Mark Smith, Mastering the metaphorical

06 May 2013
In this interview, originally published in the 20th issue of 3x3 Magazine, Mark Smith, a UK based Artist with a diverse background tells us his career path and his enviable position of being in constant demand for his thoughtful and striking work.
Ashley Potter

In this interview, originally published in the 20th issue of 3x3 Magazine, Mark Smith, a UK based Artist with a diverse background tells us his career path and his enviable position of being in constant demand for his thoughtful and striking work.

In an artistically shabby, underground theatre bar in the Devon city of Exeter (they do exist!) I caught up with Mark Smith to chat about his working methods and thoughts on contemporary illustration. He had just collected proof copies of his latest work from his American agent – two book jackets for a Korean publisher – his brand of business metaphor obviously transfers well across cultures and language barriers.

Over the next few hours under the unnerving gaze of a taxidermist’s trout we chewed the fat and whet our whistles.

Mark is in the enviable position of being in constant demand for his thoughtful and striking work. His situation is fairly unique, having only graduated from Plymouth University 3 years ago, he is a young gun, a new kid on the block, but he has decades of life experiences to dig deep into. This irony is not lost on Mark as a 42 year old, who’s been around the block a few times already.

His background is diverse – when he was young he enrolled onto an art course to gain an obscure qualification in Art & Design, but didn’t stay to finish the year. He tried his hand at a variety of jobs, including postman and machine operator for an industrial bookbinding company, before finding himself working for a skateboard shop who sponsored him to perform public demonstrations. Next a longer stint followed as a manager of an indie record store “you’d have thought it was a brilliant job, but it wasn’t. CD’s didn’t have the iconic feeling of vinyl album sleeves”, then back into education to study golf course maintenance (he’s fully qualified), but no job followed – his heart wasn’t in it.

All the while he loved drawing and used his skills to provide the band posters “an excuse to paint – I need a reason to do it” for The Cavern, a below ground gig venue where he worked as a barman. At this point in his life he sent off a tentative email enquiring about applying for a BA Illustration course at Plymouth University. “It was a last gasp attempt at developing my interest in illustration – it was always illustration. Coming from a working-class background, Fine Art was out the window. Graphic Design was an option, but you couldn’t be opinionated enough!” To his surprise he was accepted.

Over the next three years, Mark worked extremely hard at his craft, honing his visual language. Although, as all students, he was short of funds he nevertheless invested in his future by purchasing client lists and sending out carefully targeted promotional materials and in his final year he gained several top editorial commissions from national British magazines as well as bagging himself his agent in America.

If you analyse Mark’s aesthetic language you can see traces of this diverse background. “I’ve always found the printed look very attractive and with skateboards, once the boards have been used a lot the painted graphics become very distressed – this breakdown of the images is very seductive.”
“The intelligent use of textures and the quality of line is very important. I look back at my line work from when I was much, much younger and it’s still speaking the same, the same energy, the deliberateness, my line is not fluid, it’s worked hard for.”

Maybe his years tending golf courses have influenced his use of green within his work? When questioned whether he considers his vision ‘British’, Mark is surprised, although “There’s a sense of irony evident within the British sensibility which is reflected again over in New York and the East Coast. The sunny side is not my natural approach, I enjoy the ironic.”

On asking about how his images come into being Mark says, “I sit down and do what I do and when I look back over the work something has happened, but I don’t know what’s happened, it’s the accidental in the digital. Chance plays a massive part in my aesthetic – but it is considered, everything is considered and ‘right’ and goes into the pot.”

At the core, Mark’s driving force is metaphor, hard-core metaphor – he thrives on it. If you liken the article he’s been asked to illustrate to a car, then he loves to delve under the bonnet and tune its metaphorical engine. “Whilst studying I found I was drawn to metaphor, distilling down the problem of the article to get at a visual truth. A truth that was my opinion, but one which was based upon and appropriate for the article.” “I’m analytical and have a need to know why.”

What’s his dream job? “working as a political commentator for Private Eye. It’s a publication not a million miles away from the New Yorker, same sense of humour and irony, it’d be a chance to express my opinions on the news of the week”.

On digital contexts for editorial? “It’s wide open for animation, I’ve seen some fantastic examples and have tried applying it to my work and I’m keen to pursue this further, but it takes me too long at the moment. Animation, it’s a voice in it’s own right you can apply it to a still image in so many different ways and I’m working on my version”.

He appreciates the status that editorial illustration has in America “You are treated as a professional, it’s very hard to make a living in the UK solely on editorial”
What’s the best part of being an illustrator? ”It’s a fantastic feeling. I love the whole of it – if you take anything away, even the crappy bits – you loose the whole.”

His mobile flashes up with an email and it’s another job - an arts issue of a sports magazine, they’re willing to wait to fit into his busy schedule. We finish up and leave into the Autumn night air, Mark heading back to his studio over the Cavern Club where he started …

About Mark Smith

Mark is based in the United Kingdom and has worked for clients around the world in advertising, editorial and publishing. His work has been recognized by NY Society of Illustrators 53, 54, 55, Communication Arts 53 & 54, SILA 49 (bronze medal) & 50,  American Illustration 28, 3X3 ProShow 8 & 9 (distinguished merit), 3X3 Childrens Show 9, Applied Arts 2013, Creative Quarterly 20, 22, 24 & 29, Creativity International 39 (silver award), Association of Illustrators 'Images 31 & 33', Creative Match and Computer Arts Magazine.

His clients include Abbott Mead Vickers, American Way, The Guardian, Kiplinger, Morningstar Advisor, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Golf Monthly, Publicis, Reader's Digest, Simon & Schuster, The Times and The Washington Post to name a few.

© 2013 Ashley Potter

Reprinted with permission from 3x3 Magazine.
All rights reserved. This first appeared in 3x3 Magazine #20.
3x3 Magazine

About the author

Ashley Potter is an illustrator and the Programme Leader of the BA Illustration course at Plymouth University. He works under a raft of pseudonyms including Frank Love, “the name of a closed down factory in South London”.
He works in illustration and animation fields and has won a BAFTA and Emmy for the collaborative animation “The Canterbury Tales”. He has a long suffering partner and two children named after French movies.