Saturday, February 13, 2016



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 McCallsTimeSports IllustratedRedbook, 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:

Were these paintings in English all the time?  Would he have preferred to work this way from the start?  Or were they only decocted from a long career in commercial illustration?

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.


Unknown said...

Good post. Often people will analyze a body of work independent of the narrative of acquired skill. Everything that is made is (in the artists mind) in context of what came before. Lessons learned are solidified, then later corrected, then later taken down as new ideas come into focus. That cycle is not some kind of inevitable march of progress (especially in art) but rather iterative and in the context of art has equal right to stand on it's own as legitimate.

Francis Caron said...

Very interesting! It takes a lot of skills to be able to produce illustrations for a client as well as creating personal artwork of this level. Would you think that younger illustrators nowadays are less tempted in becoming fine artists?

kev ferrara said...

I saw a show of his Klimt-influenced landscapes in New York some years back and was blown away by how the pictures shimmered and glowed. Since most fine art is baby stuff, to see real aesthetic force on the walls of gallery was pretty astonishing. You could feel the quality emanating from thm. Afterwards I was at Illustration house and was talking to Walt Reed about those landscapes and Walt was lamenting the loss of English from Illustration's ranks. I think he felt that the designy landscapes were too easy for someone of English's talent.

Laurence John said...

in a way, he's just playing with stylistic devices that were already in the work, but taking them even further (see your post of Oct 26, 2015).
my last comment in that post mentioned (in regard to Augustus Vincent Tack) "...even sparer content, flatter surfaces, bolder abstraction; i.e. toward abstract expressionism..."

it's almost as if English is reliving that early modern period for himself.

MORAN said...

One of the best illustrators makes for one of the best painters.

David Apatoff said...

Conor Hughes-- I agree the cycle is not an "inevitable march of progress," it is a process under which one could just as likely go wrong as improve. Therein lies the challenge. I think it's to English's credit that, after all this time, he still has the energy and the intellectual curiosity to continue to make excellent art.

Francis Caron-- I think many of the younger illustrators have the same yearning to be fine artists. I also think they believe that their brand of conceptual illustration is closer to fine art than the previous generation's brand of illustration. I don't think that speaks well for either contemporary illustration or for fine art. How many of them went through the period of discipline and training that English did?

Kev Ferrara-- I understand Walt Reed lamenting the loss of a talent like English. He helped to bring legitimacy to the field of illustration that Walt loved so much. However, I can't agree that the "fine art" work was too easy. I've seen very few originals in this new style; it's good to hear that they impress in person.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- I interpreted your comment about Augustus Vincent Tack as suggesting that he was on the dead end road to abstract expressionism, after which his style had no place to go (or grow). Was I wrong? I agree that English has turned to "even sparer content, flatter surfaces and bolder abstraction" but unlike Tack, English never seems to quite let go of a representational element in his work. And he continues to find great enthusiasm for painting; nothing to suggest that he is near depleting this lode. English said, "When I was illustrating neither the desire nor the knowledge was there to think and paint as I do today (for better or worse)."

MORAN-- That doesn't surprise me in the least. I think both rely on many pf the same fundamental qualities. Does it surprise you?

Laurence John said...

David, the point at which illusionistic form and space begins to recede and painterly marks take precedence is the point i personally lose interest in the painted image, but that's just me (i doubt it's just me though... i haven't heard much vocal support for abstract expressionism in this comment section).

Donald Pittenger said...

English was doing some avant-gardy things as an illustrator. For instance, check out the illustration at the the top of Page 375 of Walt Reed's Illustration in America (2001) and the spread (pp.118-19) in Famous American Illustrators by Arpi Ermoyan (1992).

The collapse (is that the right term?) of traditional illustration during the 1960s drove many illustrators into the Fine Arts in one way or another. Some, such as Joe De Mers, went into portraiture. James Bama moved to the Cody, Wyoming area to become a Western artist, a path taken by Howard Terpning. Burt Silverman wound up in a sort of portrait-genre approach -- I might come up with a better term later.

As for English, I appreciate what he was trying to do, but neither his modernist illustration (see above citations) nor most of the images in this post have much appeal to me (due to my questionable taste?).

chris bennett said...

Laurence wrote: "it's almost as if English is reliving that early modern period for himself."

