“What is the most important quality a person seeking to be a professional illustrator should have?” This is a question that I, as a long-time college arts educator, have been asked repeatedly by prospective students.
Many things make an illustration: concept, composition, color and all the other formal elements of visual imagery with which students will become familiar. There are numerous other, less tangible things, that make an illustrator: curiosity, a dedication to craft, a sense of metaphor and a love of narrative, to name a few.
It is an oversimplification to try to succinctly sum up “professional illustrator.” Clearly, all the above named elements are important, along with many others. Nevertheless the question keeps being asked of people in my position. Finally, after over thirty years of teaching, I have an answer I believe in: a passion for drawing.
I’ve come to this conclusion thanks primarily to one person, someone I’ve had the privilege of having as a friend and colleague for much of those thirty-plus years: Christopher Fox “C.F.” Payne.
I’ve been lucky to have known some of the top practitioners in the field, and I’ve met dozens of others. Not one has exceeded and few have even come close to possessing Chris Payne’s pure love of drawing. Drawing is not just his profession, but often his recreation, even his procrastination—if indeed he ever really does that. It is his driving force, his essence, his reason for being. It is how he understands himself as well as the world around him.
When you look at the list of names in the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, which he is most deservedly joining, you could say the same of many of them. I believe it to be a large factor of why they too are members. To be clear, I’m not talking specifically about how well one draws, i.e., the outcome, which is readily evident to a viewer. No, I mean the act of drawing itself, with total abandon, and yet with involvement and commitment that you have to see firsthand to fully comprehend and appreciate.
C.F. Payne’s work shows the joy of making. There’s a freshness and energy that comes through the layers of colored pencil, oil paint, acrylic, ink, and who-knows-what kind of other alchemist’s potions he puts down on the illustration board. No matter the task at hand, he’s always up for a challenge. Twenty well-known celebrities in formal attire at an imaginary party? In four days? Sure, can do. National magazine cover in twelve hours? Yes, he’ll fit it in. Design an eighty-foot mural? Sounds like fun! Assignments that might scare others he takes pleasure in tackling.
Not that it was always easy. Not that he didn’t work hard or push himself. Maybe the only thing Chris ever wanted to do as much as draw was play baseball. But he realized fairly early that he wasn’t necessarily going to be exceptional at that. He saw more of a future in drawing. And so began diligent study that included graduating from Miami University with a BFA in 1976, then attending the Illustrators Workshop, run by his now fellow Hall-of-Famers Alan E. Cober, Mark English, Bernie Fuchs, Bob Heindel, Fred Otnes and Bob Peak. He began his professional illustration practice at art studios in Akron and Chicago, drawing (as he says) “a lot of cars and tires—real nuts-and-bolts stuff.”
Chris started his freelance career in Dallas in 1980. There noted art director Fred Woodward took notice of the young artist’s burgeoning talent and began commissioning work for regional magazines. National assignments soon followed. Moving with his wife Paula back to his beloved hometown of Cincinnati to raise their two sons, Chris has been illustrating non-stop ever since. While he is best known for his portrait and editorial work, there is almost nothing in the field he hasn’t done and done well. Magazine fiction stories, articles, and covers both national and international. Twenty children’s books. Advertising, community projects, even logos and package art. Oh, and many a baseball player….
The cliché “his awards over the years are too numerous to fully mention” justly fits. They include Gold Medals from this very Society of Illustrators in 1993 and 1996, Silver Medals in 1992, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2001, and the Hamilton King Award in 1995. Most recently he was the recipient of the 2017 Individual Artist Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio and the 2017 Ohioana Book Award winner in the Children’s Book Category, an area on which he now focuses.
Along the way Chris has also found the time to give back as a teacher. Trust me when I say he’s a great one. I’ve seen it firsthand for over fifteen years while he was my colleague at Columbus College of Art & Design. He’s as dedicated to education as he is to his own art. The Society of Illustrators recognized this too, giving him the Distinguished Educator Award in 2012. He currently is Director of the MFA program in Illustration at the Hartford Art School. A large part of that teaching is about the history of the profession, so I know how much being included in this historic group of Hall of Famers means to him.
Ultimately, faces are probably what come to mind when you first think of C.F. Payne’s work. That Famous Person you’ve seen but never met, or the character in a story you are reading—they are alive. They engage your eye, and you never doubt for one second that they are having thoughts, looking at you as much as you are looking at them. His ability to distill the essence of a person into their portrait is possibly his greatest of many gifts.
He doesn’t do it by just copying their likenesses. He is that most unlikely of combinations: a realist and a caricaturist. He usually has a bit of exaggeration in even his “straight” portraits, and he can be very much the cartoonist when called for. His work has often been compared to that of the very first Hall of Fame recipient in 1958, Norman Rockwell, another great realist who had a gift for humor that often seeped through the paint. Like Rockwell, Payne creates worlds that are very keenly observed, exquisitely designed and detailed, but with no unnecessary elements that don’t support the narrative or subject. I find a wonderful symmetry in C.F. Payne’s induction into this esteemed company exactly sixty years after Rockwell's.
If you ever have the chance to meet C.F. Payne, don’t be satisfied just seeing his actual finished illustrations, wonderful objects though they are. Make sure you see his sketchbooks. No matter where you might find him, he’ll have at least one with him. These are not small, carefully preserved, leather-covered precious collections of doodles. They are large, well-worn, and literally bursting with vitality. In total, he’s easily filled over a hundred, probably more, as he draws every day, not merely sketching but attacking the pages with ink, paint and the amazing playful inventiveness that is the mark of a true master artist.
It is in these sketchbooks that you will see and most fully understand his passion for drawing, and why it makes C.F. Payne one of the distinguished illustrators not just of our times but of all time—a status that is now so rightfully being acknowledged.
Professor, Chair of Illustration and Comics & Narrative Practice
Columbus College of Art & Design