Friday, June 08, 2012

Michael Johnson: "I looked forward to being surprised, and always delighted, with what he produced."

Guest author Bryn Havord introduces the early work of English illustrator Michael Johnson, covering the decade of his work, from the end of 1959 to 1970.

Mike and I worked together on many projects over the years. I used to read the stories, decide with the editor where the weekly breaks would come; tell Mike what they were, and what space he would get for each instalment. I never asked for roughs for two reasons: he was talented enough to make the decisions as to what would be suitable, and selfishly I looked forward to being surprised, and always delighted, with what he produced.

Johnson46(Above: a 1960s image courtesy of Mike's long-time reps, Artist Partners)

During a trip to New York City in 1965, I showed Bill Cadge, the art director of Redbook magazine, some transparencies of Mike’s work. Bill had a story about a couple living on a houseboat in London, and he immediately commissioned Mike to paint the illustration for the story.

Johnson37(Mike’s first commission for Redbook magazine in 1965.)

Mike was never overly impressed or influenced by the work of others, although he was always generous in his praise of what they were doing, if it was good and out of the ordinary. He was, of course, impressed with the likes of Bernie Fuchs, Bob Peak and Robert Heindel.

(I greatly admired the work of Joy Hannington, who was the art director of Homes and Gardens. In particular, the way she encouraged illustrators, giving them considerable freedom to work in the way which most suited them. Mike produced the four illustrations - two shown above and two shown below - for her during the mid to late ’60s.)

In 1969, Mike went to the USA, and on the strength of the work he had done for Redbook, he obtained work from McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, Woman's Day and Sports Illustrated.

(Above: two paintings produced for the German magazine Stern towards the end of the ’60s, illustrating a series of books by Harold Robbins.)

Johnson45(Above: This illustration was produced in 1969, and is an example of the trend towards more detailed and highly finished work, that the clients were starting to demand from the illustrators.)

In a career spanning over fifty years Mike’s work, in addition to illustration for magazines, has encompassed just about every area of the illustrative arts ranging from industrial design, book publishing, painting, and sculpture; including commissions to paint portraits. He has also been involved in industrial design, aerodynamics, aircraft and glider design.

Johnson42(Above: A cover painted for Corgi Books at the end of 1969.)

In 1975, Mike went to live in the south of France, where he still lives and works every day. We'll return to examine Mike's career from 1970 to 1990 at a later date.

* Bryn Havord was assistant art director of Woman magazine in the late '50s and early '60s. From 1963 to 1965 he was associate editor and art director of Woman's Mirror; both of which were published in the UK. During that time he commissioned work from all the leading British Illustrators including Michael Johnson, Brian Sanders, Walter Wyles, Eric Ernshaw and Gerry Fancett.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this. I only first saw his work in the wonderful "Lifestyle Illustration of the 60's" book from 2010, but his art really stood out in it. A number of artists at the time might choose to work in a predominant color scheme for the story they were illustrating, and others played with loose brush work, or abstraction in the shadows, but Johnson really seemed to take all these aspects and push them further. It's very loose, and yet totally assured. Great to hear some background on his practice and ideas.

  2. Michael Johnson, who doesn't own a computer, has asked me to put a message up for him, which is a bit like the blind leading the blind. However, he's asked me to thank you Leif for giving his work such a superb display, and to thank everybody else for their kind and generous comments!

    Bryn Havord.

  3. Greatttttttttttttttttt

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  5. Thank goodness for Woman magazine! I followed these illustrations and kept the tear sheets from my Mother's. Michael was our Yorkshire version of Bernie Fuchs! He is up there with the best!