Illustrator Profile - Mark Smith: "As long as I keep surprising myself I'm happy"

By Robert Newman   Thursday April 7, 2016

Mark Smith is based in the small English city of Exeter. He’s a prolific editorial illustrator, creating work for The New Yorker, ESPN, and many other publications, as well as posters, books, and even skateboards. Smith makes his illustrations with “pencil and printing inks to scan in lines and textures, which are then collaged in Photoshop.” The result is a series of smart, elegant pieces with a distinctive color palette and a look that is reminiscent of the graphic vintage posters Smith cites as inspiration. 

I live and work in a small city in England called Exeter. It’s the kind of place that the London creatives move to when they retire—I never got around to doing the London thing and ended up just staying here. I’ve been working as an illustrator for six years now; after trying and failing to stick at numerous “normal” jobs I figured I’d have a stab at doing something I’d wanted to do since I was a kid.

I left school in 1986 and all I wanted to do then was bum about on my skateboard. I didn’t have the confidence to chase something like illustration at that time and the only other jobs open to me were soul-crushingly bad jobs. Sooner or later I had to start earning some kind of living though, so I worked factory and warehouse jobs (too many to count and too depressing to remember). I’ve been a welder, photo-lab technician, gardener, manager for a record shop, did a stint as a stage hand for a traveling theater and I'm also a fully qualified Golf Greenkeeper.

No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t stick at any of these jobs, so at the age of 36 I took myself back to university to study something I actually wanted to do, rather than focusing on things I felt I should be doing. I studied at the University of Plymouth and I was actually lucky to get accepted onto the illustration course at all—I didn’t really have the right qualifications to get in but I was accepted on the basis of my portfolio. I really appreciated that platform for creativity and started to find out what was missing from all of the other jobs I’d tried up to that point.

I suppose I get that creative impulse from my grandfather; he was a stonemason who moved down to this neck of the woods from Scotland in the 30s. I think a lot of his work would have been industrial but he also carved statues. Some lions he carved are in one of the London parks.

At the moment my studio is in part of a big warehouse on a local industrial estate, which is kind of ironic given that I spent so many years hating these kinds of buildings. There’s a local artists collective in this area called EVA Studios that provide affordable studios and workspaces for artists. I joined them a couple of years ago and we rent an old auctioneers building that’s been split up into 40 or so studios; my space is right next to the kitchen and I think I annoy everyone by playing music too loudly while they’re making their cups of tea. It’s great to be surrounded by like-minded people; I’ve had studios on my own before and it can be a bit too lonely at times so it’s nice to have other people about the place.

My images always start with a lot of head scratching, pulling articles/briefs apart, and over-conceptualization before trying to simplify it all again into some kind of coherent message. From that point I use pencil and printing inks to scan in lines and textures, which are then collaged in Photoshop to make a finished image.

At the moment I’m messing with my conceptual approach a bit. That includes things as simple as changing where I do my sketching: at home in front of the TV can be good, or in the dining room with the radio on—anything to break up the normal pattern of work to hopefully stimulate new (for me) ideas. I’m also getting a bit fed up with coldly conceptual solutions; I want to add a bit more of a narrative feel to my editorial work. At the moment I’m really liking images that are a bit more open-ended and not quite so “nailed down” with regards to solutions. I think there should still be a “solution” in an image but I want that solution to be the indication of a direction towards a meaning, and not the absolute outlining of the meaning itself.

My first job came while I was still in University studying, so I guess that was my big break. My schedule got increasingly busy from that point; I went full time about 10 months after that job came in and now I’m at a point where I haven’t got time to take on everything I get asked to do. That first client was You Magazine, a supplement for the Mail on Sunday in the UK, and the art director was Linda Boyle. I can’t thank her enough for giving me a start in illustration and it was also on a later You Mag illustration that I made a particular discovery that led me on the path to my work looking the way it does today. It was only a small discovery but the ripple effect from that was pretty big, so thanks again Linda!

It’s hard to pick out major influences on my work; I don’t think my line work has changed much since I first learned to draw. I like to think that it’s got a bit more accurate over the years but the basic personality of the line is pretty much the same. The decisions I make when it comes to coloring have been subject to a bit more influence over the years. I was always attracted to graphic styles—the kind of thing you’d see on early 90s skateboard artwork. They were all screenprinted back then so limited color palettes were typical. A lot of the content of the mid- to late-80s graphics were all skulls and stuff but Jim Phillips came up with an evolving graphic for the Rob Roscopp board which was interesting, and later on Steve Rocco and his subsidiary companies took this kind of conceptual approach with board graphics to the limit. No subject was out of bounds as far as they were concerned, including the space shuttle disaster, which was one of their more iconic examples of “not giving a shit” while at the same time producing something that was artistically relevant with a clear and concise message. If I can ever get half way towards emulating this lack of fear in my own work I’d be happy. I think it’s harder with commissioned work because we’ve got the client (and their own message) to consider but I think there’s definitely a space for it.

