C.F. Payne is on a mission. The nationally famous illustrator wants to change the way big business and commercial artists interact.

"Sure, a businessperson can save money by using a stock image" in an advertising campaign, says Payne, a Sharonville artist who is probably best known for his anchor position illustrating the back cover of Reader's Digest every month. "But an original illustrator can create an artwork that is tailor-made for a business."

Payne is leading a national awareness movement to assist CEOs in recognizing the value of original art in their advertising campaigns and corporate branding (Payne himself freelances for, among others, a major American pharmaceutical company). Serving on the board of the Illustrators Partnership of America, he wants to educate everyone. "We want to promote more commissioned illustrations" as opposed to purchasing stock images, he says.

You may not know Christopher Fox Payne, but you've likely seen his distinctive paintings somewhere. On a Cheerios box. In pharmaceutical ads. On the cover of Time. In a series of stamps for the U.S. Postal Service honoring famous singers. Or, on the back cover of a Reader's Digest magazine.

Payne is also a prolific children's book illustrator, painting artwork for actor John Lithgow's Micawber and The Remarkable Farkle McBride. It is the actor Lithgow who has invoked, when discussing Payne, the NR words: Norman Rockwell.

"I've been a big fan of Norman Rockwell's since I was a kid myself," reports Lithgow, "and to me Payne is his successor, the best American illustrator working today."

Heady stuff, but Chris Payne can only laugh. "He's the Babe Ruth of what we do, and I'm only the infielder," he says, responding to the notion he's in the same camp with the legendary American artist. All this said, Payne's work has been displayed at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, itself a rare compliment. (His work has also been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, as well as the Cincinnati Art Museum.) His portrait of a Porkopolis pig standing in front of Cincinnati Museum Center graces the cover of the current issue of the Illustration '05: Journal of Contemporary Illustration.

Payne creates his illustrations in his Sharonville studio. The two-floor work area is brightly lit; photographs are scattered on the floor, true-life poses of family and friends and acquaintances that Payne uses to help create his realistic caricatures.

It's actually turned into a game in Cincinnati to discover which local person is the face behind the latest Reader's Digest portrait. A recent Payne illustration, for instance, featured Erich Reschke, a baker at the Wyoming Pastry Shop in the northwestern Cincinnati suburb. Another featured Payne's son, Evan, and his friend, David Teran, along with other students from Wyoming and Princeton high schools. Payne photographs all his references, both the people and the settings, sometimes even recording details such as how an arm is crooked or a knee is bent.

The caricaturist has steadily developed a reputation for his realistic, humorous and textured portraits of the beloved and bemoaned, of gently poking fun at American traditions while revering the true meaning they embody.

"He can do incredibly richly detailed pieces of art in one day," Time art director Arthur Hochstein once wrote in the pages of the magazine, introducing his readers to Payne. "He can poke fun without being mean-spirited."

His big break came with Rolling Stone, when he was asked to create a portrait of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. The phone didn't stop ringing after his first burst of national attention. "Art directors are like birds on a wire," Payne laughs. "If you can make one fly, you can make them all fly."

In the first week after that Rolling Stone came out, Payne got calls from the art directors at People, Esquire, Sports Illustrated and GQ. Repeat: in the first week. Thing is, Payne was swamped with corporate work at the time. "I had to turn them down. I had to turn down a cover for Time magazine. 'Who is this person?' I remember thinking. 'This is not happening.'

"But I was just too busy. When Time calls you on a Wednesday, that usually means the artwork has to be in New York on Friday." Nevertheless, Payne eventually completed his first Time cover (Bill Clinton as Uncle Sam), and has followed up with more since.
Then came the Reader's Digest contract, to paint "Our America" each month. "I was very nervous about it, simply because people are going to associate it with Rockwell. I said we'd have to find our own voice. If we begin asking, 'What would Rockwell have done?' we're dead."
The original two-year contract, now extended to four years due to the popular response from the Digest's readers, began with a simple phone call, asking him to come visit the editorial offices to discuss a rotating series of illustrations, in a space to be shared with other illustrators. "It was a boardroom full of people; the editors are there, the publisher is there. Then they drop the bombshell on me. There aren't going to be other (artists). I was stunned."

Beyond the juvenile fiction market and mainstream book covers (Payne illustrated the cover of one of Garrison Keillor's recent books), Payne continues to explore his medium in new and different ways. For instance, if you visit Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park, you'll encounter Payne's first effort at public art: a 95-foot-long color mural that extends the full length of the main lobby. Payne spent some 1,200 hours on the piece, which features notable playwrights from Shakespeare to George Bernard Shaw, as well as actors who have appeared at the theater.

As with all his work, these exacting caricatures are a mix of drawing, design and painting, distorting reality without losing the realism of what the people actually look like, taking the portrait past the real and into the surreal.

Back in his studio, Payne is showing off all the artwork on the walls. Odd thing. It's all originals by other cartoonists and illustrators that hang in his space. No C.F. Payne original can be found, except for the one currently sitting on the easel, half completed.  "I have a tendency to put other people's artwork up," the artist shrugs.

Payne describes his work as observational drawing, a blend of composition, body language, gestures and expressions. In a Rodney Dangerfield "I don't get no respect" moment, he laments for his chosen field. "In today's culture," he says, "everybody is an artist except an illustrator."