An artist of amazing stylistic versatility, British illustrator Mark Harrison for 20 + years was a successful commercial artist—producing nearly 500 book covers for most major UK and U.S. publishers, until 2003. It was at that point that he gave up working in commercial illustration to focus on personal works, which he sold primarily through fine art galleries in England. Totally unlike his commissioned paintings for book jackets, and other commercial products these were atmospheric oil paintings and pastels of British landscapes, South-east Asian scenes, and major cities of the world: Venice, London, New York.
This major change in careers did not happen overnight. Indeed, I was representing Mark in the late 1990s, selling his originals to collectors in U.S., and I could see his art evolving . . .
for every 10-15 of his tight, colorful fantasy illustrations he showed me, there would be one moodier, more dreamy painting, or an unconventional portrait of a woman in a strange pose, with a realistic edge but with a totally different “feel” and “look” than his illustrative work. Some had a surreal aspect to them; some looked heavily influenced by European artists like Klimt, and Asian Art. His materials also broadened, and these personal, non-illustrative works often combined oils with glazes, or metallic paints. Unsurprisingly, these new works drew a following strong enough for me to encourage him to pursue these new directions. I showed both his book covers and these new, more ‘avant garde’ paintings in my Worlds of Wonder catalogs, and both kinds sold!
These new directions, it turned out, were reflections of his growing interest in Asian subject matter, particularly Balinese, after he visited the island in
1986 (the first of his many visits there and to other destinations in S.E. Asia, India, Sri Lanka and Africa). These travels and resulting influences were largely unknown to me, and I think also unknown to many other admirers of his illustration art when we first made his acquaintance at SF art shows in the late 1980s to 1990s. He kept this “fine art” side separate from his illustrations, as many commercial artists do.
All we saw were his small, almost excessively tight, brilliantly colored book cover paintings, and they were unforgettable. And made even more so by being able to meet the artist, in person, because Mark would travel to attend conventions in the U.S. Meeting a British artist was a real treat in those days, and the fact that we had seen his artwork on so many U.S, publishers’ paperbacks made his work even more memorable. His panel displays were frequently decorated with Art Show ribbons; his solo art book “Mark Harrison’s Dreamlands” was published by Paper Tiger in 1990 (and won the British Science Fiction Association award for Best Artwork); his art was featured in six Spectrum anthologies, beginning 1995. Then, by 1997, he started showing his work in a gallery in Brighton, and his ties to the world of SF illustration began to loosen.
Mark’s illustrations were all done in acrylic paint, but his personal works explored a wide range of different media. First there was chalk pastels (up to 2005), then he changed to oil on board. He even dabbled in digital. But in time Mark was drawn away from his earlier atmospheric, moodier cityscapes and landscapes to paint, he writes, “more elusively symbolic subject matter . . . which had a more idiosyncratic style and content, sometimes with a dark sense of humour.” To see what Mark can do, with many more examples than I can show you here, visit his website at www.paintingsbymarkharrison.com.
After more than a decade of filling galleries both here (London, and environs) and abroad (Indonesia) with his fine art, Mark in 2013 visited
Prague to see The Slav Epic paintings by Alphonse Mucha and in turn was inspired to paint on canvas, a series of paintings which are taking him in new directions, once again. These pictures, he says, are distinctive in that “the subject I have chosen is secondary to the colour and atmosphere that I am trying to create.” But what is remarkable about them to me, is that they show a return to “the fantastic” in his art. They are lovely, graceful, impressionistic . . . elusively fantastic and dream-like in their soft beauty. The fantasy elements are subtle, and display the artist’s lingering affection for figurative art. And in that way, bridge the gap between the confines of the “Fine Art” world and associated galleries and the equally confining world of SF/F conventions Art Shows and their emphasis on commissioned, published, illustrative works . . .
. . . Which should make these works a perfect match to the kind of “imaginative realism” that Pat and Jeannie Wilshire’s IlluXCon seeks to promote . . . a fact that is drawing Mark back into the SF/F community with his first appearance at this year’s IlluXCon 7, this September. For the first time in years, Mark will be showing his work again on these shores, in person.
These new works display the kind of freedom of expression that appears to be the hallmark of post-illustration fantasy art, and while collectors’ love affair with published work is not over, only good things can come from skilled artists whose imagination has been unleashed! I can’t wait to see these beauties in person, and of course, see Mark again!