John Buxton interview – Leaving illustration for Fine Art

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Beginning a new career takes courage and is a considerable challenge. It can put stress on everything, including one’s health, marriage, finances, and even emotional stability. When difficulties arise, and they certainly will, it’s natural to question the decision to leave what was once comfortable and secure for what is uncomfortable and uncertain.

When John Buxton made the switch from illustration to fine art he took a huge risk. I can image you asking, “What is the big deal?’ Buxton was still doing art, the switch from illustration to fine art can’t be that difficult. Well, having made the switch myself many years ago, let me tell you, it is a big deal. Fine Art and Illustration are two totally different businesses. The skill level  and work ethic carry over, but that’s about it. I found the most difficult thing was to change my mindset. Creating an illustration for commercial use versus a work of fine art requires a whole new way of thinking. What makes a great painting and what makes a great illustration are two entirely different things. For me, the first thing that had to change were the colors on the palette. I discovered if I wanted to paint nature as I saw it, the intense color palette had to go. Next, since I was interested in painting the great outdoors, I learned I better get out there and paint on location. Whew, what a challenge that was! Another one…I got rid of the projector; I quickly realized I really didn’t know how to draw very well. The projector, a necessary tool in illustration, became a crutch as a fine artist. And that’s just for starters. Yep! It was a big deal.

In this article, the brilliant artist, John Buxton shares with you his experience in making the switch. Enjoy!  (Click images to enlarge)



Why did you leave illustration and how did you go about establishing a fine art career?  The writing was on the wall and I had no desire to be a computer artist, but  being a Wal-Mart greeter was not appealing either. I began painting subjects that I had never had  a chance to … birds, landscapes, and of course, horses. I began taking fewer commercial assignments. I joined wildlife painters and equestrian painters organizations, but it seemed that if that was to be my next  life…I would need to invest lots and lots of time to be accepted…to learn the politics involved and to prove myself worthy.
About that time I attended a local historical event. Penn’s Colony was a staged event in a local park with 18th-century dressed re-enactors portraying events that had taken place during the regions early development on the Eastern Woodland Frontier. It was interesting, so I began reading about Western Pennsylvania’s historical past. I learned how a 21-year-old George Washington may have actually walked upon my property down by the creek on his way to cross a frozen Allegheny River in 1753; how most of the Pittsburgh area and streets are named for events or persons of that era. The hair on the back of my neck would rise when reading these things. Had I found my Valhalla? It was like National Geographic in that research and accuracy were absolutely necessary.

“Along Laurel Ridge” – 18″ x 28″ – Alkyd…”This was my first historical painting in 1993-4. For my publisher, PARAMOUNT PRESS, it proved to be very successful as the prints sold out. I used several reference photos for the figures; the rock formation was painted as is; the left foreground logs were added along with the foreground tree; I felt it needed something to hold the eye.” 


In order to produce a painting of an historical event, one has to know as much as possible about it…what time of year did it occur, time of day, what weather,who was present, how were they dressed, how did they hold themselves in the 18th century and even perhaps, how did they think? It was daunting, not to mention…who gave me the right to show people what a young George Washington, the father of our country, might have looked like as a young man. Was I worthy? But, those words from National Geographic…”If you can work for us, you can handle any illustration, anywhere.” That thought helped and gave me confidence.
Historical painters have a great responsibility; they are attempting to show history as it was…putting the viewer in the moment, not mistakenly altering the event with falsehoods (no matter how small).
I began to understand the expectations of being a Fine Artist…working with galleries and being published. The publishing of limited edition prints made my work assessable to many more people. My work slowly began to sell, especially in western PA. I was painting history that had taken place right here. “History Meets The Arts” Show in Gettysburg, PA helped spread acceptance of my work to more collectors.
When I changed to a nationally known  publisher, my work was seen by a wider audience. The Greenwich Workshop placed my work among the best of the Western Art genre painters. I was accepted into major museum shows: The Masters Of The American West at the Autry Museum and Quest For The West at the Eiteljorg Museum. All of which gave credibility to the prices charged for originals and reproductions. As a young artist, I never considered failure; I just set goals and gave it my best…my BEST of everything.

“First Breath of Dawn” – 22″ x 14″ – Alkyd


What were the greatest challenges in making that career change?  Dropping a lucrative illustration career was a “WHOPPER”! Lack of income strained our marriage and my confidence, but we stuck to it and with the grace of GOD things  slowly began to smooth out and righted themselves. It helped that our children were older and we were “empty nesters”, or almost, at the time .

Did you begin painting historically themed subjects from the beginning of your fine art career?  I sorta began to paint, other than a few illustration jobs, things that I hadn’t been able to do as an illustrator. I was known mostly as a realistic figure illustrator; landscapes were not usually a part of my portfolio, nor were animals and birds.

“Spatterdock and the Alien” – 11″ x 14″ – Alkyd…”At times I enter OFF GENRE pieces in museum shows and they sell. Even this painting has a note of the historical. Spatterdock is native to North America, carp were introduced right after the Civil War.”


You obviously love American history and Western genre subjects, how authentic are your depictions?  My paintings are as accurate as possible. Historians will chew you up and spit you out. I learned very early on not to consult three different historians with the same question, you might just get three different answers. As the artist, you must decide what to show in your painting. More than likely you will make two enemies by choosing one historian’s advice. Therefore, the artist must decide, before asking, which historian appears to have the most credibility and respect on that particular subject. SO, reading between the lines here, NO artwork will please everyone. That’s a fact !! However, I try to make everything as accurate as humanly possible at the time, although twenty years down the road someone may locate an old journal that sheds more light on some historical event or way of life back then. Accepted truths are subject to change.

“God’s Gift” – 36″ x 21″ – Alkyd…”In 1998 this was my first limited edition with my new publisher, The Greenwich Workshop. It not only sold out but was on the May/June cover of MUZZLE LOADER magazine. The preliminary sketch of this for this painting sold through a gallery for $200.”


Please put these words in order: technique, color, drawing, value, framing, composition, concept.
In order of importance? Each is important but…Concept, drawing, composition, values, color, technique and framing.


To view more of Buxton’s work


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