Local Artist Hooks a Whale of a Job

Laguna Beach graphic designer Bill Atkins and his new commission.

California motorists will soon sight the tail of a new humpback whale above vehicles’ bumpers. It’s replacing another whale tail designed by popular marine life artist Wyland, whose specialty license plate was decommissioned when he sought a share of royalties.

Laguna Beach artist Bill Atkins teamed up with Bethel Island, Calif., painter Elizabeth Robinette Tyndall to design the replacement plate.

Atkins, an artist and graphic designer, and Tyndall both won the 2009 competition for the design of a new license plate from a pool of 300 entries.

The two artists were assigned to collaborate on the final design, with Tyndall supplying several whale paintings and Atkins adding his own design elements to make the picture compatible with the format of California license plates.

“From our perspective, the idea of a collaboration made sense since designing a license plate has its own practical challenges,” said Chris Parry, director of the Coastal Commission’s public programs. “There is no prevalence of anyone’s design; it’s the best of his and hers.”  The collaborators won each $1,000 in prize money, but they were also paid an undisclosed sum for their work.

First produced as a license plate in 1997, the Wyland whale tail became a symbol for the Coastal Commission’s conservation efforts. Roughly 200,000 were sold, raising $60.2 million, one of the most popular specialty plates ever sold.

From left, Eben Schwartz, of the California Coastal Commission; the Ocean Institute’s Susan Hoover-Miller; Laguna artist Bill Atkins; Charles Ahlers, president of Anaheim’s Visitor & Convention Bureau; Dana Point Mayor Scott Schoeffel; Briana Madden of O.C. Coastkeeper; and county Supervisor Pat Bates.

Wyland loaned use of his “Tales of Great Whales” painting to the Coastal Commission and the Motor Vehicles Department at no cost to convert into a license plate. In 2008, when he requested a 20 percent royalty on sales, the commission elected to retire that plate and seek a new design still incorporating the iconic whale tail.

“The request of 20 percent was intended to be a starting point for negotiation with the Coastal Commission, but they found it easier to eliminate Wyland and start over,” said Wyland project director Steve Creech, adding that the anticipated revenue was earmarked for foundation work, not for Wyland personally. The artist received a declaration of appreciation from the commission last July.

Atkins and Tyndall each submitted complete, independent designs for the plate. When both received equal acclaim from a panel of judges, it was decided to have the two artists form a team, said Parry.

“When I submitted my first design, I made it clear that it was by no means final, that I could digitally change and manipulate any design,” recalled Atkins, elated to have won the 2009 contest. He put the final touches on his and Tyndall’s design last year, but was sworn to silence until this week when state officials unveiled the new plate.

Atkins met Tyndall in San Francisco, where she delivered a painting and several digital images for him to manipulate. “The ocean stayed the way Elizabeth painted it. We made sure that it was more colorful and upbeat than the last design,” he said.

As a graphic artist, he took the challenge to add texture to images and to ensure they would not obscure the plate’s lettering and registration stickers. “With Elizabeth’s painting as a stepping off point, it’s all done digitally on a computer,” he explained. “If you can’t see any one of the elements, the whole design is worthless.”

Atkins is well known locally. Some of his graphic posters are on display at the Vintage Poster gallery and he recently won a public art commission to create another banner for City Hall’s council chambers. “I enter a lot of contests. It’s a challenge and a trip into the unknown,” he said.

He also volunteers his design work on invitations posters for benefits such as Art for AIDS and Irvine’s Earth Day. In addition, he teaches digital media at Irvine Valley College.

Tyndall could not be reached due to the imminent birth of a baby. “The final design looks positive and uplifting and, more than anything, I want this piece to represent that about California,” she wrote. See her work.

To help the plate catch on with the public, the Coastal Commission and the Department of Motor Vehicles offers “a whale of a deal” on-line, through the mail or at area DMV offices. The first 1000 buyers will get $25 off the standard $50 plate fee or get a personalized one for $73 instead of the usual fee of $98. E-mail or call 800-262-7848

Since 1998, specialized plate fees have benefited Coastal Cleanup Day efforts and funded grants to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach and the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, among others.

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  1. You can’t say that everyone in California state government is asleep at the wheel! Wyland wanted a whale-sized 20 percent royalty of the $60+ million the plate brought in “for his foundation.” Wisely, the state declined.

    Thank you for being on the ball on this one, State of California!


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