I've never met an illustrator who didn't fantasize about being a fine artist. (I have my own thoughts about whether this is a worthy ambition, but that's not today's topic.)
Very few illustrators go on to have careers as gallery painters. By the time they're finally able to pull it off, they're either too exhausted or too broke or too accustomed to accepting instructions from paying clients. Perhaps they never had the backbone. Perhaps they tried it and didn't like it. (The illustrator Robert Fawcett was a successful gallery painter in NY who turned to commercial illustration because he found it less dishonest and vulgar than the Manhattan fine art scene.)
Mark English was one of the premier illustrators in America, beginning in the late 1960s. He won numerous awards from his peers and had a huge influence on the field of illustration, working for all of the major publications such as McCalls, Time, Sports Illustrated, Redbook, and Atlantic Monthly.
But in the 1990s, he made a change and began working as a fine artist. Today his paintings are sold in a number of galleries internationally and his fine art has been compiled in books dedicated to his work.
It is interesting to note how his work changed when he was no longer answerable to a client or art director and was able to paint whatever he wanted, to his own personal standards.
For example, compare these two portraits, the first painted as an illustrator and the second painted as a fine artist:
Clearly, English spent a great deal of time and effort developing the technical skill to paint realistically, but after hundreds of pictures, he no longer felt that such a skill was important for his work. Instead, he chose to distill and simplify, to change his color palette and put a stronger emphasis on design.
Or compare these two paintings of partially dressed women:
One difference is that a commercial client would never tolerate a frontal view with an open kimono. But more important, English now takes a far less literal view; he clearly puts priority on the abstract design with a more stark, high contrast composition, flattening out the shapes and making the image less accessible.
English grew up around horses in Texas and probably has more first hand experience with them than any other major illustrator of his era. His illustration of a horse below is very tight, but once English jumped the fence and escaped from the corral, his treatment of horses became very loose and free. For me, this later picture is reminiscent of the simplified cut out designs that Matisse made in his later years.
Here are a few of my favorites from among his more recent "fine art" paintings. You will see that, especially in his landscapes, he looks for the abstraction in nature and brings it forward, almost (but not quite) to the point of obliterating his subject matter:
It's difficult to say. But it's clear that English is making artistic choices now from a position of strength-- he has the technical skill to make any kind of picture he wants, and he is no longer the starving young artist that had to find ways to satisfy the client's taste. English says he no longer has to make concessions to the taste of employers: "I think all artists are limited by fear of failure, even more so as an illustrator than as a painter. Today, I don't much worry about it."
Under these conditions, it's interesting to witness a strong artist's new priorities.