Mark’s artwork has featured in magazines, newspapers, books and advertising campaigns around the world for clients including The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Time, Penguin Books, Mother Jones, GQ, The Folio Society, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The New York Times and many more. His particular take on the world has won him recognition and awards from the Society of Illustrators, NY, American Illustration, Luerzers Archive, SPD, 3X3 Magazine, Communication Arts, Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles and the V&A Illustration Awards, stand out’s include a Silver Medal from the NY Society, the Patrick Nagel Award for Excellence from the LA Society, a Gold Medal from The Society of Publication Designers, Best Graphic Award from the LA Press Club and the Best in Show award from 3X3 Magazine.
Interview by Jon Messer
What is Illustration?
For me Illustration is predominantly communication, in practice it’s nice to create things that just look good but without a purpose it’s a bit empty.
What drew you to become an illustrator in the first place?
I’ve loved drawing for as long as I can remember. I never really thought it would be possible to make a career out of it but after numerous ill-fated attempts at ‘normal’ jobs I eventually dragged myself to university and studied Illustration. Best decision I ever made, they taught me to properly express myself with images.
What illustrators influenced you most as a young artist? And today?
I’ve got strong memories of copying panels from Asterix comics and Mad Magazine as a kid, I loved the artwork in those. From the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s I pretty much lived on a skateboard and the art from those old boards and the scene in general probably had a big influence as well. These days I get a huge kick out of mid century illustrators work, Bob Peak’s compositions are exquisite, and (slightly later) Frank McCarthy’s work is stunning.
Was there an important event or shift in your thinking that boosted your career as a professional?
The most important shift for me was deciding to go to University, they gave me the foundation of what I needed to grow into a professional and luckily I’ve managed to keep enough work coming in to develop from there.
Do you only accept commissions that inspire you?
No, that’s a nice thought but to be honest it’s sometimes the more dry articles that require the most creativity to get the best result. They’re not always the easiest to work on but if the image is successful it’s always worth the effort.
What goals are you currently working towards?
The balance of the concept within an attractive image is always a goal I feel like I’m working towards. Every new commission throws up different challenges so it’s not something I’ve ever felt like I’ve got ‘nailed down’. Consistent standards and a variety of output are really important and this chase always keeps me on my toes.
Which is more important: content or technique?
For me they’re both really important and a balance of the two is the ideal, but content will always trump technique in the end. Good content can be delivered in any style (and sometimes benefits from a style that eschews technique). Technique alone can be impressive when it’s done really well but it leaves me feeling a bit short-changed. There are exceptions to this but they’re relatively rare.
What do you see as the big challenges for illustrators in the future?
AI is a pretty dark cloud isn’t it?! I haven’t looked into it very much really so I don’t really know the extent of the threat but I worry that it could, at the very least, have a negative impact on budgets. At worst, I guess it could pose a totally existential threat to illustrators. This kind of reinforces the importance of content in images, and being able to work with visual metaphors to create that content is probably more important than ever.
What kind of training or education should illustrators receive?
This varies massively from one person to the next. I really needed the Illustration Degree, the guidance I received at University was so important in getting me started (I studied at Plymouth University under Ashley Potter and Jo Davies), there’s no way I could have made a go of this without it. I think the fact that I studied relatively late in life also helped me, I didn’t graduate until I was 39 and I was well aware of how rubbish life can be when you’re trying to hold down a completely unsuitable job, it makes you go the extra mile when you know what the alternative is.
Do you think art fundamentals are still relevant in the new age of AI?
At the moment, yes, and I hope this doesn’t change. Individuality is really important, I like to think my style is informed by a lifetime of influences, any illustrator would say the same thing, they’re mine and I take pride in the ownership of them and the hard work I put into realising them in image form. I can’t imagine getting the same sense of achievement out of AI.
What advice do you wish you had gotten as a young illustrator?
I was already old by the time I became an illustrator but I do sometimes wish that someone had told me when I was younger that this was possible. I really can’t complain with the way that things have happened for me though, I quite enjoyed being a slacker in my 20s.
Do you have anything you’d like to say or share with other illustrators and students?
Don’t undersell your talent, and beware of the easy routes.
© no artwork displayed can be used without permission of the artist, Mark Smith.