I really couldn't pick one person, I admire the intelligence of Jello Biafra, the dedication of Ian MacKaye, the draftsmanship of Bernie Fuchs, the freedom of Tomi Ungerer and the tenacity of Novak Djokovic (not strictly a creative but there’s definitely art in that talent). They'’e enough to make any normal human feel like a really rubbish person.

I’ve got a collection of old poster books that I look at quite frequently, everything from travel posters to film posters. Looking at the beauty of those images energizes me to go out and try to create some beauty of my own. I like to keep up with the award annuals—American Illustration is a cracking annual with lovely presentation, the Society of Illustrators annual is fantastic, as is 3X3. Some of the responses to commissions that are exhibited in these books are inspiring and make me want to spend a few more hours of head scratching before I send off my sketches. 

Working alone can get a bit lonely at times, particularly during busy periods which can sometimes last for months at a time, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything. I can’t get any proper work done with anyone else around, and once I’ve immersed myself into the job of the day, time seems to fly anyway so it’s not so bad. I tend to need a break from it every now and then just to re-energize, talk to some other humans, go for a surf, do a bit of DIY, anything to get a bit of distance from the work and give myself a fresh perspective.

I had a few cool assignments this past year. The Savannah Music Festival poster was great to work on; I also worked on another book for The Folio Society which are always a pleasure to do and I was really happy with the results from that. A slightly more unusual one (for me) was the poster for the Sleaford Mods gig at Exeter Cavern Club. My wife runs the venue and she’d been talking about them in the lead up to the gig. I hadn’t heard them before so in a quiet period at the studio I looked them up and they blew me away. I started working on a poster for the gig almost immediately. I used a process similar to what the Folio Society require for their covers—they block print those with foil so the colors are limited to three. Since then the band have used it for their full tour poster and I ended up selling a load of posters through my website.

Got to be a New Yorker cover, I think that’s still the top of the mountain.

I always enjoy working with Sheri Gee at the Folio Society, I’ve illustrated two books with her and both have been a pleasure to work on. My latest one hasn’t been released yet but it’s a Josephine Tey novel called A Shilling For Candles. There’s loads of room for visual interpretation with Tey’s novels and Sheri has an uncanny knack of picking my favorite sketches from the options I submit. She obviously knows the business inside out and her name alone is enough to attract some of the best illustrators out there.

There’s loads of people out there doing some really fantastic work but some standouts for me are: Gerard DuBois—perfectly and poetically positioned ideas that are beautifully rendered; Leo Espinosa—his work for The New Yorker makes me wonder why I bother trying, he has stylistic acuity on top of great ideas; Guy Billout—no explanation needed here; Sterling Hundley—oozes so much talent and spits it in your face in a way that makes you feel so grateful for his existence; and so many others that remind me on a daily basis that I must try harder.

I tend to stick to the conventional avenues for illustration. A big part of my love for the job comes from the process of turning a chunk of text into an image. I never know what I’m going to end up with when I start a job so as long as I keep surprising myself I’m happy.

As of yet I’ve been lucky enough not to have to look too far for clients, I’m sure the future will throw up challenges that I haven’t come across yet so when that does happen all I can do is hope that I’m up to the challenge.

Outside of a basic web presence (personal website, iSpot portfolio, AltPick portfolio, etc.) I started off by using mailing lists. I think these are the most direct way of putting work under AD's noses—and in my opinion they get the quickest results—but having said that it’s been a long while since I’ve sent anything out. I’ve always tried to enter as many competitions as possible (as long as there’s an annual attached to it); these are a bit more of a slow burner but provide something that unjuried sourcebooks can’t get close to. I go through phases with social media. I’m actually sick of it at the moment but I still post about any success I might have had, whether that’s a successful image or a competition acceptance. I also use a rep—Richard Salzman at Salzman International. He’s fantastic and because my networking skills are so very bad he’s pretty much a necessity for me. If I could get him into a Mark Smith disguise and present himself as me at any public events then I would. There’s a good reason that I ended up in a job that requires being cooped up in a room on my own for weeks on end—it’s where I'm most content.

It’s so difficult to hone all of your skills in the short time you spend in education so keep focused on an honest direction for your work, try to be keenly aware of your weakest areas and work to improve them without becoming overwhelmed by them—and enjoy the journey. Tenacity is far more important than talent. Networking skills probably wouldn’t do you any harm either but then I wouldn’t know much about that.

See more Mark Smith illustrations, new work, and updates here:
Mark Smith website
Twitter: @markillustrates
Saltzman International (rep)


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