It was going to be a little tough this year to get up to Stillwater, Minnesota where artist Will Ersland lives and has his studio, so Will and I sat down over a beer at the bar in the Historic Plains Hotel in downtown Cheyenne so I could ask him some questions.
Will was born in Iowa and spent his growing up years in the town of Ankeny. Both his parents served in the military, Dad was in the Navy and Mom was in the women’s Marine corps and worked on the engines for the F4U Corsair and was lucky enough to get in the cockpit on the tarmac and rev the engine to make sure it turned over! Will can remember drawing things as early as the age of 4. Any surface was fodder for his pencil, including his report card!
His Dad’s stint in the Navy inspired Will to draw scuba divers and mermaids and he also loved to draw tepees. When Will was 16 his parents divorced and his grandfather started to become more of an influence on him. He owned 2 horses, a thoroughbred and a quarter horse. Will loved horses and also said that going into the woods, fishing, shooting guns, playing baseball and learning history were his favorite activities as a kid. He also had a teacher, Mr. Hunter, who was a good influence on him as well, teaching him the basics of good drawing and design.
When it was time to go off to college, Will attended Iowa State University and majored in art with an emphasis in applied design. His first job was at a printer’s studio followed by another one at an art studio in a nearby town. He then went to work for the prestigious Hellman Associates as an illustrator. This is where he met and befriended Gregory Manchess and Gary Kelly, two well known illustrators, who would also go on to become successful fine artists. During his tenure there, Will worked on illustrations for companies such as John Deere, Mutual of Omaha, Outside Magazine, TV Guide, TWA, as well as doing backgrounds for animated films.
25 years ago he moved to Minnesota and became a freelancer. He had reps in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago that would get him work. Life was good. Will says of his days in illustration that he really enjoyed finding solutions to design problems. For most of the work at the agency, the art director would already have the concept laid out, Will would come in and create really quickly with either a drawing or a painting. It taught him to work fast, be good, get it in on a deadline and then move onto the next one. During this time, Will’s work was featured in several of the Annuals publications put out by the Society of Illustrators. Competition was fierce to be included in those Annuals.
Will tells me some of his earliest influences as far as artists go are NC Wyeth, Remington and Russell, E. Martin Henning, Herb Dunton, pretty much all the early Taos painters. He also loves the old WPA posters from the earlier 20th century. Contemporary painters include Howard Terpning, Bob Kuhn and Doug Johnson. After distilling all these great artists works, Will now follows his own vision for his work.
In the early years, Will painted with gouache and watercolors as well as pen and ink, along with graphite. He currently works with acrylics.
Will’s heart has always been in the West. He’s been visiting Taos and Santa Fe regularly since 1976. He loves all the posters from the old westerns of the 40’s and 50’s, films like The Wild Bunch, Monte Walsh, Lonesome Dove, The Missing and The Appaloosa.
Will has a horse named Ike and he is famous! Will uses Ike as the main model horse in all of his paintings. you never know what color, shape or breed Ike will turn out to be. Will keeps lots of sketchbooks filled with thumbnail drawings which he mines for ideas for new paintings. In addition to his Western paintings, Will loves to paint hunting scenes, such as fox & hound hunts, polo ponies in action, thoroughbreds, jumpers and sleigh horses. As one of his hobbies, Will owns and maintains 3 sleighs, which he and his wife Lynn enjoy during the long Minnesota winters.
For the future, Will would love an opportunity to ride and paint with the Cowboy Artists of America, work larger and continue to build a body of really good Western art and eventually get the kind of recognition that could net him a museum show.
I love these studio pictures! You’ll see a plethora of inspiration in them. Will has quite the collection of memorabilia, guns, civil war uniforms and more, enjoy!