has the depth of color that oil has.”
Art, while a hobby for some, is Bill’s profession. So what does this artist do in his free time? “My hobby is geology. I have several thousand crystal collections. In the 1950s I used to go out to the desert and wander.” He even discovered an amethyst deposit once.
With years of experience, practice, and technique under his belt, Bill has some helpful advice for new artists:
“Don’t try and make it perfect from the beginning. Practice, practice, practice. It gets easier as you practice. It’s a step-by-step process. Don’t rush and try to create a Rembrandt on your first painting. Learn your colors. Learn what they do when you mix them together. Above all, learn to draw. Be very patient with yourself.”