Strategies & Insights

More Real than Real

Posted: October 9, 2009 by
Ron Romanik

You may have never heard of this artist, but you see his work on package after package on shelf-luscious fruits on jellies and jams, frosty ice cream frozen novelties, yogurts, cheeses, cereals, bars, chocolates, candy, cookies, and crackers-not to mention pet and cartoon characters. You might not know the Mike Wepplo name, but you have most likely seen many of his works, and his name and number are well known to America's top package design firms and CPG companies.

Wepplo's work supports numerous national brands, store brands, and private labels across the country. As a Southern California artist trained professionally at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Wepplo brings his skills as illustration designer, visualizer, and colorist to every design project. His studio specializes in ultra-real illustrations that create optimum appetite appeal on food and beverage packages. Wepplo was kind enough to sit down with Package Design Magazine to share his insights into the trends in illustration today.

PDM: How has your job has changed in the last decade or so?
Wepplo: Obviously, my job has changed dramatically over the course of the last 12 years. I was trained as a hand painter, using a brush for most of my work. Because I was one of the first to illustrate directly on a computer, I got a head start in this field. Though many consumer product goods companies were resistant to it at first, once they got used to it they never looked back.

PDM: What makes digital photo-real illustration so attractive today?
Wepplo: CPG companies are ultimately attracted to cost savings and timesavings. If they can have same-day results and fast on-the-fly changes, they see the bottom line advantages. The reason my services are in demand is that clients come to me looking for a photo-real illustration of something that they simply can't take a picture of and get the same ultra-real results.

PDM: What is the process for a typical illustration project?
Wepplo: We either take pictures or use client supplied photographs, then re-illustrate the core visuals and render them to create idealized pictorial results-usually much better looking than what photography is capable of capturing. I can create things that simply don't exist or would be nearly impossible to create in real life. Sometimes, the best illustrations come from piecing together 10 to 20 different "best" parts that appear in separate photos, then refining the "best of the best" composite.

PDM: What are the strategic advantages of this approach?
Wepplo: Many foods cannot be photographed well because of their instability, small size, crudeness of manufacturing, or logistics. Often, hero photo models of the best products are out of season or not available. In some cases, the product has not even been manufactured yet and the work is needed for research and development. Again, it is not unusual for me to create a super-realistic berry, fruit, or other food that I have never seen or held in my hand.

PDM: Do you think about consumer expectations of products?
Wepplo: With food, our specialty, it's all about taste appeal and freshness appeal. Take a strawberry, for example. I want to provide an idealized image that matches what consumers think a perfect strawberry should look like in reality, even though no one is going to find that idealized strawberry in a supermarket. There's no set formula, but you get a feel for it and can see it when it nears perfection. And of course, there is a fine line where food can look too perfect, but you learn to recognize that when you see it as well.

PDM: What do you need from a CPG company to yield the optimal results the first time?
Wepplo: I always ask for the whole package design layout so I can see how the all the design elements work together. I first look at what the client needs, then work backwards from there to learn how to get to that end result. It's important to know the size of the type on a package, color palettes, and positioning. Every piece affects the environment it's around.

PDM: What would you do to improve the production process for all involved?
Wepplo: Most of the time, clients come to me already knowing pretty specifically what they are looking for and what they are trying to achieve. It's already been through the corporate approval process. I believe I could be of even more value to my clients if they involved me earlier in the package design process. Sometimes it's a struggle to educate clients about how I can only do my best if I know how the complete design will come together. If they want my best, I need to know that and I need to know that they won't change their mind and move elements around later.

PDM: What artist's touch do you still bring to the table in your work?
Wepplo: Competitors can learn computer tools, train themselves on better techniques, and use all the resources available, but they can't use my eyes.

PDM: What are the challenges you face today from a business model perspective?
Wepplo: Today, the competition for digital photo-real illustration has become more intense. Clients are expecting more things for less money. Powerful computer programs are the great equalizer. Also, the difference between what is passable and what is exceptional is shrinking, and clients don't always see the value in spending a higher fee when the merely passable illustration achieves essentially the same effect.

Package Design Magazine caught up with Carrie Perlow, Mike Wepplo's longtime agent and artist representative with Das Grup (, an agency formed some 15 years ago by Wepplo and his closest artist friends. Perlow explains how Wepplo grew his niche in the art for packaging.

PDM: How did Wepplo get involved in package design?
Perlow: Even while still in school, Mike gravitated to more realistic art, although this was against the grain of the times. He stuck to his guns and worked under more established artists at first to learn more. When he got on his own, Mike started out applying his exceptional airbrush painting talents to projects for the food industry.

PDM: Were there milestones in his business development?
Perlow: On one fateful trip early on, Mike and I saw six potential clients in a day without much luck. However, in the seventh and last appointment that day, the managers in the room saw the potential, and we landed a Smucker's account that started his long run in the business. Over the years, Mike has always stayed ahead of the game, and has sensed the pulse of the market.

PDM: How did Wepplo transition into the digital realm?
Perlow: When he first started going digital, I thought he was crazy. But his art has really evolved into a beautiful look for packaging. He has a knack for enhancing appetite appeal. It's not something you can teach-believe me, we've tried-it's more of an instinct. Mike's skill is in the magic of retouching the detail-the lighting, shadow, textures-to make the final result enticingly ultra-real.

PDM: What are the forces that might affect future photo-real illustration?
Perlow: The art is still evolving, but good agencies and designers can recognize the difference in quality among artists. CPG companies tell us that they need to keep pushing the quality higher or their competition will catch up. Mike is all about quality and he's always improving. He believes that this is what he was born to do, and has the same passion he had when he started.

Package Design Magazine also caught up with Joel Harlib, principal of Joel Harlib Associates, who promotes Mike Wepplo's talents and the talents of many illustrators and photographer through his firm. A website,, provides a sampling of each artist's portfolio. Harlib took some time to give us his perspective on the industry.

PDM: Why is illustration growing in demand?
Harlib: There seems to be a phenomenal increase in the package illustration projects we're getting for big brands as well as specialty foods. We're seeing more and more projects come in for gourmet, organic, and all-natural foods and beverages.

PDM: Why are the drivers for photo-realistic illustration on packaging?
Harlib: The war in the supermarket aisle is heating up. As marketers battle to squeeze more efficiency out of their budgets, there is an even greater appreciation for the way a good package can help win with the customer. Mike seems to have a supernatural skill as an artist, illustration designer, visualizer, and colorist.

PDM: What sets Mike Wepplo apart?
Harlib: Mike has the technical skill and experience to maximize the impact photo-realistic images have on a package, whatever the printing process and whatever the substrate. The result is package illustrations with extra punch and fidelity. The key is realistic illustrations that are better than photography.

PDM: How is efficiency part of the equation?
Harlib: Not surprisingly, given the demands of the packaging field, the studio specializes in large jobs produced in a rush. I call Mike the most proficient digital artist in the universe. We're not sure about that, but he certainly is one of the most prolific on your grocer's shelf.