I think this is what any artist selling their work on spec in the gallery system does at one time or another (usually early on in their career). The functional sun at the centre of the commercial illustrator's day is not there, so the 'gallery artist' has to seek out their own centre of gravity around which their temperament can maintain an orbit of meaningfulness. And this can only come from a marriage of a personal within combined with a cultural without.

Donald Pittenger said...

Update: Actually, it was Joe Bowler who went into portrait work. De Mers had an art gallery it seems, but I have no info on what, if any, art he was doing in South Carolina.

Chris James said...

Dave, when you say that all the illustrators you've met fantasized about being fine artists, does that include comics guys too? Fantasy illustrators? I ask because these two fields seem to attract artists that are pretty adamant about what kinds of subject matter or techniques they want to work with and I don't see the general fine art world serving them. I know guys like Ashley Wood and Phil Hale do work outside of the fields they are popularly known for, but are these works in the fine art market, the commercial market? Both, neither?

That last point brings me to the idea of having to switch one's focus entirely, from one market to another. I've seen a lot of old artists talk about how it was either this or that, commercial or fine art (Frank Frazetta said that it was either comics or fine art. I don't think he was too conflicted about his choice). I think it's something a lot of modern folks, especially young, can't relate to, a thing of the past. They see artists they admire who have feet in multiple markets, some globally. They see comic guys being commissioned to do public murals, while doing personal work they sell through galleries or through their own websites. One no longer has to give up one for the other. I could be wrong, but that's the way it looks to me. Of course there are new challenges and headaches that have arisen in this age, but I think there are options to be thankful for.

The thing about the fine art fantasies is rooted in a desire for authorship and renown, I believe. Illustrators for Cream of Wheat or McCall's didn't get author's credit for their work the same way classical artists did for theirs, despite that both were essentially doing work for clients on client's terms. Fine art was the way to get that recognition for one's own creative powers. There is a need by artists to be seen, in any field. Some want more visibility than others. One may be content to be in the background doing concept work for a film and win the appreciation of design fans and his peers, another wants to be the auteur director who gets most of the creative credit from the mainstream.

As far as the Enligh FA work: they have aesthetic beauty. The problem with so much Abstract Expressionism isn't abstraction. But look at his paint handling. Colors are rich, harmonious, not chalky and garish like so much AE work (garishness can be useful to communicate an idea or feeling, but that's beside the point). They may not be my cup of tea, but they have taste. No one has to explain the work, to fool- oops, I mean guide the viewer into recognizing their merit.

Laurence John said...

we discussed on here (can't remember how long ago) whether there should be a category named 'fine art illustration'. you could reasonably argue that there should be, but i think that in a world where non-fine-art-illustration can be superior to much so called 'fine art' the categories are already close to redundant. personally, i'm looking for a certain quality in the drawn / painted image (i won't try and define that quality here), and it makes no difference to me whether i see it in gallery art, comics or illustration.

Mark English said...

Walt Reed may qualify as an illustration historian, but definitely not as an art critic.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: " the point at which illusionistic form and space begins to recede and painterly marks take precedence is the point i personally lose interest in the painted image, but that's just me (i doubt it's just me though... i haven't heard much vocal support for abstract expressionism in this comment section)."

In the past I've offered examples of abstract expressionist and conceptual art that I love and would be happy to have hanging in my house ( However, such offerings usually provoke people here to call me mean names.

Donald Pittenger-- I think some of the "post-illustration" careers of the illustrators you mention were far more commercial than their illustration careers. Illustrators such as Joe de Mers and Coby Whitmore were razor sharp, insightful painters as illustrators, but as gallery painters they did sappy, soft focus pictures for the Hilton Head tourist trade. Very lucrative, but in my opinion awful. Very different from what English is doing. And Jon Whitcomb reportedly found he could make a fortune doing glamour portraits of wives of Texas oil men. Good examples of the superiority of illustration.

Chris James-- You raise some good points. Illustrators usually aspire to be fine artists to avoid the tight deadlines, the low pay, the lack of credit, and the irritating supervision by art directors / clients that accompany so much of illustration. However, some illustrators and comic artists have managed to escape that unpleasantness. They make a living selling limited edition prints, or originals in galleries or even, as you say, public murals. Frazetta was able to paint whatever he wanted and find a publisher to put it on the cover and commission a story around it. I agree with you that the dichotomy between illustration and fine art is fragmenting, although so far I think this phenomenon is limited to a small percentage of illustrators at the top of the totem pole.

Moish said...

Nice post. Thank you!