John Buxton interview – Life as a professional illustrator

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I have so enjoyed interviewing artists for this blog over the years, more than 100 so far. Why it is so interesting and why you readers enjoy them so much is because each story is unique, yet it seems, the one thing all have in common is that they had to be artists…professionals…artists with a capital “A”; gifted with drive, persistence and resolve to create, no matter what.

Behind the scenes, I believe by the hand of God, there is a careful and thoughtful orchestration of events…one event built upon another that taken together forms a beautiful tapestry of one’s life. John Buxton is one such example. Well known today as an award winning historical artist, what came before is the exciting story, the unfolding of important and necessary encounters and experiences that guided him to where he is today.

In this four-part telling of his story, you’re going to learn a lot about John Buxton. You’re going to see what it takes to reach the highest levels as an artist. (Click images to enlarge)


You were born in North Carolina, how/when did you become an artist and end up in Pennsylvania as a professional illustrator, and now a fine artist?  As a child I was constantly drawing, mostly tiny farm scenes, because my Mom was raised on a farm and I loved visiting there and hearing all the stories of her pony and pretending to hold her own circus. She encouraged me, as did my first grade teacher.
I grew up in a small town so I walked home from grade school and would stop at the library to take out every book on horses. I read every one and drew horses from every source in those books and anywhere else I could find. My bedroom wall looked a bit like an equine shrine. Alfred Munnings art was my favorite to copy.
In high school I began to tackle drawing the human figure. I was painting background landscapes etc. for  high school plays and dance recitals.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have other interests, but from the start I knew that I wanted to be an artist…not that I really knew what that meant. Our small town school guidance counselor was encouraging, but she wasn’t knowledgeable enough to suggest steps for an art career.

Line art (pen and ink)

Line art (pen and ink)

Buxton was able to change up his style in order to satisfy any assignment.


Luckily a distant cousin, who visited relatives in our town, viewed my artwork. He advised my father to scrape up money and send me to the best art school possible. He had attended Art Center School in California and now had his own advertising agency in Atlanta.
So, I went to Art Center and graduated with a degree in Illustration. Following that, I stopped in Atlanta only to be advised to try New York or Detroit, as my work was too good for Atlanta. That was hard to believe, but perhaps he was just boosting my ego.

Scrooge: An illustration for the West Virginia lottery.


My next move, however, was to fulfill my military obligation by joining the Army National Guard. During basic training the company commander drafted me to paint four murals on the chow hall walls. I used only enamel paint and the basic colors…a can of yellow from the motor pool that was used to paint center road lines; a gallon of red, blue and white, and possibly black as well. The murals were five by four feet… a realistic snow scene, west coast ocean waves, New York harbor tug boats, and a Texas oil field. Thank goodness for my art school training. Oh, and I filled numerous sketch books with drawings of jeeps, helmets, weapons etc., not to mention the portrait sketches which I sold for 10 dollars each.

I began my apprenticeship at New Center Studios in Detroit (the world’s largest studio at the time). My first ever illustration was not exactly a horse, but it was a “mustang”. The Ford Motor Co. was introducing it’s Mustang automobile. There was a need for line art for editorial usage of the chrome running horse emblem and it’s surround shape. Photographs of that chrome horse didn’t look good (if you remember it?) My line art of a more realistic running horse (in that shape) was chosen. Thank goodness for my early years. From Detroit and New Center Studios, I relocated to Cleveland, Ohio and Pitt Studios. Later, I moved to their headquarters studio in Pittsburgh , PA. I became their top illustrator and married their cute receptionist…all the while establishing a 31-year illustration career. The last ten years of which were as John Buxton Illustration Inc. out of our home.

Working somewhat in the Norman Rockwell style.

“I did tons of these hardware ads for calendars, magazines and newspapers. The Art Director wanted an Americana/Norman Rockwell look. Like Rockwell, I used my neighbors, my wife and kids etc. as models. Eventually, I lost control and everyone at the Ad Agency wanted to be my models. On top of that, I had to make each a recognizable portrait…as you see below.”


As an illustrator, who were some of your most prominent clients?  During those 31 years, I did illustrations for most every company in western Pennsylvania, as well as national companies, local banks, hospitals, amusement parks, food, hardware & manufacturing companies, and even some editorial pieces. But working for National Geographic’s Book Division in DC as a freelance artist was a totally  different beast; it was a confidence building, eye opening and direction changing experience.
They believe in checking and double checking every piece of art (and words) making sure everything is correct. Experts are called on to check and approve everything in his or her genre before National Geographic approves it .

“This was my first illustration for National Geographic. I was totally floored when I accepted the job and a box, at least 10 inches high, arrived…filled with photo source for these sea creatures.
“I’d never had that much source material from any other clients. I was told to create a pencil drawing for my planned painting. Remembering that this was to be for children, I shortened the Eel’s teeth slightly. I sent the sketch to the DC National Geographic office and they sent it to some marine expert in Florida. The expert said it looked good but the teeth were too short. Once again I was floored. That tiny detail… maybe 1/16th inch reduction…and he caught it. WOW!
That was my first introduction into the checking and research that rules the National Geographic mind.”


As their Head Art Director told me, “If you can work for us, you can handle any illustration assignment anywhere.” For me, that meant I passed the test.


Working with the National Geographic team is an experience in itself. Sitting around a big table with art directors, financial, research, and quality control personnel, the art director told me to draw, on the spot, Mt. Vesuvius exploding on Pompeii with people and animals running for cover. WHAT ?? !!
Fortunately, I realized that no one else at the table was  better qualified to attempt it than me. It certainly didn’t have to be accurate. Just do it, so I did !
Following that, I worked for several days improving the final presentation. Back at the big table, the head art director said, “This is fantastic, now let’s take this and make it even better.”  And sure enough, with another day and a fresh eye I discovered it could be improved.  I’ve never worked with that type of deadline. Usually, I never had enough time to put 100% into most illustrations and there was never enough source material to be certain that what I painted was correct; certainly there was no one to check it, but then, no one really cared. It was “Throw Away Art”; art designed to quickly sell a product or idea.
At National Geographic, it was “Forever Art”, art that could stand the test of time. I was impressed!

“Years before the TV program, “Oak Island”, National Geographic Book division had me illustrate their book about the kids that discovered a ground depression below a tree limb with rope burn marks. They dug down and found evidence of a deep shaft. At that time it was assumed pirates had buried treasure there. Therefore, my illustration, “The Curse of Oak Island” was thusly themed. I posed as the ghostly background pirate and an illustrator friend as the other pirate. My son and neighborhood friends posed as the children.”

Working in the field of illustration for many years, how did that prepare you for a fine art career?  The National Geographic experience influenced my move toward Historical Art around 1992. Computer made art was beginning to take over and although I tried to grasp it, I realized I hadn’t been trained for it and the younger generation had. It just wasn’t for me, but then I knew nothing of Fine Art either. Thirty-one years as a commercial illustrator taught me the tricks of the trade, but it wasn’t until one of my bird paintings was accepted into the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum, “Birds In Art Exhibition” in Wausau, Wisconsin that I got my first taste of artist respect. There in Wisconsin total respect was  heaped upon the artists. We were made to feel “Special”.
As you know, an illustrator is not so respected. They are, along with the printer, the last in line to production, but first in line for criticism .
I mentioned to my wife, “I think I could get used to this Fine Art thing.”
The illustration career, however, taught me how to deal with people, meet deadlines, and believe in myself as an artist…as my business card said: “A Damn Good Illustrator.”

Next time, Buxton talks about switching from illustration to Fine Art.

John Buxton’s website


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