Mark Elton is part digital artist, part philosopher, one foot planted firmly in hearty soil of the Midwest and the other foot dancing through alternate realities. And despite his love for modern techniques, chatting with him felt like a trip in time to Vaudeville, for his personality is as much a part of his show as his art.
Tell us who you are and what you do.
My name’s Mark Elton. I am a digital artist I guess… Right now I guess I’m most famous for drawing animal portraits. (chuckles) Currently, I’m working on a couple different projects - the primary one being a book called Atypical Animal Book. It’s going to be a series of portraits that are creatures that aren’t as common. You aren’t going to have a cat or a dog in there; you’re going to have axolotl and narwhal in there. In addition to that, you’ll also have a small fact to accompany the portrait so you learn something about the animal, too.
How are you finding these animals?
A little bit of everything really. I’ve sent out a couple of feelers, posting questions like “What are the most unusual animals you’ve ever heard of?” and then I’ll get responses back and throw those on the list. Sometimes I’ll search Google for bizarre, interesting, unusual animals. For example, there is the panda ant. It’s black and white, and despite being called the panda ant, it is actually a type of wingless wasp. I started working on [the panda ant] last night and this is just a rough sketch so I know what I’m going from. So from here the next step would be form painting. Often times, I’ll start in black and white because it’s easier for me to figure out from where the light source is going to come.
Have you always been a digital artist?
I could go back to my start as a digital artist in college or you could make an argument for my start being before that. My earliest memory of working in digital art would actually be when I was 11 or 12, in middle school though, when I got really obsessed with this video game - Super Mario RPG - and it had these pre-rendered 3D graphics, which was amazing for the time. So these characters looked amazing and I was fascinated by them and even moreso the strategy guide where I got to see them fully rendered - the high resolution art. And I started looking closer and thinking that I could do something like that on the computer. So I opened up MacPaint on my Macintosh Performa and drew a circle and I started shading it, pixel by pixel. So there were no advanced tools - I was using a mouse - and I got what I felt was a fairly close representation of what I saw in the game. Of course we didn’t have a color printer and I never saved it… (laughs)
Before that, I used those Daily Planner’s in school. I never filled them with assignments, only doodles and illustrations. I was never paying attention in class. I was always drawing.
However, when I was moving on to college, I got my first computer and then I decided to experiment a lot more with digital art. The year after I got the computer, I picked up a small, basic tablet and I got Photoshop, so I started painting and drawing in there. I’d still draw on paper with pencil and ink, and then I’d scan it in and add color. At the time, I was really into comics so I’d focus on that. College was great for that because I’d get done with class on Friday afternoon, go back to my dorm room, and paint on my computer from 5pm until 5am the next morning. Then I’d just crash and after hanging out with some people, do it all again on Saturday night.
When I was at Concordia, I took a painting class with Prof. Boggs, and at that point I felt like painting wasn’t really my thing. I learned a lot, but I never really felt comfortable with oil paint, and acrylic dried out too quickly. It just never felt right in my hands. Instead when I got to take an independent study in design, it became write, draw, design, and publish my own comic book. It was about this guy who has been estranged from his siblings. He got abducted and indoctrinated into this cult so he ran away from that and is now on a mission to find his family.
Did you grow up in a creative household?
I grew up in a musical household. I would always be sent to piano lessons and I was encouraged to do band or choir. The art stuff was always my thing. But because no one else in my family had any experience in it, they didn’t know how to approach it. They didn’t really realize how important to me it was. To me, more than I was creative, I was imaginative. Once I moved out to the country, I had massive tracts of land to explore, and trees to climb, and holes to crawl into. I used to try and imagine what it would be like if a giant was standing right in front of me. After awhile, just imagining it wasn’t enough. That’s where the creation aspect came in… to make these worlds I had imagined real. I never thought that it would be something that’d I do for a living, it was just a way to get all these things in my head out of my head so I can think about other things.
What are the pros and cons of digital art?
Nothing’s permanent in digital. I mess this ant up and I throw away all the layers and start again. I can change it, change the color, and do all that. With physical medium, there’s an instant permanence of each and every stroke you take. For me, physical media require more planning. [Digital] is so much more experimental. I would say that often times when I’m done with the drawing process, I’ll spend another fifteen minutes tweaking - brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, tone. Sometimes I get done with that, it’s not working, and I’ll throw all of those changes away and go back to the original drawing. I couldn’t do as much of that with physical medium. You can only draw pencil on top of pencil so much before the paper is permanently smudged or worn.
Why does digital feel more natural to you?
I think it’s a combination of a lot of things, one of which is my early adoption of the tablet. Before I was doing anything for assignments, I was staying up all night with my own tablet so I had to learn hand eye coordination so I could be drawing something or writing something without having to actually look at it.
Are there things you can do in digital (beyond process) that you can’t on paper?
There’s a lot of light work that goes into my pieces. When you’re talking about digital, you’re talking about pushing pixels on a screen, the light coming into your eyes. With a drawing, any light coming into your eyes is bouncing off the medium you’re leaving behind. You can’t produce something as luminous as this owl’s eyes without being very meticulous about the paints you’re mixing. On the other hand, when I want the owl’s eyes to glow, I can go over them with a color dodge overlay.
How long does a typical piece take?
It varies. Sometimes it can take as little as three hours. My longest piece to date took over twenty hours. That was my three-headed dragon.
How do you know when a piece is finished?
For me a piece is finished when I can look at it and not feel embarrassed about showing it to someone else.
Where do you keep your art?
[Pulls out an old brown suitcase] This is my traveling sales case. (laughs) This is my dad’s old suitcase. I was home one day and I had a craft show coming up. I needed to figure out a way to display my work. So I trip over my dad’s suitcase and think, “This is it. This is a sign.” He’s also a little excited that his suitcase is getting a new life.
Why are so many of your prints square?
Since I’m a digital art, a lot of what I do ends up in a digital environment, specifically Instagram. I post all my pieces to Instagram before I post them anywhere else. Until recently, they only allowed you to post square images so even if I was producing them in a 5:7 ratio, I would have to crop them anyways. I liked the square format, and apparently others did too
What does work-art balance look like to you?
Everything I do in carpentry is so that I can continue doing art. I chose carpentry because it’s relatively creative in its own right. I get to learn a new trade while doing it, but I also don’t take my work home with me. Previously when I had an office job, I’d always be thinking “I need to get this done before Friday and this done before Thursday…” and it detracts from the art. Back then, what would often happen is that I’d rush home from the office on Friday, drink a pot of coffee, and work from 5 p.m. until 5 a.m. on art stuff. It felt like I was back in college. (chuckles) But now I don’t have to do that. I get home at 3 p.m., throw on a movie, and start drawing.
Why are you an artist?
At first it was so I could focus more. By getting those ideas out of my head and onto paper, I could better focus on the world around me. Later on, it was to pass classes in college and then afterwards it brought me satisfaction. And getting reactions and affirmations from others make me feel like I have a place in the world and that this is one way to communicate with people.
What are you inspired by?
Nature and the interaction of people with nature. Even the things that we consider to be unnatural are actually natural when you compare them to the world. Beehives are natural - collecting resources and changing them into a structure that they inhabit. How is that natural but a house is not? Trying to figure out our place in the world as well as trying to figure out what is right, what is wrong...those are the types of thoughts that really cycle through my mind as I work.
From a visual standpoint, a lot of animation and video games have influenced me because the worlds there are so vibrant and lush. I can not only explore the world I live in, but also a world that’s a little more magical and scientifically progressive.
Describe where you work.
We’re in the living area of my apartment. The pros of this are that I get to work as long and as late as I want to without having to worry about getting back home. The cons are that I can work as long and as late as I want to without having to worry about getting back home.
What’s on your playlist right now?
Mystery Skulls is probably the one I’m more excited about right now. The Gorillaz right playing now because I watched a fascinating video about what they made as a reaction to the fake realism of MTV personalities.
What do you hope people take away from your work?
This thing that people call the human experience involves trying to make connections with other people despite not being able to truly know what they think or feel. My art is how I express myself. I want to convey this sense of wonder that I have for the world. I don’t like hearing people say that they’re bored. Are you kidding me?! Have you even been to *this* park or examined this spot? Even though our world seems mundane in comparison to fictional universes, that’s just a matter of perspective. Everything about the real world is a swirling pot of chaos and any semblance of order is art!
How has your art changed?
It has become a lot less line heavy. I was really into comics, and I was never satisfied with the work I did in that vein. Then I got the news that I had a nephew on the way and my world shifted. I wanted to make something cool for him. I wanted to make him an alphabet book so I sat down and painted my first animal. I posted it online and people liked it. I posted a few more and more people liked those. And eventually, that wound up turning into a show because I realized that’s what I liked, to play more with light and form.
How does your work differ from other artists’?
Since I did the work, it’s filled with my insecurities. What I do pulls from my awe of space and the night sky. I’ll try and implement stars or galaxies somewhere into the piece, even hiding it at times.
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to pursue creativity?
It may not be obvious but sometimes the most valuable lessons you can learn as an artist come from not being an artist. When I was in marketing, I wanted to learn about marketing to represent myself better as an artist so that I’m not throwing my work out into the wild and just hoping someone sees it. I learned a lot more about being an artist from marketing than I did from drawing in my dorm room.