Mark Powell uses nothing but a simple Bic Biro ballpoint pen to create incredibly detailed portraits of the elderly. His chosen canvases are antique documents dating from 1763 onwards. His aim is to portray what can be produced with the most basic tool whilst creating a relationship between the canvas and image.
What initially triggered this idea of drawing on antique documents?
I was given an envelope that was sent from the WWI front line. Just before the soldier went over the trenches, he scribbled a note to his loved ones. Because he went over the top its unlikely that he came back, and almost a hundred years later I end up with this envelope. I decided to draw him as an old man - and then it snowballed.
What's the oldest document you have ever acquired?
1760. It was a deed for a farmhouse.
Do you sometimes become attached to the documents you find? Are they sometimes too precious to draw on?
It's the opposite - I want to draw on it. I usually have a selection process. Some of them I wont touch for a few months until I find the best image to make maximum use of it.
Have you always used a biro?
Yes I always have. I used to be a painter and I always sketched my paintings out in biro. In my sketchbooks I always scribble away with a biro.
Is it because there's more control with a pen? Why Bic biro?
It's two things really. It's just to show what you can actually do with the simplest things. It's the most basic thing I could find. And it's the challenge as well. If you make a mistake you destroy two things: the drawing and the document. I like that pressure to get it right.
What do you do when you make a mistake? Do you keep the work?
They'll be lying around somewhere. I usually discard them because I feel guilty.
Where do you find the vintage documents? You recently went to Amsterdam and found a little gem. Do you research particular places or is it a case of stumbling across them?
It's just pure chance really. I've been to Stockholm a few times so I know which streets to go to. Paris is always a good spot - it doesn't take long to get to and when you walk around there a so many markets outside. It's perfect. You get an idea. The one in Amsterdam just looked like a normal bookshop, but when I went in there it was crazy.
Do you translate the foreign documents? Or is it just about the aesthetic?
If there's a headline I want to know a general idea of what's going on so I can match the drawing.
Does the document inspire the portrait?
Yes. I have a general idea of what I've got so when I find a photo of someone I'll know if it fits, like if it needs more colour or text for the complete aesthetic value. There needs to be an interaction. Some are more obvious than others. I've drawn one that was on a 1920s supplement for the World's Fair. It was a market traders review a week before the black market crash in America. It was saying "Happy New Year" and "good luck " for what was to come and so I drew a praying man. It worked together.
Who are the characters in the drawings? Where do you get the imagery?
This one (points) was given to me. Normally I just take them on my phone, or sketch them.
So are they a combination of your imagination as well as the photographic image?
Yes there's an element of artist license I supposed, but its good to have something to work form. It can usually take on its own life.
Most of your portraits are of the elderly. Have you ever considered drawing a younger subject?
I've drawn one child. And that was a commission. It took me about 4 months.
Why is that? Is that because the older faces connect better with the documents?
Yes they both have that history and sense of journey. Nothing else would work. There's no character or sense of history in a child's face. Its more optimism if anything, which can still be seen in an older face but it has that ambiguity as well.
So do you try and limit commissions?
Yes - I do them occasionally. Some times people ask me to draw their grandparents, which is fine.
Do you ever get people to sit for you?
No I just work from photos. It would take too long. I much prefer that. They'd have to sit for too long.
What's the average time it takes to create a drawing?
On average I'd say a day and a half or two days to get one done generally. But my large maps took a month of solid drawing.
Is there a predominant country or type of document in your collection?
I've had a lot of war-based letters that were sent from Rome in 1943 to loved ones, but there's such a diverse collection. I've only used a Japanese piece once, and they work really nicely. I've got some old documents from the turn of the 19th century of repossessions of houses. So it falls into place where 100 years later the same thing's happened.
How long have you been doing this for?
Two years. It's been a bit insane.
It's taken off really quickly hasn't it? What was the starting point?
It was Colossal magazine. I was working at a mundane job in an office by myself and used to doodle a lot. This particular night, Chris from Colossal sent me an email saying he liked my stuff and he'd put it up on the website and all these floods of emails started to come through - and within an hour it was all gone. There were emails from all over the world. From that I had show offers and its just snowballed - I cant do enough work.
Do you do this full time now?
Yes for coming up to a year now, which has been lucky because I was a painter before.
You painted at the University of Huddersfield didn't you? What did you study?
Fine art painting and drawing. I ended up there by accident. I woke up a little late one day and got fired from my job and because I had nothing to do I thought I'd look around the studio spaces. The tutor came up to me and we chatted. I wasn't planning on going to Uni for a while - I wanted to come down to London and study. She asked if I had any work on me and I showed her my scribbles. They were biro drawings ironically - lots of landscapes of Greece. She sat me down in her office and asked me to fill out all these forms, then I went across to student admissions and I thought, "This is weird'". She then took me back to the studios and said "This is your space'. It's bizarre.
It was a bit of trouble as well because I had been looking after myself for so long. Since I was 16 I'd had so many jobs that I had to prove to the Student Loans Company that they could pay my fees. It took over 12 months so I had to juggle a job and Uni, and try to find a house. I had to knock around the streets for a while because I had nowhere to live. But they eventually paid me.
Do you think it was worth it? Has that prepared you for now?
Yes. Straight out of Uni me and a friend got shows in America. We were painting the sides of huge buildings and big mazes commissioned by galleries. So we hung around Reno and Vegas and saw a bit of the West Coast, which was fun.
Interesting that you've been involved with Street Art previously now you are about to exhibit with Hang-Up, which started predominantly as a Street Art Gallery, and now represents a vast selection of street artists. Do you still do that?
Not really. At Uni me and my friends would walk around the streets and do huge paintings - mostly random lines of poetry. For the final degree show one guy was looking at my stuff and said, "I recognize that writing, is this your stuff?" And I said "Yes'", and he was like "Because I clean the walls, you know. It brightens up my day."
Do you miss painting?
Oh yes. Massively.
And do you still do it occasionally?
Simply don't have time.
What did you use?
Oil, spray paint, house paint, acrylic paint. It was almost controlled mess on found materials such as crates and bits of doors.
Do you have any images?
Before I went away [to Australia] I destroyed everything.
They weren't very good. I took photos but it was nice to unburden myself.
You've exhibited in the USA. Where else?
Barcelona and the UK. I did some print work in Australia.
What's been your most successful/enjoyable exhibition?
The most enjoyable would be the ones in America. There was a bunch of us just drinking, playing pool and painting.
Is it mainly portraits you're interested in drawing? Some of your work incorporates birds. Is this for any reason?
Yes - the birds represent freedom and a flight path. People go nuts for the birds. I think its because I don't have many of them.
Where were you born?
How long have you been living in London?
I've been here about 4 - 5 years now. I was working at job looking after people who were doing medical tests and my friend called me up and asked if I wanted to move to London. So that was it.
You live in Hackney now. Have you always been East?
Mostly. I lived in New Cross for a while with a bunch of artists, drawing.
You were recently in Sydney. What were you doing there?
I just got really bored of London so I went to Melbourne. I only went to Sydney to get a tattoo as the guy who did it has the same name as me. People mix us up all the time.
Did you trust him to do one of your own works?
He tattoos old faces and is famous in his own right, so there was no problem. We did it to confuse a lot of people. I wanted to be able to say "Mark Powell on Mark Powell by Mark Powell."
The other day I got an interview request from Skin Deep - the number one tattooing magazine in the UK. I had to clear with them it wasn't the guy in Australia that they were after. It wasn't.
Do you travel a lot? I can imagine this inspires your work.
I try to. Everywhere I go I try to find documents and people.
What's been the best place?
People-wise it was Melbourne. You'd be sat on a tram and these fantastic old faces would be opposite you. I wanted to do a series of aborigines but I didn't have enough time to collect or find any documents. I saw the occasional act of racism, which was disgusting. There's a big political mess with that - the way they have been pushed away. I wanted to do the series to highlight that. When I go back, I want to do that.
Why did you want to exhibit at Hang-Up?
You have some amazing artists you represent - like Blu. It's a really good stable of artists.
Which artist inspires you? What one piece of artwork would you like to own?
Anything by Basqiat.
He inspires you still now?
Yes. I'm fairly ignorant of other work. I do see other shows, but most things irritate me. That in itself makes me want to do something to make me feel better.
Do you have a collection of art?
I've got bits of stuff but I move a lot so its difficult - I have a stack of artists that want to swap a drawing for a drawing or a painting for a painting. Once I find a base I'll be able to expand.
What would be your ultimate gallery to display in?
I haven't really thought of that. I suppose anywhere that Basquiat is showing. I could be on a street corner and that would be fine.
What's your number one place to visit?
Probably Stockholm. I've been there a few times. It's the most relaxed I've ever been. Berlin's cool as well.
If you could draw anyone, who would it be?
My friends Mum Carol - I've drawn her a couple of times. She's the only one I'd draw that I know of. She has an amazing face. It's so characterful. This is her. I've drawn her on Swedish postcards. Some kid called Craig was dying of an illness and made it his mission to get all these postcards from around the world and I ended up with some of them. I got them from Brighton. It's bizarre where things end up.
When someone buys your work do you tell them about the people in the drawings?
No, because the envelopes carry enough - they carry a story. People can take whatever they choose.
Do you listen to music when you work? What do you listen to?
Constantly. I can't do anything without it. It depends. Mostly it's folk-based. There's a lot of weird stuff - like acid drum and bass. The type of music governs your speed. You listen to something fast and you realise an hour's passed and you've had seven cups of tea! I'm always aware of what's going on around me. So it gets me in the zone.
Do you play an instrument?
No unfortunately. I've bought about six guitars and haven't played a single one. I once played piano at a bar mitzvah...but that was a very short career.
When you're not working, what do you like to do?
Read. I like Russian literature. If I'm not drawing on the documents I'm drawing on a sketchbook and thinking about what's next.
Do you always have a sketchbook on you?
Yes. So if I'm sat in a pub I can sketch away. I write sentences as well. It's like a trigger that will guide me.
What's next for you? Are you going to continue drawing or do you have other plans?
I sometimes show with Curios Duke Gallery. They want something for July. I've got a little thing with Bankside Gallery soon. Galleries in LA and Amsterdam have also been talking about solo shows. I've turned down three shows in the past two weeks because there's just so much to do.
Are you doing the Other Art Fair again this year?
If I can, I will. It just depends how busy I am. But sales are always good. I've sold out in the last two shows. I have the nickname of 'Whitewall'.
What do you want people to come away with when viewing the show at Hang-Up?
I want to make people realise what you can do with the simplest things, and leave a sense of ambiguity.
Do you have a favourite piece of yours?
I think this one (points) might be my favourite. It's called 'Speaking in Tongues (Prattle)'.
'Drawing on History' runs from 27 July - 1 Sep 2013 at Hang Up Gallery, 56 Stoke Newington High Street.
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