William Johnson’s younger years on ranches around Gunnison, Colorado were the perfect preparation for a life of illustrating the romanticized “Old West.” It was in Gunnison that Bill met Harvey Dunn, a well-known artist of the Brandywine illustrators. Dunn was teaching at the Western State College in the summer of 1947. Dunn inspired Johnson to look up a former student of his named Arthur Mitchell who headed up the Art Department at Trinidad State College in Trinidad, Colorado. Mitchell was also a well-known illustrator who created over 160 covers for Western magazines. William’s studies with Mitchell lasted for two years.
From1949 to 1950 Johnson lived in New York and attended the Art Students League to study with another great illustrator, Frank Reilly. William then attended the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles and graduated in 1954.
For the next ten years he worked as a commercial illustrator in New York City. He also met Saturday Evening Post illustrator, Harold von Schmidt there, who became a mentor and friend for the rest of Johnson’s life. His painting style was greatly influenced by his friend von Schmidt.
Johnson came from a long line of illustrators that became dedicated teachers. In 1965 he left New York to return to Colorado and take over the teaching position of the retiring Arthur Mitchell as head of the Art Department at Trinidad State College. Because he was teaching in a remote western town where few people actually saw his work, the recognition he deserved suffered. Also affecting his success was the fact that he was somewhat cantankerous and preferred to sell his own paintings. Johnson is only now getting the recognition for his body of work which stands as a solid tribute to the West as he experienced it.