Skip to Main Content
Bookmark and Share

John T. Engeman

« BackNext »

John T. Engeman photo

What inspired you to design for stamps?  Or how did you end up designing your first stamp?
My uncle gave me his stamp collection book when I was in sixth grade. I was fascinated by all the different places in the world and the particular ideas and images they were using to represent themselves. I daydreamed of dense jungle forests and exotic animals and geography. Stamps awakened me to the ideas of the world rather than just my local environment. I never dreamed that there were so many others unlike and at the same time, like me.

I already thought of myself as an artist just like my dad. My first stamp design for the United States Postal Service was the Uncle Sam Hat stamp or “H” stamp.

USA H stamp with an illustrated hat with red and white stripes and white stars on a blue background

Stamp designed by Engeman
©All Rights Reserved
United States Postal Service

Some stamps are designed and then held in storage where they are saved for future use. That might be for a stamp that is needed for immediate release for a stamp price increase. These kinds of stamps are usually printed with a letter of the alphabet instead of a price, like the “H” stamp. I liked the way they turned out and especially when there is a whole sheet of them.

What design methods do you use, especially when you have to consider the final scale of your work will be quite small?
Designing stamps for the Post Office with such a small final size has forced me to keep all my artwork very SIMPLE. They only let us create the art four sizes up from the final size and this prevents you from including everything in the world plus the kitchen sink. This automatically keeps it simple. This idea has carried over into all my art and has greatly improved it. I work on the computer now in the Vector application Adobe Illustrator that allows you to enlarge the art up as big as the Pentagon without showing any digital stair steps as you would in Photoshop.

Digital stair steps- close up view of hat illustration on stamp

How do you determine your subject or, if the subject is assigned by USPS, how do you determine how to design for that subject?
I have no voice in the subject matter, which is assigned to me as part of the project.  I usually produce three (3) rough layouts suggesting viewpoint, color, composition, arrangement, lighting, and hopefully, an unusual and beautiful view of that subject.

How does your style affect your final design, or how is your style reflected in the final design?
My art illustration style is one called Flat Pattern which is solid colors butting up to each other with no shading.  I was heavily influenced by antique Japanese art, which uses flat pattern as a prevalent standard style.

Example of Flat Pattern- an example of Asian art
Example of Flat Pattern

What advice would you give to young designers? 
1. Everyone is an artist by birth. Part of being human. A lot of people do not believe this and so do not attempt to make any art. Professional artists spend a lot of time practicing this skill because they feel that they just HAVE TO. They wouldn’t be happy if they didn’t. Practice is the difference between the two.

2. Every artist faces the same exact dreaded question... Why would anyone else like, want, need or buy my work?

  • What is so special about mine?

  • That question is a lie. An awful falsehood. A numbing and defeating idea.

  • The Universe is set up so that every wish has an answer. Every artist has an audience that loves and appreciates their work. It isguaranteed. Now, that audience might not be as big as the Beatles, or American Idol or whatever. But it WILL be big enough for you to be delighted. It is guaranteed if you don’t give up and give in to the LIE!

John Engeman showing his computer stamp design techniques to a group of visitors at the National Postal museum July 2007
John Engeman showing his computer stamp design techniques to a group of visitors at the National Postal museum July 2007.

Why do you love designing stamps? What’s the best part about designing stamps?
The variety and design challenges in stamp design make it the best of all assignments. And besides I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. I get to design U.S. Stamps! WOW!

What is the most difficult thing about illustrating/designing stamps?
Most of the time I wake up in the morning with the idea supplied by the Muse while I’m asleep, or sometimes while out for a walk, or sometimes when I’m doing something altogether different than designing stamps. I find it useful to first ask for a great idea and then… Wait patiently for the answer. Trusting that the answer WILL come if I get off worrying about it.

John T. Engeman’s Stamp Illustrations

The views, opinions and statements expressed on this website are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution.