Transitioning from picking cotton to painting storefront signs was a big change for a young Mark English growing up in Texas during the Great Depression.
The change was notable for its pay increase, English remembered, going from earning two dollars a day to a hundred. But painting signs was also his first “art job.”
At the time, English had yet to take an art class or even meet a self-described artist.
“I didn’t know you could be a professional artist,” English told Up to Date host Steve Kraske Wednesday morning.
Even though he didn't know art was a career path, it was that job that launched English's 60-year career in illustration and painting.
Today, English’s work has been published in magazines such as TIME, Sports Illustrated, Redbook and The Atlantic. He’s also designed 13 stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, and has held the title of the most awarded illustrator in history from the Society of Illustrators.
It wasn’t until serving in the Korean War that he met other artists and starting considering art as a career. After the war, English went to study design at the Arts Center in Los Angeles, California.
English then became an art director at an ad agency but, inspired by the illustrators surrounding him, he tried creating instead of just curating.
With only two painting classes in his repertoire, English found a position painting backgrounds of car advertisements.
“Most illustrators couldn’t paint a car,” English said. “I almost had to paint them life-size to get the correct.”
English quickly found success in Detroit, eventually working his way up to New York City.
English said his name underneath illustrations in prolific magazines like TIME was like “free publicity,” helping him gain popularity and build his portfolio.
“I never had to really look for a job,” English said. “It just kind of came to me.”
In the 1970s, English moved to the Kansas City area, following an offer from Hallmark to teach art classes. Despite intending to leave after the one-year contract, English decided to stay, making Kansas City his base.
English said he began moving away from illustration and towards gallery-style painting in the 1990s as a challenge to himself, to find out if he could be a painter.
“An illustrator works with other people’s problems to solve other people’s problems; the painter has to give himself problems and try to solve them,” English said.
For that reason, English said he spends much of his time experimenting, playing with paint for hours at a time.
“When you’re a painter, you’re painting for yourself,” English said.
However, some things have not changed. The discipline he learned from turning magazine covers in on 24-hour deadlines has survived, as has his love for the solitary nature of the creative process and the excitement of making new discoveries in the studio.
“Your personality comes out whether you want it to or not,” English said.
Anna Leach is an intern for KCUR 89.3.