As I look at the drawings of London-based artist Mark Powell I find it impossible to keep my thoughts from wandering. There is something magical about his work – so simple, yet extremely intriguing. Powell draws portraits of old people on the back of aged envelopes and other ephemera using nothing but an ordinary Biro pen to do so. Each wrinkled face looks different, yet they all appear to look back at you from their time-worn canvas with an expression as if they wanted to tell you something. But their countenances are forever frozen in time so whatever message they hold remains a secret, just like the letter that the envelope once carried.
I try reading the small descriptions for each drawing but it doesn’t help, rather on the contrary, it makes me even more enthralled: “this is a biro pen drawing done on a prescription dated 1913. The prescription never made it to the intended patient”. “Drawing of a depressed face on a bank envelope from the 1970’s” or “biro pen drawing done on an envelope sent from America”. Who were these people? Who sent those letters and above all; who is the artist behind it all?
What path led you to what you are doing now?
Well, for as long as I can remember I’ve always drawn on anything at hand with anything to hand. Usually I would be in bars and pubs and since I always had a biro ballpoint pen on me that was also what I would normally use. After a while I started to take the whole thing a little bit more seriously though and I got my BA in Fine Art painting and drawing at the University of Huddersfield. Right now I am in a position where I sell and live off what I produce and I have had various shows all over the world. But it really started with me just drawing.
I choose envelopes because they hold an enigma. They have all carried and hidden something that will remain a mystery much like the images of the elderly that I draw. My portraits also show a journey that hasn’t been told.
Where do you find them?
I find the majority of the envelopes I use in antique shops but of course the trusty internet helps too.
And the old people?
They are normally from photos I take or images that I find. Some of them are from random family albums from around 1910 that I have found in antique shops.
But how does it work? Is it the actual envelope that inspires the portrait or is it the other way around?
I do try and match the image of the person to the envelope. I always take the date and the position of the portrait into account when I’m drawing, trying to find the best balance.
Do you ever make mistakes?
So far I have only made one mistake when drawing and I simply had to start again. Once you make a mistake with a biro pen you can’t rescue it unfortunately.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My typical day is spent with a pen and music. In order to work I really need music and it has always been a big source of inspiration for me. And there are a many cups of tea involved too.
Have you ever thought of taking your work further, as in using other media?
Well, my next step is to draw on a much larger scale, 6ft squared, and not just envelopes. And, although my main focus is on drawing, I am actually a painter too. Maybe I will develop that skill, since the style I use when I paint is very different from the drawings I produce at this moment.
If you were to stop illustrating, what would you replace it with?
If I didn’t create art I would go crazy and this is a good enough reason to carry on.
What are you looking forward to?
At the moment I am looking forward to various shows that I have, including a solo show in Texas that I’m very excited about. However, my main focus is always to continue illustrating and to produce better work.
Thank you, Mark!
Psst… don’t forget check out Mark’s society6 shop for more of his stunning artwork.