Saltwater Portrait

William Dec: From ad man to painter

Brooklyn-born artist and ad director now calls Lewes home
April 9, 2019

William Dec's Lewes studio is filled with watercolors documenting his life and times. There are paintings of places he has lived and visited, rural vistas and seashore scenes, and even some with his grandchildren.

Dec grew up in Brooklyn, where he lived until he moved to Newark 16 years ago and then Lewes six years ago, where a whole new series of landscapes and seashore scenes has opened for him to paint.

Dec says growing up he was always drawing. He laughs when he recalls how his father told him he was wasting his time.

Although Dec has some formal art training, most of his training has been on the job. His first job was at a retouching studio before he landed a job at a small advertising agency. He would spend the next 25 years in the ad agency world as an art director during the time period highlighted in the former hit TV show, “Mad Men.”

Along the way, he took a class in watercolors and was hooked on painting for the rest of his life. He said he's lost count of the number of paintings he's done, but it's somewhere around 500. “I like people in my paintings. I like to tell a story,” he says.

He studied at the Art Students League of New York and Pratt Institute, and taught classes at New York University, Parsons School of Design and Aldephi University. He's been able to parlay his passion for painting into a second career by doing commission work, holding classes and selling his work through galleries.

TV advertising comes of age

Over the years, he worked with celebrities such as Betty White and Rosemary Clooney on national TV ad campaigns featuring Colgate-Palmolive products. His ads introduced Handi Wipes and Baggies to consumers around the country.

He said many products were introduced during the years he worked in the industry. “One day some people came around with a plate of green powder and asked me to smell it and tell them what I thought of it,” he said. “I said it smelled and would never sell. It turned out to be Comet cleanser.”

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, TV was not a medium he and other ad directors saw as the future. He said one day his boss was walking around the office asking for someone to work on a TV ad. Dec said print advertising was something you could hold in your hand and refer back to. “This was a only few seconds ad for Carter children's wear,” he said.

One ad director took up the offer. Dec said he ended up owning his own successful agency within the next decade. “Little did we know. It was a missed opportunity, but then, nobody knew about TV,” he said.

As an art director he had to know how to do lettering, drawing and design. “Now, you can punch a button on a computer. The whole world of adverting has changed,” he said. “There was always pressure and anxiety, but it was always interesting,” he said.

Today, he offers drawing and watercolor classes in his home studio through the Rehoboth Art League.

For two years while living in Newark, Dec operated an art gallery and frame shop in Chesapeake City, Md. He also painted many scenes of the area around the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. He also served as an usher at home University of Delaware football games.

He also ran a gallery at the Little Red School House of Art in New York City.

Throughout his life, he has painted commission work for hundreds of clients, including house and dog portraits. “I paint just about anything,” he says. He plans to show his work at St. Peter's Art Show, a church where he is a member, this summer.

War years in NROTC program

When he graduated from high school in 1943, Dec enlisted in the U.S. Navy and spent two years in the officers' training Naval ROTC program at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan.

During a stay in San Diego, he became ill and was placed in the same hospital with wounded Marines. There he met Bob Hope and other celebrities when they visited the hospital.

When the war was over, those in the NROTC program were given the option to stay in college, get their commission and spend up to three years on active sea duty, Dec said. “It was an easy decision. The war was over, so everyone wanted to go home,” he said.

A diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan

Growing up in Brooklyn, Dec was a diehard Dodgers fan and went to as many games as possible at Ebbetts Field. He said it was not unusual for him to spend the entire day at the stadium. His love of the Dodgers continued into adulthood. He said he was devastated when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles before the 1958 season.

His most vivid memory involves “The Shot Heard 'Round the World,” a home run by rival New York Giants third baseman Bobby Thompson. The home run gave the Giants the National League pennant in a three-game playoff to see which team went to the World Series, which was won by another New York team, the Yankees.

The walk-off, ninth-inning home run on Oct. 3, 1951, is considered by sports historians as the most dramatic hit in the history of baseball.

Dec said the week after the game, he was working in a studio where Thompson was shooting a Bromo Seltzer ad. “I wouldn't go near him,” he said. He regrets that decision today. “Just think of the autographed baseballs I could have,” he said.


For information about Dec’s classes, phone 645-5298.



  • The Cape Gazette staff has been doing Saltwater Portraits weekly (mostly) for more than 20 years. Reporters, on a rotating basis, prepare written and photographic portraits of a wide variety of characters peopling Delaware's Cape Region. Saltwater Portraits typically appear in the Cape Gazette's Tuesday edition as the lead story in the Cape Life section.

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