One of the greatest American illustrators of the twentieth century, an interview with Mark English

A Life Well Illustrated

Mark English is a name familiar to many a Kansas City-area art enthu-
siast, and for many reasons—he has been a world-class illustrator, induct-
ed into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame, an artist in residence at Hallmark and, most recently, a painter. In celebration of his storied career, the Eva Reynolds Fine Art Gallery at Prairiefire is hosting a retrospective of his work. We caught up with English for an introduction to the exhibit and, by extension, his career.

Kansas City Spaces: Tell us a bit about your background.

Mark English: I grew up in a little town in Texas. It was a cotton farming town at that time. I was picking cotton, which I hated. I started when I was 7 or 8 years old. My dad made me do it. He had five boys. I think he thought it was good for us.

One Saturday, I was working for my dad, who had a grocery store. At the time there were traveling sign painters. They’d come to town and paint signs for traveling rodeos, things like that. At the store that day, I saw a sign painter painting on the store windows, and I snuck away to watch him.

I was making $2 a day, sometimes less, picking cotton. At that time they paid a penny a pound, and it was hard for me to get a pound when I was very young. I saw the sign painter and I thought, “I could do that.”

I was about 15 when I started. You could get a driver’s license in Texas at age 15 if you proved a need or hardship—my dad used me and my car to deliver groceries for his store. I had a Model A Roadster at the time—that’ll date me. It was a 1930 model. I got in my car and started going to towns and painting signs. It changed my whole thought pattern of what I wanted to do.

KCS: Did you ever get formal training?

ME: I painted signs till I got out of high school. I went to the University of Texas for a year. I went into the Army and after the service, I went to art school. When I was in the service, I met a future movie director, Robert Benton. (He directed Places in the Heart.) He told me if I wanted to be an artist, I should go to the Art Center (College) in L.A. And lo and behold I got in. At that time it was the best art school in the country.

When I finished I was hired by an ad agency in Detroit as a designer—I painted the people around the cars (in car ads) and the backgrounds. But I realized the big time was in New York. I wanted to be a part of that. I got tired of painting people in cars. I moved to Connecticut since I knew some artists there.

I began my illustration career there. It took off pretty fast. I was amazed at how well I did in the beginning.

KCS: How did you break into magazines?

ME: The first job I had—I was in Connecticut four to five months before I landed a job, it was nerve-wracking—was for the Saturday Evening Post. It won awards at an illustration show, and from then on magazines started calling me. The work just came in. I didn’t have to hunt for it. When I quit, I was the most awarded illustrator at the Society of Illustrators in New York. I’ve been lucky to be successful.

KCS: Did you have a favorite client?

ME: The best was Sports Illustrated. They’d send me off and say, “Go find a story.” They sent me to Texas to chase rodeos. They sent me to a bullfight in Mexico between the number one Mexican and number one Spanish bullfighters.

My biggest jobs were story illustrations for Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, Boy’s Life. I did a lot of Eddie Bauer catalogs. I’ve done 15 stamps for the Postal Service. I worked for Time and did several of their covers—some of those are in the show. There’s a portrait of Ronald Reagan you’ll recognize.

Time would call and ask me to do a cover. They’d send a cab up (to Connecticut) on Saturday with the material, a synopsis of the story. Sunday they’d send a cab back to get the work. I usually worked straight through for 24 hours to get those jobs done. One thing you had to do as an illustrator is function fast—there were lots of deadlines. At least I don’t have that as a painter.

KCS: What else is different about painting?

ME: To me it’s all about entertaining myself and having fun. And I’m still trying to learn. That’s what a serious artist does.


English’s exhibit, “A Life Well Illustrated,” is on view at the Eva Reynolds Fine Art Gallery at Prairiefire through December 18. For more information go to





Thanks for checking out our new site! We’ve changed a ton of stuff, and we’d love to know what you think.
Email feedback