A partially completed pencil drawing of a rabbit lies on the coffee table in front of him; on the side table is an array of hand-sharpened pencils in a stand he fashioned from wood. “It’s a porcupine,” he says light-heartedly about the half-sphere with pencils taking the place of quills.
Mark, 67, considers himself a newcomer to the art world. “I have difficulty using the word artist now and then,” he admits. He drew while young but he put drawing aside as his mechanical engineering career grew. He did his last hand drawings for work in the early 1990s. “For about 30 years, all my work has been on a computer.”
Mark did mechanical design work for firms specializing in high-precision optical components. He did support engineering for testing the optics that fixed the Hubble Space Telescope’s flawed mirror, and he did early tooling work on the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018. He also holds a patent for a mirror design that significantly reduces mounting-induced error in the optical surface.
With retirement looming, he resumed drawing in 2014. “I used to draw in my teens and 20s, but I never really liked what I do with color so I stick with pencil,” he says.
Mark had a show at the library earlier this year, his work is displayed at HQ Gallery downtown, his pieces have been selected for juried shows, and he’s sold some of his work. He was pleased to be asked this year to submit a piece for Arts Benicia’s annual art auction.
He retired two years ago. He now draws most days, creating meticulous pencil drawings of weathered fences, old latches, barnacles, plant—and even a rabbit. “The rabbit’s a bit of an experiment because it’s been a long time since I did an animal.”
What led you to pick up drawing after decades away from it? Drawing was something I enjoyed doing when I was young, so I started drawing again as something to do when I retired. I produced an awful lot of junk during the first year. There was nothing I wanted to show anyone for about a year.
Then I was clearly getting better and better, but I still didn’t know if anything would come of it. I look at both the technical and general aesthetic in my drawings. Maybe I’m more critical of myself than others are. I see the flaws in the drawing that others don’t.
What training do you have in art? I’ve never taken an art class beyond what was offered in school in the UK. In the UK, up until 14 years of age, art was a core subject in school so I was introduced to art then. I never really took any other classes.
How did you decide what to draw when you resumed? I didn’t know what I was going to draw at first. Then I figured out I like drawing object-oriented subjects with textures. I enjoy that the most and do the best work on those. I prefer realistic drawings to abstracts.
I focus on things with texture. I like old things. … It’s a learning experience to figure out how to create that texture on paper. For me, every new drawing is a learning experience.
What objects inspire you? Old wood is really great, rusty metal is really great. But to find them in an interesting subject that produces an aesthetic image—it’s a battle sometimes.
It’s work to find the right subjects. I typically don’t draw people. People are very hard to draw.
I’m drawing these (points to a completed drawing of a thistle and the unfinished rabbit drawing) because I can’t find anything else. I mess around for days trying to find something to draw.
Where do you look? Anywhere and everywhere. We went to Pacific Grove, and I did a couple of rock drawings and shell drawings that turned out pretty well.
I work mostly from photographs because of how long it takes to complete a work. I’ve taken to taking a camera with me wherever I go, so if I see anything, I’ve got it.
How long does it take to complete a piece? I’d probably guess that one (motioning to a drawing of a thistle leaf) took about 30 hours, drawing three to four hours a day.
Are there similarities between the precision needed in engineering and in your art? To some level, but they’re very, very different. There’s certainly a lot of tedium involved. The last 15 to20 years of what I did [during his career] was design work. There’s precision involved, obviously, but it’s a totally different beast.
One of the things most people don’t understand is that you’ve got an optic that’s good to a quarter of a nanometer, but none of the equipment that makes it is that good (precise). So you have to test it until you know all the errors so you can subtract the errors and know what the real part is. That’s a different type of precision than art.
What do you get from drawing? I’m finding a great reward in people enjoying my work. They say, “Wow—you did that?” It’s very rewarding to hear that.
Are there local artists you connected with as you started this new part of life? Yes, mostly through HQ Gallery.
Mike Kendall and Susan Street have been incredibly encouraging and supportive. Mike has been consistently there when I had something out there that I needed help with. Susan came to me and offered space in HQ—I didn’t go looking. They’ve been very supportive.
What do you do to relax? I draw (chuckling quietly).
What’s next for you? I have no idea. I’m looking for something to draw. Maybe we’ll take a trip to look for something to draw.