Turning Words into Images: Illustrator Mark Smith

Editorial illustrator Mark Smith wields scenes from athletics, the great outdoors, and other everyday settings to craft metaphors in a single frame.

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Mark Smith has created illustrations for dozens of publications including AdWeek, ESPN Magazine, Fast Company, Money Magazine, The Times UK, Variety, and The Washington Post, in addition to corporate clients like Penguin Books and Pentagram. The 45-year-old resident of Exeter, Devon, England, uses subtle colors and screenprinted textures to turn complicated topics into clever visual metaphors. Some hallmarks? Athletes, golf courses, boats, and perplexed characters striving for something just out of reach. Smith just completed work on six covers for an anniversary edition of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, soon to be re-released in its original serialized format.

 When did you realize you wanted to be an illustrator?

I used to draw a lot as a kid—I think I made that transition from potato people with stick arms to something at least resembling a normal human quite early, and I probably enjoyed the praise that comes from doing something you’re moderately good at. I used to copy a lot from comics, Asterix being an obsession of mine for a long time. The local library had some early French copies that I’d get out just to look at the drawing, I had no idea what was going on in the story—my French was, and still is, awful. I also remember hassling my dad to buy me Mad magazine because I fell in love with the drawing—obviously the humor went completely over my head but there’s something in the linework of those artists that all ages can pick up on.

But the schools I went to didn’t exactly encourage the arts as a potential career path. I had no idea it was possible to make a living out of this stuff unless you were an absolute genius, or minted in the first place, and I was neither of these. So I ended up, unwillingly, doing what I thought I was supposed to do and tried to fit into the factory fodder mentality that my school seemed to promote. The drawing pretty much fell away completely, and from leaving school up until my 30’s I had countless ill-fated jobs that I did my best to turn into careers. Photo lab technician, warehouse worker, postman, golf greenkeeper, gardener and loads more. In the end I felt like I’d tried pretty much everything, and none of it was going to work for me so I decided to have a go at doing what I really wanted to do in the first place. I I was lucky enough to be accepted to the illustration program at Plymouth University on the strength of my portfolio, and I’ve kept myself out of a “real” job ever since. I can’t think of anything better than being offered a platform, and cash, to realize a wandering imagination.

Can you say a little about your first paid illustration gig?

My first job came while I was still in the final year of my degree—it was for You Magazine from the Mail on Sunday. I’d set up a basic online presence, website, blog etc, and then bought one of the Association of Illustrator’s mailing lists and started sending out samples to ADs in the editorial field. I’d get maybe 10 responses for every hundred emails but that was enough to encourage me to keep it up. Then I got the email from Linda Boyle at You, commissioning me for a full page and a spot image for a story about how divorce affects children. This really felt like the deep end at the time. It was terrifying but I managed to get through the job and it was published a few weeks later. I had a couple more commissions before I graduated, one from Management Today and another from Linda at You. I can’t thank these ADs enough for giving me a start. Education can only begin to prepare you for what’s expected, the real learning gets done on the job and having ADs like Linda around is invaluable—without her early support I’d probably be back in a factory somewhere now.

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The ESPN Magazine series is great. How did that relationship come about? How does the creative process work? Do they give you the article and give you free rein?

ESPN has been my longest running client, stretching back for over three years now. I’m not sure how they became aware of my work, but I had been using a few sporting metaphors in some of the more business/finance commissions I was getting around that time—they might have seen those and thought I could be a good fit for them. They’re great to work for—the job is pretty much the same as any other commission in that I get sent a story (or synopsis) and then I work out at least three different options for them to choose from and we go to final from there. I have done jobs in the past where the client dictates what they want me to draw but they are rare for me; it never really feels like my image if someone else has told me what to draw, so I don’t get the same fulfillment from the finished image. Every now and then it’s fun to realize someone else’s idea, but I wouldn’t want that to be all I did.

Talk a little about your process. Pen and ink? Computer? Both?

My process now involves lots of sketching to get the idea right. Once I’ve got a sketch approved, I work it into a finished drawing and then color in Photoshop. Over the years I’ve amassed a large collection of scanned in textures that I make using printing inks and rollers, or drawing inks and sponges etc. I separate all of the linework in Photoshop and fill in using these textures. I think it’s pretty much a 50/50 process—half traditional, half digital—which just about satisfies my need to create something tangible while also allowing easy editing with last-minute changes on a tight deadline.

This story was about the baseball player, Bud Norris, making some ill-judged comments and later regretting them. I initially only get sent a synopsis for the ESPN jobs, so I try to cover a few potential directions that the full story might focus on. If I remember right, there was some kind of religious basis for his comments, so I touched on this in a couple of the options. In the text there was a suggestion towards the rules governing what professional sports people can and can’t say, so with the first rough I tried to cover this; the second one (which was selected) is a straight up delivery of something that bounces back to cause damage to the deliverer; and with the third one I wanted to focus on the shaky foundation that these comments were being delivered from.

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Sports seem to play a huge role in your illustrations. Are you a former athlete? Were you particularly good or bad at sports?

I was never much good at conventional sports; I’m [nearsighted] which doesn’t help much and I wasn’t too keen on wearing glasses when I was younger. I play a bit of golf now, I love playing darts and I started surfing this year but I wouldn’t describe any of it as athletic, at least not the way I do it.

There’s something about sport that seems to fulfill some kind of basic human requirements. Drawing sports is great. I don’t think my draughtsmanship is necessarily a natural bedfellow for the energy in a sporting image, possibly quite the opposite. There’s a weighty connotation to the printing inks I use, and I don’t think my linework has the energy that some illustrators can muster but it might be these opposites to the innate energy in the content of a sporting image that make it work. They’re loads of fun for me to do so it might just be that joy showing through.

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You’re quite talented at placing metaphors in your work—the speechwriter in Obama’s shadow and “Ex-employee badmouths you on Twitter.” Is that one challenge of editorial illustration that you’re particularly drawn to?

I see the metaphor thing like a puzzle to work out in the form of an illustration, and once created, I want it to be a bit of a puzzle for the viewer to find out that meaning. The perfect balance is in creating something that is intriguing enough to maintain someone’s attention just long enough for the meaning to become clear. If the puzzle is too complex, the image won’t deliver its meaning; if it’s too simple, it’s boring and loses its appeal quickly. It’s this balance that drew me to editorial illustration in the first place. There are some real masters of this kind of work out there, and when it’s successful I think it’s illustration performing at its very best, offering something that only illustration can. The actual process for me is often full of anxiety, second-guessing myself at every step, but on the occasions that it works, it’s worth it.

See more of Mark Smith’s illustration work.

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