Illustrator Profile - Marc Burckhardt: "I create my work the old-fashioned way"

By Robert Newman   Thursday October 22, 2015

Marc Burckhardt is an illustrator and painter whose work has appeared in countless magazines and publications, as well as on book covers, product design, and much more. Based in Austin, he spans the world of both editorial illustration and fine art, with his paintings being exhibited in numerous galleries across the country. Burckhardt’s art touches on a broad range of subjects, but he has a particular affinity for portraits of musicians; he won a Grammy for his paintings in The Legend: Johnny Cash CD set. Burckhardt is past president of the ICON illustration conference, and was the winner of the Society of Illustrators’ Hamilton King Award in 2011.

Burckhardt creates his illustrations “the old-fashioned way, with pencil and paint.” His work is artful, tactile, highly imaginative, and brilliantly accomplished, mixing a classic approach to technique with a very modern stylistic sensibility. Burckhardt’s passion for painting and attention to detail is explained by his motto: “treat every project with respect.” 

I’m based in Austin, Texas, but try to divide my time between there and Europe, where I was born and find a great deal of inspiration for my art. It’s a sharp contrast, both culturally and meteorologically!

My father was German and both my parents were professors, so during the summer breaks we traveled to Europe to spend time with family. My mother, who grew up in Chicago and was also a painter, often took me to museums when we were abroad, and there I was steeped in the dark vision of the Flemish masters—an experience that left a profound impression on me.

Even though my father was European and my mother was from the North, somehow I grew up in Waco, Texas—a small conservative city at the buckle of the Bible Belt. Texas felt like a family member itself, with Mexican folk art, carnival sideshows, hand made signage, and all the crazy touchstones of the South that were foreign to my parents. That mix of influences shaped both my taste in art and a sense of observation that has served me well in my work. I also believe that early travel made me particularly comfortable with new places; of all the great gifts my parents gave me, travel may have been the most valuable.

I received a BA in Art History and a BFA in Printmaking from Baylor, then went on to study at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Art Center was definitely a life-changer for me; the quality of instruction and the focus and talent of students brought out my A game, and prepared me for the long hours and dedication the field requires. Boot camp for artists, it was a profound experience that gave me focus and a sense of what could be done with my work.

I dove into the deep end of the pool—NYC—26 years ago, straight out of school, and have earned my keep making art ever since. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in that regard, and have had so many great experiences along the way, things that only this career could have afforded me.

Other than working as a busboy and dishwasher in Tex-Mex restaurant and behind the counter at a beer store, I’ve never held a job other than freelance artist. I guess all three were related to my passions!

My current space is a top floor loft with North-facing skylights behind me and a large terrace before me, overlooking the city.  A large, clean white space with blue skies all around—couldn’t ask for more.

I create my work the old-fashioned way: pencil and paint.  I use a modified version of the Old Masters technique, starting with an underdrawing on a primed wood panel, then a series of largely monochromatic and opaque layers of acrylic to model the image, adding color primarily through glazing and finish layers of oil. I like having something tangible at the end of the process of making an image, and couldn’t imagine a more modern (or efficient!) process that would be satisfying for me. Still, I deliver my commissions digitally, using a large format scanner and the tools required to get the work to my clients—something that allows me the freedom to continue traveling and working with people all over the world.

I can’t think of a specific project that broke things open for me—I believe this career is a series of steps on an interesting path, with the occasional majestic view. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep my eyes open. Still, I had a great deal of luck in meeting some incredible artists and designers in my early days, from instructors like David Mocarski and Phil Hays to legends like Milton Glaser, Wendell Minor, Joe Montebello, and Andy Carpenter. These generous artists and designers gave me advice, feedback, a model for how to make this career my own, as well as projects that helped me on my way.

As a kid, my influences ranged from Mad magazine to Albrecht Dürer—and arguably I’m still mining that vein. My upbringing in Texas also brought me closer to folk art and the influence of Mexican masters like Posada and Rivera. I’m drawn to work that has a dark humor and the awkward formality of folk and early Northern Renaissance art, as well as anything that tells a visual story.

