(Dec. 9, 1931 - Jan. 4, 1989)
Throughout his years, John “Jack” Mills stretched and developed as a painter, combining time-honored techniques with his deep love of natural light and shadow and the beauty of the world. The result was a rare alchemy of real places and real faces, infused with the artist’s own vision. Mills paid homage to the classic masters yet with a contemporary style.
From 1954 to 1989, Mills was a successful and respected advertising illustrator, honored with numerous awards for his work.
From 1954 to 1971, he was what was known as a “car man,” an automobile illustrator for the Detroit automobile industry, creating illustrations for car catalogs for the dealerships of GM, Chrysler, Ford, and ads in newspapers and magazines nationwide such as Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Look. During the advertising years of his career, Mills signed his work with his nickname, Jack Mills.
In 1978, after moving to Lake Arrowhead, California, Mills devoted himself to fine art painting and began signing his work with his given name, John Mills. Using his birth name during this period of his career was unintentionally symbolic since he was coming into his own as an artist, expressing his true self through his photo-realism paintings. Mills’ paintings have been exhibited in galleries and museums from New York to California and purchased by collectors and corporations worldwide.
Born in Battle Creek, Michigan, his devotion to developing the skills to succeed was instilled at an early age and hammered into shape in some of the country’s busiest studios.
“When I was four years old, my grandmother taught me to draw and kept an eye out for me over the years. She wouldn’t let me play football because I was going to need my hands for my art. She was a talented, self-taught painter. She would paint copies of old masters’ artwork on reed mats! I was amazed that she could replicate detailed paintings on the curved reeds.”
After serving in the Korean War as a trumpet player in the U.S. Army (where he met Marilyn Monroe), Mills moved to Detroit.
“I started working around town, always trying to find the studios where the best artists were, doing my best to pick up on what they were doing.”
At McNamara Brothers, a studio in Detroit, John started as a “pencil boy”, an apprentice who sketched out the layout for an illustration in pencil for the “car man” to paint.
It was then that he met his mentor, Dave Lindsay. Lindsay was one of Detroit’s top illustrators, and he took Mills under his wing. It was under Lindsay’s tutelage that Mills began to hone his painting skills, making him paint chrome repeatedly.
“Dave used to tell me if you can paint chrome, you can paint anything.”
Thus began a meteoric rise through the major commercial art studios, then flourishing in Detroit around the prosperous automobile industry. “By 1959, I started freelancing, independent of the commercial art studios. However, in 1971, the Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Look all folded, which hurt the big ad campaigns. And, over the years, the auto companies progressively spent more on TV ads instead of catalogs and print ads. The golden days of the ‘car man’ were over. So, I moved to Chicago and eventually the West Coast, specializing in pen-and-ink illustrations for major companies such as Kraft Foods and General Mills.”
“But I was being pulled more and more to painting. I kept remembering the early days, growing up in Battle Creek. I still love that era, and I guess I’m always trying to recall those days when life was a lot simpler. That is why I get excited about an old building. Victorian buildings fascinate me because I love the way sunlight hits them, the subtle variation of colors between light and shadow, the way they’re put together, functional but with gingerbread decoration.”
During his fine art years, Mills worked primarily in acrylic on gesso board. The board’s flatness enabled him to create detailed compositions of incredible intricacies. The effect is likened to that of egg tempera. Rural American buildings and landscapes are the predominant subjects in his work, with some excursions in portraiture and jazz musicians. Being an ex-jazz musician, John was capable of capturing not only the visual but the feeling and soul of that moment in time.
“I work on my art every day, from sketching, preparations, to the final piece. It’s like building a house; you build a painting. It doesn’t come together until almost the end.”
“I work from photographs and try to keep it as real as possible, without faking things. For an example, there is a pile of wood in a yard, carelessly thrown together, if you consciously tried to stack the wood like that, you could do it all day, and it still wouldn’t look right. It’s the way nature is, the way people live, the way things are—never neat and tidy but with a design to them.”
“Yet, I want people to be moved by my paintings, so I have to put some of myself in there. For me, that means capturing the simplicity of the moment within the complexity of the details.”
Mills’ paintings are photo-real, with harmonious color and strategic composition done with meticulous detail. He enjoyed the challenge, growing as an artist by pushing himself to paint different subject matter. As a result, his photo-realism painting subjects ranged widely: classic cars; old barns; landscapes; Victorian houses; portraiture; jazz musicians; and other representations of Americana.
He appreciated the everyday things, the details, to look to the past and to stop time. He wanted people to slow down and get them to look at what they often don’t see.
Tragically, John Mills’ fine art career was cut short in 1989 when he lost his battle with cancer at the age of 57.