Mark D. Bird had a long professional career, working in the architectural illustrator and design field for over forty years. During this time, Bird also painted, producing commemorative edition artworks for public and private events, businesses, agencies and a multitude of other clientele. Most recently he received his Signature Member status in the National Watercolor Society and kicked off his career as a full-time painter.
What is it that architecture as a subject matter offers you as an artist? What does it allow you to play with and explore in your work? (example: shapes, color, even travel, etc)
As subject matter, architecture offers unlimited potential for painting. My focus is historical subjects, but even contemporary architecture has a never-ending supply of compositions.
I often look at a subject and see beyond what is obvious, to find another layer of color, texture, design and context. To be able to use your eyes to not only look at a subject, but to SEE it in a different manner is always enlightening for me.
I am trying to live by the mantra, that unless I have been in contact with my subject, I will not consider painting it. I am quite fortunate at this stage of my life to be able to travel and discover subjects for painting up close and personal. It is through this emotional contact, that I connect with a subject and therefore can approach a painting on a completely different level.
What are the individual stages that make up your painting process? What problems are you solving at each of the stages?
I begin my work with a pencil sketch and usually a preliminary, small study painting. This allows me to work out composition, lighting, palette and various other details before beginning the actual painting.
Once I have completed a pencil layout, I start with overall washes, working from background toward foreground, adding middle ground shapes and textures along the process.
I complete my work by adding enough detail to engage the viewer, but stop short of photographic detail, to allow the brain and one’s imagination to connect the dots.
How has your process evolved as you’ve become a more skilled painter? Has it gotten faster or slower? Why? (And how?)
I can be frustrated by my own thoughts and processes. I have evolved my painting skills to allow me to analyze a subject long before I ever touch a brush to paper. It is by virtue of the many, countless hours of trial and error, which has brought me to this comfort zone.
That said, there is from time to time, the intimidation of the white paper, which keeps me humble! Many times, no matter how much I want a painting to hurry to completion, I realize I simply cannot give less than my best, each time I pick up a brush. Sometimes, this means working longer on a piece, but also can mean stopping earlier than originally planned. After all, allowing the viewer to participate in my art by adding detail via one’s imagination is an integral part of the art-making process.
For someone who wants to have buildings and the landscape be a part of their work, what are the most important things to work on and understand?
I am the first to admit that having had a long, professional career as an architectural illustrator, I have an advantage that other artists might not have when painting architecture…and the landscape as well, for that matter. To paint architectural subjects, it is necessary to understand basic construction methods and principles in order to be convincing in one’s translation into art. It is also quite helpful to have a working knowledge of all manner of our landscape. A wise person once told me that the best tools for any artist are one’s eyes. When you perfect the process of “seeing,” not just “looking” through your eyes, you will tap the vast potential of your subjects.
How much do you rely on photographs? How much do you translate photographs? What do you use from the photographs generally and what do you augment through artistic license?
I record my travels through photography and use select images to translate into paintings. I utilize photography to establish the basic architectural composition, but take many liberties when it comes to my artistic expression of the actual environment. This is the true beauty of art for me: record what I see and supplement what I interpret it to become.
Where in your process do you really consider composition and design? What is your process for thinking through design possibilities? What questions are you asking yourself at this stage of thinking?
I consider composition and design long before I begin a piece. Herein lies the point for me, at which illustration becomes art. I usually know in advance which direction a painting will take, and set about my path to proceed through my process.
In most of the paintings I produce, I have “seen” them completed before I begin. In other words, I have a keen visualization of the finished product before I start. My days as an architectural illustrator have given me great powers of visualization, which I now utilize in the production of my paintings.
That is not to say I still don’t experience pure spontaneity…I certainly do. Many times during the course of a painting, the road detours to a much better, more beautiful place!
How do you approach color? How much have you decided (for example, a color scheme or dominant colors) before you start a piece? How much of your color choices happen while you’re painting the piece itself?
When I look at a subject for a proposed painting, I’m analyzing many aspects of my interpretation of it. One of the key aspects is color, not only the color palette inherent in the subject (usually architectural) but also the palette of the context of the environment. Will I alter the actual palette? Will I duplicate the palette I see for the building, but alter the contextual color…or vice versa?
I carefully consider my choices before I begin, and sometimes during the course of painting, it seems only natural to allow the process to guide the results. These spontaneous decisions sometimes lead to the best work. I have a favorite color palette that I prefer, which seems to complement my general subject matter, but add a few local colors occasionally for spice!
There is so much detail in your work and yet your paintings aren’t busy. How do you create all this interest without overwhelming the eye?
My subjects usually speak for themselves without lots of manipulating on my part. I will begin by seeing the major solid areas of my compositions: sky, land, and buildings. These are then given a priority of interest and painted accordingly.
Generally, architecture is complete without artistic meddling. I only interfere with the original intent of architecture, by my interpretation of it. If a building is laden with details, I try to hone in on a specific area for high-level execution and let the viewer’s eyes and imagination fill in the blanks. Sometimes I paint only a specific detail of a building, without the whole context of the entire structure.
As a landscape painter, how is perspective important to your work? What parts of perspective do you use most and how?
Coming from a background of architectural illustration, my whole life is all about perspective…all the time! One method of testing your perspective skills is to complete your perspective drawing and view it upside down. If there are any glaring mistakes, they will jump off the page! Placing a drawing out of normal context will accentuate lines out of place, etc.
Again, if you have a basic knowledge of construction, it’s much easier to understand perspective, and therefore illustrate it. I utilize atmospheric perspective when painting watercolors, as the medium is naturally geared for this technique.
Until very recently, you worked full time as an architectural illustrator and designer. Also very recently you became a signature member of NWS (congratulations!) What advice do you have for people with full-time jobs who want to be excellent painters? Where would you advise them to focus their (limited and precious) time and attention?
The best advice I can offer to become an excellent painter is quite simple: GO PAINT! For me, studying the work of various painters I admire is very helpful. I just returned from travels to England, where I walked the same ground as Turner, Constable, Cotman, and others. To imagine that I was where they were is mind-boggling, and precious knowledge.
If you’re going to become a great painter, follow the work of great painters. I was working full time in my illustration career when I had my first solo exhibition. It took 3 years to assemble what I considered to be enough work to exhibit. I was only going to SHOW these 16 paintings, but was encouraged by a mentor to SELL the pieces…which happened with 1 hour!
I was honored recently by acceptance of my work into the NWS 2018 98th International Open Exhibition and concurrently inducted into their Signature Membership. To say this is the honor of a lifetime is quite an understatement and I encourage you to paint whenever and wherever possible.
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