“When I make work I always see its imperfections so when I hear someone complementing it, I just can’t get my head around it.”

Mark Powell - Interviewed by Holly Simpson. Sept 2013

 Mark at work

Mark at work

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Having had a remarkable 18 months on the art fair circuit, the London Illustration Fair caught up with their Artist In Focus, Mark Powell on a rear day off in a pub close by to the Moniker Art Fair where he is currently exhibiting with Hang-Up Gallery. Over a well-earned Saturday afternoon beer(s) with old school friends Mark talks to the LIF about his progression from painting to illustration, Bic biro etiquette and his participation at the LIF.

You are currently showing at Moniker, additionally holding a solo stand at The Other Art Fair, you are also involved in a group exhibition for Diesel and next week you will be showing with Curious Duke Gallery at Battersea’s Affordable Art Fair. What a fantastic year you are having. We visited the Moniker opening on Thursday and couldn’t help noticing the huge buzz around Hang-up Gallery. The set-up was pretty special and your work clearly dominated their stand. How did you find the opening?

Mark: It was all a bit of a blur really as I was working right up until the opening to finish the artwork for it.

LIF: So you were making work right up until the last minute?

Mark: Yes, it sounds crazy but I had actually sold all my work up until the fair so Ben (Cotton – Hang-Up’s Director) asked me to make a piece exclusively for Hang-Up. This is why I decided to meet you here and not at my studio in Hackney Downs. I didn’t actually have anything for you to see, my studio is literally four blank walls.

That is remarkable and very impressive considering that you are relatively new to all this and are not represented by a gallery. Why have you chosen to stay unrepresented? Are there certain advantages to this?

Mark: I guess it just happened that way. I do show regularly with Ben Oakley Gallery, Curious Duke Gallery and Hang-Up, but I prefer to not be tied to anyone. I enjoy the freedom of doing the shows I like.

LIF: What do you think are the down sides to art fairs?

Mark: I don’t know. To be honest, I have always done ok out of them so I would say the having to be there and having to talk to people. I would just prefer to make the work. I was standing around at the Hang-Up stand and a guy turned around and started talking to me about the drawings. He was talking to me like I was the person responsible for selling them, not realising that I was the artist.

LIF: What did he say?

Mark: He was just complementing them I guess. I found the whole thing really uncomfortable so I slowly walked away.

How do you feel when people are complimentary towards your work?

Mark: I find it really strange and don’t really understand it. When I make work, I always see its imperfections so when I hear someone complementing it, I just can’t get my head around it. Every time I finish something, all I can see are the bits that don’t work so I never know why someone would want to pay money for it.

LIF: It really has been a whirlwind. What do your friends make of your newfound success?

Mark: I don’t think they take it that seriously. I mean, I have been friends with these guys (jesting to his two friends sitting opposite us) since I was back in school and a lot of them don’t come from art backgrounds. They have normal nine to five jobs so I don’t think they really know what I do.

 The London Illustration Fair exclusive artwork, in progress.

The London Illustration Fair exclusive artwork, in progress.

“It has to be a Bic medium biro. These ones don’t flow well, they gets sticky and smudge the drawing. Bic’s are much smoother and more consistent.”

Your work consists of extremely detailed and exquisitely intricate biro portraits of elderly male subjects. What is your relationship to these gentlemanly figures? Do you know them personally?

Mark: No, I just know one. I always try to keep them as distant as possible. I want to keep a distance between the figures and myself because I like the sense of mystery that it creates. I am sure it doesn’t make a difference to the drawings but it makes a difference to me. I like how this mystery allows for thousands of different interpretations for every piece.

LIF: You draw on top of old documents, stamps, envelopes and maps. Where do you find these? Is there a historical significance to these documents that is important to you?

Mark: They are a few antique store online that are good, but I prefer to go to this amazing shop in Amsterdam which I occasionally go to. The last time I went there I bought everything that they had. 

LIF: Roughly how much time do you spend on each work? 

Mark: (Making an A4 shape with his hands) This size would take a day, give or take, but the big works that are at Moniker at the minute took a week. In fact normally this sized work would take a month but because there were time restrictions I had to power through.

LIF: What is your working process? Do you carefully trace the outline of the figures first and get the basic light and dark shading in place before you start working in biro?

Mark: No, I do it all free hand. Working exclusively in biro, I draw a basic outline and then start working intensely on one particular area. Once I have built up one section I will move onto another. It’s pretty intense because I can’t afford to make any mistakes.

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LIF: Woo, these are raw drawing conditions. Do you find this strict approach produces the best results? Do you ever made mistakes? If so, how are these corrected?

Mark: Yes I have made (pauses briefly) possibly three big mistakes. When I mess up, that’s it, it goes in the bin.

(Distracted by my generic biro lying on the table in front of us, Mark picks up my pen and looks at me bemused).

Mark: It has to be a Bic medium biro. These ones don’t flow well, they gets sticky and smudge the drawing. Bic’s are much smoother and more consistent. 

LIF: You must go through a large number of pens? You should write to Bic and arrange some kind of sponsorship deal. I feel such a proud sense of achievement when I finish a biro. Do you ever keep your empties?

Mark: Yes I do. I keep them in a draw. I have often thought one day I will make a huge artwork out of them.

LIF: The reasons why the LIF’s wanted you on board as our Artist in Focus was because we think your style represents illustration in it’s purest and most complex form. We also applauded how your work does not confine itself exclusively to illustration. Do you believe this to be the case?

Mark: Yes I would defiantly agree with that. At university (University of Huddersfield) I was drawing and painting. When I graduated I was making large wall painting. I went and lived over in New York for a bit and was asked to make large painting on the side of buildings. When I came back to London, I started sharing a studio for a while in Bow. Then when the guy who owned it sold the building I lost the studio and started making much smaller work because I didn’t have the space.

LIF: From your own experiences, since gradating from university, to the position you find yourself in now, what advise would you give young illustrators?

Mark: The key is to keep making work. I certainly didn’t design what happened to me, it was just pure luck. I had no plan what-so-ever. I received an email one evening from a guy who said he could sell my work and from there I starting selling work online, then from that I started selling work at art fairs. It was only 18 months ago that I managed to quit my job and make work full-time.

LIF: Having sold consistently both at the Other Art Fair for four consecutive years, now at Moniker, and with Hang-Up and our other galleries, as a recognisable name in illustration it would be great to come up with a pricing and production structure whereby everybody can own a Mark Powell. Do you think this could be possible?

Mark: Absolutely. I have come up with a three-tier pricing strategy. I will be selling originals, screen prints and I (showing me an image of what appears to be an A5 sized illustrated giclee print on an original document) have recently started making these.

LIF: This is fantastic news. I know for Hang-Up you produced an exclusive piece for their participation at Moniker that was revealed on the opening. Would it be possible to do something similar for the LIF?

Mark: Yes I would be happy to. I have allowed myself the weekend off after this enormously busy period but so I will make a start on it on Monday.

LIF: This is so exciting. Thank you very much for agreeing to be a part of the fair. I very much look forward to seeing what you will be exhibited on our walls. Ok Mark, so just one last very important question, will you be attending our launch in November?

Mark: (Laughs unnervingly) Yes, go on then. I will.

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