As a young man, illustrator Charles Santore initially turned down a scholarship offer to attend art school.

“I had no reason to turn it down, really, except that I didn’t know anyone who went to college then. It wasn’t a common thing in those days,” says Santore, whose show “Alice and the Narrative Picture Book” opens at Stockton College Art Gallery, Tuesday, Jan. 20. “I didn’t know what I was going to do [after high school], but I said no.”

Fortunately, a teacher with an eye for talent convinced him otherwise.

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“She asked if it ever occurred to me that it [the scholarship] won’t be offered to me again,” Santore recalls. “She encouraged me to take it — and it changed my life. It was one of those life-changing decisions that you don’t know are going to be life-changing at the time.”

Santore found his niche at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) with illustrations and upon graduating, began securing jobs in advertising and magazines such as TV Guide and The Saturday Evening Post, where he worked along with the legendary Norman Rockwell.

After a successful 25-year run, Santore was feeling a little complacent, so he started revisiting an old idea he had to work on children’s books.

Serendipity took over when Running Press Book Publishers approached him to see if he would be interested in illustrating Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” — another opportunity Santore almost declined.

“I was a bit apprehensive,” Santore admits. “When doing a magazine or advertisement, you get deadlines of a week or two. A book is a long process — anywhere from six months to a year. I didn’t know if I wanted to tie myself up for that. But I said yes. It was another life-changing experience.”

Santore has since gone on to illustrate a vast number of children’s books including “The Wizard of Oz,” “Aesop’s Fables,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Snow White” as well as those he penned: “William the Curious: Knight of the Water Lilies” and “A Stowaway on Noah’s Ark.”

Santore really loves diving into illustrating book projects.

“All the magazines and advertisements were essentially poster illustrations — you see it, digest it and move on,” he explains. “A book is more like composing a piece of music or choreographing a ballet. You have more time to do research and learn about characters, so your pictures get richer and deeper and you know more as you go.”

His current illustration project, “Alice in Wonderland,” is something that Santore has always wanted to do.

“I always wanted to illustrate ‘Alice,’ because to do a successful version, it takes a combination of being able to draw realistically for the Alice character and do caricatures at the same time,” Santore says. “She’s a ‘real’ little girl, but she encounters all these different creatures.

“I enjoy doing pictures that are fairly realistic, but I also like to caricaturize people and animals. I thought it was a combination of skills I could offer that would be a challenge for me. I like to challenge myself with books that have been illustrated throughout the years and see if I could do something different with them. I’ve been doing this since 1958 and I always want to grow. You have to try things you don’t know if you can accomplish, you always have to stretch.”

At the exhibit at Stockton, which runs through March 28, viewers can see a wide selection of Santore’s sketches, drawings and watercolor illustrations accompanied by the children’s books themselves. His exquisite and in-depth images, which, like Rockwell’s, are simultaneously sophisticated and whimsical, can also be seen at the Museum of Modern Art, the Brandywine River Museum, the U.S. Department of the Interior, among others.

During the run of the show, Santore will appear at a special event, “Art in the Afternoon,” which will take place 1 p.m., March 1. He will talk about his long and successful career and participate in a book signing.

All events are free and open to the public. Stockton College Art Gallery is located in the L wing of the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, 101 Vera King Farris Drive in Galloway. Hours of operation are noon to 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. For information, call 609-652-4214 or go to Stockton.edu/artgallery.

For Santore, even after all these years, he is still having a blast with his work.

“It’s just fun,” he says. “I consider myself lucky to be here all these years doing what I love and reading children’s books. It’s an ideal existence.”

Worked in public relations in Philadelphia and NYC on national pharmaceutical and consumer accounts. Owned an award-winning boutique in Philadelphia. Became a freelance writer for The Press, ultimately coming on board full time in May 2014.

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