Interviewed by Anna Lee Fuchs
Anna Lee Fuchs: Is it true that you’ve received more medals from the Society of Illustrators than any other illustrator?
Mark English: When the Twenty Years of Award Winners book came out I received a letter from the Society stating that I had received more awards in the Society’s Annual exhibitions than any other illustrator.
ALF: How many years have you been in the illustration business?
ME: Twenty-one years.
ALF: And before that what did you do?
ME: Well… my first job was picking cotton in Texas. I got out of the cotton fields by learning to paint signs. I chased rodeos, painting “Welcome Rodeo Fans” signs on store windows. My first big job was painting billboards for an outdoor sign company. Then I was drafted into the Army where I painted signs again – for the Training Aid Section.
ALF: I heard once you painted signs on the latrines?
ME: That was part of my Army assignment.
ALF: From there, where did you go?
ME: There was no place to go but up. I was stationed in El Paso, where I met Harvey Schmidt, who had just graduated from the University of Texas, and was on his way to New York with Robert Benton, who later became the art director for Esquire. They recommended that I go to Art Center in Los Angeles, which I did when I got out of the Army.
ALF: Did you draw pictures when you were little?
ME: Yea, I did. John Collier and I talked about that recently over lunch. We were being interviewed by a Japanese writer who said he noticed that an awful lot of illustrators came from Texas and he’d wondered why. We didn’t have a good answer for that except that there wasn’t much to do in Texas except draw pictures. From the time I can remember, all my brothers and I sat around and drew pictures on rainy days.
ALF: After you left the Art Center what was your first job?
ME: Art Director on an automobile account for N.W. Ayer Advertising Agency in Detroit.
ALF: Did you do any work as an art director?
ME: Not finished artwork. I did fancy layouts, the kind that make illustrators nervous, but I was only using photographers at the time, not illustrators.
ALF: Did the experience help you when you became an illustrator?
ME: Yes, I think it did. I became more understanding of the art director’s problems.
ALF: What was your biggest break in becoming a nationally known illustrator? And is there one job that had a great effect on your career?
ME: Yes, there was one job. I had moved to Connecticut and in my first year there I made about 20% of the salary that I had made in my last year in Detroit. It was a tough year and I had a lot of time on my hands. I think not having much work maybe enhanced my career than anything else. I spent a lot of time experimenting, trying to come up with something unique and different, and I think towards the end of that year I managed to do that on a job for Readers’ Digest.
ALF: Was that the “Little Women” series?
ME: Yes, and I think 3 or 4 of the illustrations were accepted into the Society’s Annual Exhibition that year. One of them won an award and got me a little attention. After that I got into magazines and my career was launched.
ALF: Do you still illustrate for magazines?
ME: No, not very much. Most of my magazine career ended 6 or 7 years ago.
ALF: Why are you in Kansas?
ME: Hallmark asked me to come out here to teach for a year, so I took a year off and taught classes 2 hours a day. I’ve been comfortable here so I’ve stayed.
ALF: Do you ever want to go back to Texas?
ME: I have dreams of that now and then, but I just bought a farm in Missouri, so I guess I’ll be living and working there.
ALF: How do you feel about competing for jobs with your close illustrator friends?
ME: I began with an agent, Tom Holloway, who also represented Bernie Fuchs and Austin Briggs. They were established and hot in New York while I was a newcomer, inexperienced and very unsure of myself. It was tough competition and a strange way of getting started, but I managed in spite of it. I think the association was good for me. After a while I really never felt any head-on kind of competition; in most cases the client wanted either Bernie or Austin or they wanted me.
ALF: Since you’re one of the most copied illustrators in the county would you comment on whether you think style is more important than technique?
ME: Absolutely! The words technique and style are often confused. Bernie’s technique or my technique may be copied, but the style is something that cannot be imitated. That’s what separates us from the copiers.
ALF: Do you find that students ask about technique first?
ME: Yes, they do. I understand that, though. I was very anxious to learn technique. I thought it was the solution to all problems. I found out later that it wasn’t. Technique is not really important. Your point of view is the thing that comes through. And today Bernie has changed his technique, I’ve changed mine, Bob Heindel has changed his and we’re still recognizable.
ALF: Do you usually work in the same medium?
ME: I learned to paint with acrylics. If you learned to paint with acrylics you can handle anything. But I couldn’t go back to it now. About 7 or 8 years ago I started using oils and oil crayons and the combination of the two is the medium I’m most comfortable with now.
ALF: Is it true that the Illustrators Workshop was started because of you and your desire to teach?
ME: The Illustrators Workshop happened because Art Center invited me to take a few years off to teach in L.A. I didn’t feel that I could do that. I suggested that they send a few people back East and I would try to put together a group that would teach a workshop. They did and I did and that’s how it happened.
ALF: Would you rather teach professionals or students who haven’t been in the job market yet?
ME: That’s a tough question. To generalize, the easiest time for me was when I was teaching at Hallmark. There were a great many talented people in my classes and it was rewarding to teach those who were so interested and competent.
ALF: I understand that your son is also an illustrator? Is he very good?
ME: Yes, speaking without prejudice, he’s very good. He’s one of the best young illustrators I’ve seen in a long time.
ALF: What’s his name?
ME: His name is Mark Littlejohn English but he prefers to use the name John.
ALF: How would you define an illustrator?
ME: There are all kinds of illustrators, but a good illustrator is an artist. He makes pictures on assignment, on commissions; he solves other people’s problems pictorially. I think that pretty well describes it.
ALF: Do you find it interesting to work as an artist for a gallery?
ME: Yes, but sometimes I find it discouraging. The thing I like about the illustration business as opposed to the gallery business is that in illustration the good guys generally win, which is not always true in the gallery business. There are very successful, not very competent painters and very unsuccessful, competent painters out there – more so than in the illustration business. I do gallery paintings because I enjoy pursuing a train of thought through a series of paintings, or simply doing a painting for myself, hopefully selling it or showing it in a gallery. But I do like illustration, too.