Mark Armstrong’s past lives include math teacher, bank teller, and programmer. Today, he’s a commercial illustrator, working with a wide range of clients, from newspapers to magazines to agencies. Here, he talks about finding his path as a visual artist, the importance of humor and being yourself, and his blog as a space to share his professional projects and creative processes.
Your background is in math and you’ve held a variety of jobs. You once wrote that you “denied your artistic self for a long time.” When did you realize you wanted to focus on illustration?
There was a period in the mid-to-late seventies when I hardly drew at all. A few doodles on envelopes to friends — that was about it. For some reason, I decided to submit some gag cartoons to magazines in the early eighties. (I come across an old one now and then — the drawings are abysmal.) But every so often I’d sell one, and that kept me going.
I lost my job as a programmer-analyst in 1989. I decided this was it: if I was going to try a career as a full-time freelancer, I’d better do it now. I did a lot of caricatures at parties and business expos. It took me several years to realize that the Golden Age of Magazine Cartooning was long gone. It’s embarrassing to say so, but I didn’t buy a computer until 1996. I taught myself Photoshop. I then switched my focus from cartooning to illustration.
Being a commercial illustrator, how do you approach your blog on WordPress.com? Is it a personal outlet? A testing ground for professional work?
I have fun with the blog — my sense of humor runs through every post, and I don’t try to hide that. It’s no good pretending to be something you’re not.
My blog’s a bit of both: personal and commercial. Most of my posts are about assignments — the rest are about personal projects. Like so many people starting a blog, I didn’t really think it through and wasn’t sure what I was getting into.
I have fun with the blog — my sense of humor runs through every post, and I don’t try to hide that. It’s no good pretending to be something you’re not. At the same time, I show clearly that I’m a stickler for detail, that I put a lot of thought and effort into every illustration. I’m one of those people who has to do his best, regardless of how “big” an assignment is. A blog is a good way to communicate something like that.
Have you found clients through your blog?
No, I haven’t. I wonder if other illustrators who blog have had a similar lack of response. I’ve decided I need to do some things differently. For example, I need a more specific “call to action.” I need to be clear that I’m available — that I’m looking for assignments and new clients.
I have made one change, which I hope will attract prospects: I now slant some posts specifically to a business audience, and cross-promote them on LinkedIn. I’m getting a good response. I hope these posts highlight my expertise, and give me a higher profile in the business community.
What types of posts do well on your blog?
My fans seem to have a special fondness for the silly stuff. I don’t do adult or shock humor. That seems like cheating to me: people laugh because they’re embarrassed or because they’re afraid of appearing uncool. I want people to laugh unreservedly, because something is just plain funny. I’ve done some “guess the caricature” posts that have been very well received.
I’ve also recycled an old comic strip I did for a local entertainment weekly. It’s about a little street musician named Busker who plays the saxophone. It’s pantomime humor, with very few words. My readers love Busker, which is interesting because I did the strip back in the late nineties.
Humor inspires your work. What or who have been your influences, growing up and also now as an adult?
Illustrators never become celebrities. Even in their prime, they only acquire a cult following. They fade away and are transient, just like their work.
I was one of those kids who spent all his money on comic books. Then I discovered Mad Magazine, especially reprints from the late fifties. Guys like Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker — they’re like illustration and humor gods to me. People will read that and think: Who? That’s another thing I love about illustration in a perverse way: there are all these geniuses who have done impossibly beautiful work, many of them back in pre-computer days, and now they’re almost totally forgotten. Illustrators never become celebrities. Even in their prime, they only acquire a cult following. They fade away and are transient, just like their work.
I love slapstick. I still laugh at The Three Stooges. I’d always be reduced to tears watching Harvey Korman and Tim Conway on The Carol Burnett Show. I love plays with witty dialogue: Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Noël Coward. My favorite silent film comedian is Harold Lloyd. Everyone talks about Chaplin and Keaton, but I love Lloyd’s sight gags.
I don’t care for modern stand-up; I do have a special fondness for Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean.
What’s the most bold or controversial illustration you’ve done?
Most of the illustration work I do nowadays involves social media and content marketing: helping companies build brand recognition while engaging readers and making a positive impression.
No surprise then, that my client work steers clear of controversy.
I still do editorial work, however. My most challenging assignments come from The Rumpus, which often features painful subjects, sometimes very bleak situations, and highly-charged opinion pieces.
Read about the creative process behind this Rumpus essay on Mark’s blog.
Back in 2014, I illustrated an essay called “The Throwaways.” It was written by a Kashmiri expatriate. Kashmir has a convoluted history. India and Pakistan have fought at least three wars over the region, the first in 1947. The two countries (along with China) control different parts of Kashmir. There are Kashmiri insurgents who favor independence. The author of the essay shares the latter’s wish for self-rule.
It’s quite a departure from my customary humorous take on things. It is, to the best of my knowledge, a completely original visual take on a very old subject: the futility of war. No matter who starts it, who’s right, who’s wrong, war brings violence, bloodshed, suffering, and death.
When it comes to sensitive or hot-button topics like this one, how do you know you’ve struck the right tone?
Without feedback, there’s no way to tell.
Surprisingly, the essay received no comments when it was posted on The Rumpus. I did receive some extremely thoughtful comments on my corresponding blog post, however, including one from someone who’d lived in Britain during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and another from an India native who had been to Kashmir, and who’d also experienced Kashmir-related spillover violence in Bombay.
These comments made me think that my illustrations had struck the right tone.
What’s one piece of advice you have for illustrators with new blogs?
Ask yourself if one of your goals is to attract prospective clients. If the answer is yes, tailor your blog to attract those clients. That means deciding who those clients are, researching their needs, and writing posts showing how your work can meet their needs and solve their problems.
You need to be your own tough editor — forbidding yourself to post lackluster work, or anything that would make you look unprofessional.
You must then resist the temptation to feature inappropriate work, no matter how “good” you think it might be. You need to be your own tough editor — forbidding yourself to post lackluster work, or anything that would make you look unprofessional.
Be yourself, write in your own voice, let your personality shine through. But always ask yourself this question: would this post — this illustration — attract the kind of client I want to work with?