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"the red and white fleet"

Red shoes make the average bird stand out in a flock, and in the world of watercolor, only Will Bullas can make that concept fly. His latest project is called “dux in the city,” and from Pier 39 east to Union Square, up Nob Hill then down Lombard Street, Bullas’ birds are ruffling feathers throughout San Francisco. The rubber necking, Converse All-Star-wearing Indian Runners buzzed under the Golden Gate and are now flapping their wings in the fog – adding even more character and charm to the City By the Bay.

“The ducks have always followed me,” Bullas says. He first noticed the tall, skinny birds on his in-laws ranch near Sacramento. That was 35 years ago when he was living in Santa Barbara, where he graduated from the Brooks Institute of Fine Art with a degree in oil painting. Will, his wife, Claudia, and their young son would regularly make the trip to see Grandma and Grandpa. Along the way, they’d stop at the A&W and collect those football helmets with ice cream scoops. “It would not be uncommon to be sitting on the back porch during cocktail hour and my son would herd the ducks around the corner all wearing those little football helmets,” Bullas says.

"duck tape"

"two by two"

Will Bullas has always seen the humor in animals and rarely have his ducks all lined up in a row. Now, of course, they’re living in the city, and they’re everywhere. The “dux for lunch bunch” are confused about what to eat in Chinatown. “dux on a rock” are doing hard time at Alcatraz for pooping on San Francisco sidewalks. Some are “out in the park” saying hey to Willie Mays at AT&T Park. Others are straining their necks “high on the hill,” looking up at the world’s tallest fireman’s hose – Coit Tower, while “two by two” they march up the City Hall steps. Bullas is famous for his satirical watercolors that pair animals with axioms. Over the years, Bullas has brought his catchy phrases to life in “brew pug,” a dog bartender; “duck tape,” a stick bird; “mr. harry buns,” a not-so-well-groomed rabbit – but his latest creations may just be his best. “You can put these ducks in any situation,” Bullas says. “They’re very empathetic and this year I decided to put them in red tennis shoes. It just makes them a little more personal, a little more human. They’re harmless and sweet.”

The Converse idea came from an obnoxious display at Nordstrom’s, and as his wife describes, that’s where his parking karma kicked in. As Bullas began painting ducks and their bright shoes, Converse was going broke.

"baby need"

When Bullas finished his “dux in the city” collection, the biggest shoe company in the world, Nike, bought Converse. So, as Nike launched a huge ad campaign to revitalize Chuck Taylor All-Stars, Bullas’ ducks were asked to play a staring role. Timing is everything. As Claudia Bullas says, “No matter what the function, if we’re two minutes late (Will) always gets the best spot.” No kidding. Bullas is the master of cross-promotion. You can find his work on everything from limited-edition prints to t-shirts, ties, coffee mugs, lunch boxes, napkins, posters, note cards, even lottery tickets. “Everything’s been digitally recorded,” Bullas says. “We first saw the digital handwriting on the wall with the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Bullas followed that mainstream formula, and today most everyone has seen at least one of his animals somewhere. Great for his pocketbook – not so cool on art critic corner. Bullas’ perspective on the conflict is simple: “In the old days, painting in a cold flat in New York City might have been fun and romantic, but starving is not fun for me,” he says. “It used to be that an artist created a great work of art, somebody buys it, takes it home and that’s the end of it. Nobody else gets to see it, but through the world of licensing, that’s all changed.”

"the bar exam"

"bun warmer"

As for the recipe to his success, Bullas says, “I’m clever. I’m a mediocre artist, but my images are funny.” That’s what makes him so marketable. It’s also what allows him to keep his focus on painting (he’s been able to turn out 100 a year for the last fifteen years) and not on their sales. His San Francisco studio is filled with canvases, paint and a sophisticated digital library of his work. He has built a portfolio of more than 2,000 images, all of them available for purchase in some fashion online. So while his agent does the dirty work, Bullas just paints and takes phone calls.

"king of the road"

"court of appeals"

"boston bourbon"

One call he got several years ago was from the world-renowned animal lover, Dr. Jane Goodall. Someone gave her Bullas’ “court of appeals” birthday card – chimps peeling bananas – and Goodall loved it. A year later, she spent her birthday on a yacht on the Potomac River, and someone on board was wearing a Will Bullas t-shirt. After a double tickle on her funny bone, she knew she had to reach out to the artist. She did, and they’ve been friends ever since… even doing fundraisers together to protect and study animals all around the world.


"bad to the bun"


Will Bullas is not all about animals and clever lines, though. He’s a signature member of the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society. As he puts it, “I do serious stuff, too. Those groups don’t take cute ducks and piggies.” In other words, Bullas takes his painting seriously. He’s been doing it since he was a five year old in Cleveland, Ohio, when his mom got him his first watercolor set. That evolved into portraiture, a skill he used to capture the images of his fellow soldiers while fighting in Vietnam.


After the war, Bullas enrolled in the Brooks Institute, where he trained in the classics and color under Ray Strong. Bullas then perfected his trade living and working as an artist in Carmel, California, for 27 years. “I learned from so many wonderful artists on the Monterey Peninsula,” Bullas reflects. “They’re still dear friends.” Bullas’ style and passion shined in a place known for its artistic heritage and culture. His peers embraced his work, electing him president of the Carmel Art Association. While living on the Central Coast, he published two books: a fool and his bunny and a fool moon. Two famous Carmelites, Clint Eastwood and Doris Day, wrote the forewards. Bullas says he moved to San Francisco in 2002 because of all its high tech opportunities. Since then, his works of art have taken on new dimensions; from his commercial products to a new porcelain series by the Greenwich Workshop Collection. “dux in the city” has taken Bullas’ art and his Indian Runners to new heights. His witty mark has now been forever stamped on the enduring charm of San Francisco.


"the jailbirds"

"does a bear sit in the woods"

Written by: Ben Bamsey

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