I’ve had the honor of getting to know many great talents in this field, but among the most impressive were the late Paul Bacon, a true genius who created the “Big Book Look,” and Ed Lindlof, an accomplished illustrator who has turned his focus to sculpture in recent years and creates stunning and witty work. What I believe they have in common is a staggering work ethic combined with a sense of balance in life. Like many of the Old Masters, they create their work without pretension, yet with a level of dedication to their craft that’s rare in the modern world.

I think I’m well-suited to the long hours and isolation that can define this career, but I’m definitely a city-centric person, and my workspace allows me to walk out the door when I’m done and be in to the middle of the action. Getting out and seeing other people, as well as finding time to travel, helps re-energize me.

I’ll admit it: I have an art book problem. Luckily, there’s a limit to what I can fit on my bookshelves. When traveling, I’m often the guy waiting for the museum doors to be unlocked, and the last one they push out at the end of the day.

I just completed a series of paintings, drawings, and cover art for a new edition of Dante’s Inferno, which was both a tremendous amount of work and terrific fun. When you get paid to paint devils and monsters, it’s a very good day.

Music is a passion and I’ve had many dream assignments related to that love over the years, but one I’ve never achieved—I know this sounds weird!—is a portrait of a musician for a US stamp. There’s something at once ephemeral and of historical significance about stamps, and I guess the same could be said for popular music.

Hands down, DJ Stout. I’ve worked with DJ since his days as creative director at Texas Monthly, and have continued that relationship with him at Pentagram, where he’s been a partner for over a decade. There’s no one who has greater love for illustration and who fights harder for great work—and brings the very best design to the table to compliment it. We’re currently working on a project together that’s been five years in the making, redesigning a line of hydroponic nutrients—essentially pot growing products! It’s been one of the most well-received packaging launches in recent years. Always fun to work with, DJ knows how to bring out the best in the artists he chooses, and stand behind the results.

I’m proud to call Tim O’Brien a good friend, as I think he represents the best of what this field offers: integrity, compassion, humor, stunning craft, and intelligence. But I continue to be impressed with folks like Robert Hunt, Anita Kunz, Gérard DuBois, and Gary Taxali as well, who push their work in new places and solve problems in ways I could never dream of. And of course there are incredible talents emerging all the time, like Ed Kinsella, JooHee Yoon, Marco Wagner, all of whom confirm that this field keeps getting better—and that I’d better keep my A game up!

Editorial actually represents only a small part of my work, with the bulk being done for books, advertising, packaging, and galleries. Over my career I seem to have had waves of related commissions, for a time doing virtually nothing but books, then portraits, music, and more recently many projects for packaging (beer, wine, and scotch labels, for example). Galleries have become a bigger part of my focus as well, and I find the back and forth of influences between commissioned and personally-driven work to be critical to my development. The very best of my commissioned projects have come from the personal work I’ve created, which allow me to explore and give clients insight into new directions, and commissioned projects keep me engaged with storytelling and the world around me.

I’m certainly aware of the pressures the publishing industry faces—it’s something that’s been a focus for as long as I’ve worked professionally, and to some degree risk and change are factors in every artist’s life. Still, I’ve been lucky to have had a relatively stable and rewarding career. I believe new opportunities will present themselves if you remain engaged and excited about your work, and follow the paths your interests lead you down. I try to be driven by those interests rather than any perceived markets, and that’s been a good formula for me. I would never have thought I’d create art for albums, packages, books, clothing, and galleries as well, or to see my work on billboards, subways, or in animations. It’s an exciting career, and there always seem to be new opportunities that offer challenges and open doors to new things.

I think it takes a combination of efforts to stay on the radar, and with time it becomes harder to quantify which method is providing the most return. In the end, you have to focus on doing great work, but as the parable goes, don’t hide your light under a bushel—the world won’t find you unless you let them know you’re out there. I use my website, various social media platforms, blogging, and of course staying present in publications and competitions, and that mix seems to work best.

The ones who really want this—that can’t stop making images and can’t imagine another path for their lives—are the ones that will be successful. It’s relatively simple in that regard. But you can make your life a little easier by recognizing that it’s a marathon, and you should approach each project with professionalism and a sense of where you want the bigger journey to take you. Treat every project with respect, be thoughtful in the choices you make, and recognize you’re in this for the long haul.

See more Marc Burckhardt illustrations, new work, and updates here:
Marc Burckhardt website