The Art of Will Nelson

You may not be familiar with the name Will Nelson, the famous illustrator behind this year’s beautiful Arbor Day tee shirts and education posters, but it is almost a sure bet that you know his artwork.

For the past 50 years, Nelson’s amazing watercolors of fruit, automobiles, airplanes and other items have been turned into ads, product labels and billboards for companies such as Dole, Sunkist, Boeing, Chevron, S&W, and more. They’ve appeared nationally and internationally, in magazines such as Life, Playboy and many others.

Today, you can’t go into a grocery store without seeing Nelson’s detailed artwork on juice boxes, jelly containers, olive cans and potato chip bags. It is hard to believe they are hand painted illustrations rather than photographs, because they look good enough to eat.

“When the kids were little we’d go grocery shopping and when we’d go up the aisles they’d say, “Mommy, look, there’s daddy’s work!” his wife Elaine remembers with a laugh.

A native of Twin Falls, Idaho, Nelson left the state at 17 to attend college at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasedena, California. After graduation he landed in Chicago where he worked for Stephens, Biondi, DiCiccio (SBD), a premier illustration studio with clients such as Morton Salt, Kroger Stores and other food accounts. His work was so well-thought of that soon he was tapped to create illustrations for big automakers such as Pontiac and Ford.

But Nelson is famous for more than his product illustrations of fruits and automobiles. He also is well-known for his realistic paintings of wildlife – pandas, bears, tigers, hawks – with each detail delicately applied by hand, stroke by stroke.

When he was in the mid-1980s, he was invited to go on an expedition to China for a month where he photographed and videotaped panda bears. When he returned home, he painted a picture of a panda and its baby and sent a print to a friend in Chicago, who framed and hung it on his office wall. Someone from the Bradford Exchange saw it, contacted Nelson, bought all his prints, and had the paintings imprinted on collectable plates. It was selected as plate of the year, and sold all over the world. He did 12 plates of different endangered species.

“We’d go to shows around the country and there would be people there with wagons filled with his plates waiting to have them signed,” said Elaine. “In the 1980s and 90s, collecting plates was a very popular thing to do.”

His wildlife artwork is still in demand, as he recently illustrated a number of Smithsonian children’s books about pandas and bears.

Today, he immerses himself in creating fine art, and his Meridian home is tastefully filled with his paintings of wildlife, still art and landscapes. He continues to paint, and has a small group of former students come to his home studio a couple times each week.

The Idaho Forest Products Commission first came across Nelson’s stunning illustrations when they were featured in an annual report of Potlatch Corporation. Nelson’s illustrations of Idaho’s trees and forests have been featured in IFPC posters, bookmarks and other educational materials.

IFPC and the Idaho Arbor Day Committee are proud to have Will Nelson’s beautifully detailed artwork as the centerpiece design of this year’s “Look to the Forest” Arbor Day campaign and featured on Arbor Day t-shirts and brochures and on the IFPC website. Shirts and posters are available by calling 208-334-3292 or visiting the IFPC website at www.idahoforests.org.