It was family ties that brought Isaac Knight to the Florida Highwaymen painters, his art came later. Born in 1941 on his family’s 100-acre farm outside Tallahassee, Knight moved to Fort Pierce at 17 and set out to build a life on his own.
Initially working in a hospital and later for the state roads department, Knight eventually landed an excellent job at Northrup Grumman Aerospace. Now married to his wife Lillie, he met Al Black, one of the Highwaymen’s first salesmen and later a painter in his own right, who was then married to Lillie’s sister. It was his brother-in-law Al that first brought Knight into the Highwaymen fold.
Black needed help during his trips out on the road selling the group’s paintings and Knight, always looking for a way to make some extra money, agreed to join him on Saturdays and occasional Sundays. He was impressed with Black’s prowess as a salesman. “Al always sold out,” he told The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council. By one o’clock in the afternoon on the first Saturday Knight joined him, Black had sold all the paintings they had with them that day. “We got $40 to $50 for a painting back then and that was a lot of money.”
Like Black, Knight soon realized that painting was the better way to earn money, and the two started learning to paint by watching Alfred Hair and Harold Newton, the two originators of the group of “fast painters,” picking up how they mixed their paints, and filled in their scenes with horizons and sky, working their way from the edges to the center. Setting up in his backyard, porch, and garage, Knight practiced until he felt he had something worth trying to sell. He sold his first painting for $20 and, reports The Highwaymen Trail, as far as he knew, Hair never found out his salesmen were selling their own paintings as well.
Isaac Knight retired from Northrup Grumman Aerospace in 1994 after 31 years there as a full-time employee. His weekend work as a Highwaymen painter had lasted until the early 70s when tastes changed and demand for the group’s scenes of idyllic Florida landscapes waned considerably, but he began painting regularly again following his retirement. Knight was thrilled when interest in the group’s work revived and they began receiving invitations to show their paintings in major galleries and museums. “That was very exciting,” he told The Highwaymen Trail.
Knight’s early works depicted typical Highwaymen Florida tableaux of ocean and landscapes, and he always painted from memory, as most of the Highwaymen did. Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004, Isaac Knight continued to paint until his death in 2022. In his later years, Knight worked almost entirely in black and white, enjoying the tones and shadows the pallet of blacks, greys, and whites allowed him to play with as a painter, much as photographers do with black and white film.