An Interview with Mark Oliver

Light, space, scale, shifting shadows, and a new way to look at buildings we pass every day: A discussion with artist Mark Oliver.

How has your background as an architect affected your approach to urban landscape, in terms of draftsmanship, motivation, vision, or even your attitude toward certain buildings?

Being an architect is fundamental to everything I do. I sit on the same drafting stool at the same drawing board I’ve had for over 40 years. I’ve adapted an architectural technique we used for presentation drawings to clients, where an elevation, building section or 2-point perspective would receive a watercolor wash, in order to “sell” the design. I still sketch everything out in detail before I start painting. I love drawing and I think it is the most important part of the process. I like to have a project or theme going. I painted animal ornaments on buildings, so I’d be constantly looking for new subjects. My pandemic project was to draw all the corners in our Brooklyn neighborhood. (98 in total!). The fire escapes series continues. These themes give me a framework and rationale.

Do you find yourself drawn to certain kinds of buildings or neighborhoods? Do you ever feel that you’re doing “portraits” of certain buildings? Or are you more of a documentarian?

I hope I’m not doing portraits. I do accept some commissions but I have to decide what to paint. Basically my art is just me saying “Hey, have you seen this?” I think sharing is a human trait and I’m just documenting what I think is interesting.

I was taught early that an architect’s greatest tool is light. So I’m drawn to buildings that have shadows and definition (and character). I’ll walk by a building many times before I see the best light on it and think “That’s it!” I am drawn to “mature” neighborhoods with trees and plantings and a human scale. I really like low winter light that gives sharp deep shadows. I use a lot of Payne’s gray and sepia in my work. 

I love the lines and angles of your work, which are distinctive of urban art, but I love the sort of warm glow that suffuses it as well, that gives it life. The light and shadows are so evocative of a time of day or a time of year, or even of shifting light and changing weather. Are there certain moods you hope to evoke with your work?

This follows on from the question and answer above. Even though there are very few people in my paintings I want people to feel as if they can see themselves on that street or corner. The great thing about shadows and sunlight is that they constantly change and that is why I love working in watercolor. Each layer of paint can shift and overlap creating a subtle movement. When I paint in acrylics I get a flatter effect and sometimes this is ok. A couple of fire escapes work better in acrylics. I suppose I want the viewer to take five minutes (or less!) to reassess a place they’ve passed a hundred times.

I suppose with any cityscape you have to decide, on some level, how much humanity you’ll portray. Obviously, buildings (and cars and streets) are made by humans, for humans; their presence is inescapable. But you can decide whether to include people, or traces of people (trash, graffiti, etc.) or how much you want to hint at untold stories or evoke that strange uniquely-urban loneliness. How do you think about the people or the suggestion of human life in your work?

I suppose this is back to the documentary question. When I’ve had commissions I’ve been asked to remove certain things (trash cans etc). I feel that including cars and all the other urban infrastructure is important. These are the cities we’ve created. They can be better (or worse). We can create pedestrian areas, design better trash cans etc. Knowing the architectural/construction process, I often ask myself how certain decisions were made. I love the energy of cities but I also like the anonymity (rather than loneliness). These are cities and towns and people live here and I feel that adding them is unnecessary!

I’m always fascinated by windows, in art and in life—as reflectors or as glimpses into (or out of) the lives of others. You use the reflections in windows brilliantly to suggest changes in the light or the sky behind the viewer. Is that another decision to be made? Whether to look through, whether to record the inside/outside light or the reflecting light?

Who doesn’t like looking in other people’s windows? Windows are great for giving depth to a flat surface (emotionally and physically). I like painting them, they are mini paintings within the main painting and I do take some artistic license. Because they are generally symmetrical they draw the eye around the painting. I  recently finished a window painting from the inside looking out over  an urban skyline (Marseille)

I always think of watercolor painting as defining space with light and color, and it’s fascinating to me to apply the technique to urban landscapes, which feature so much graphic solidity. Can you talk a little about the process? I love your ink and watercolor drawings as well, which I imagine is a different sort of method and practice, and takes up your time and creative energy differently?

As I said, I sketch everything first. So, up to a point the process is the same. A few years ago, I was fortunate to have an office on the 50th floor of the Met Life building above Grand Central with views to the south east and west – so I sketched and was more disciplined about that sketchbook and took it with me everywhere. I used to sketch in meetings and on the subway.

For the paintings I draw everything in pencil from photos or with help of a mini projector. This is usually a long and tedious process but I am thinking about how I’m going to paint as I’m sketching. Then I’ll start layering light washes of paint – sky, base building color. Then details and darker colors. I think that I have a tendency to over-paint, so knowing when to stop is important.

I love your fire escape paintings. There’s something almost theatrical or cinematic about them—such a treasure of light and shadow in something so practical. Can you talk a little about what draws you to fire escapes?

Most of my work is site-specific, The fire escapes were a way to less so specific. Even though I can tell you where each one is, the images are more universal. I was also trying to record some abstract shapes. They are quintessentially ‘Urban’ and from another time and a little absurd. They are the precursors of the Pompidou Centre where the inside of the building is on the outside. But they are fascinating 3-D sculptures changing with the light. Generally, they are a great combination of urban materials – brick and steel

I also very much admire your skyline drawings & paintings—perhaps the largest scale of subject, but in the smallest space of a notebook. I like framing of these, as well as the point of view of many of them—almost a view from a window, maybe? Do you work from life? I love the black-and-white sketchbook paintings of Brooklyn, too. There’s something very vibrant about them, as though they capture a moment in the busy-ness of a city neighborhood–maybe the focused energy and importance of an urban street corner. Can you talk a little about these?

Most of my sketches are from offices or projects I was working on. The Brooklyn scenes were my pandemic project. We all got to see our neighborhoods 24/7 for a couple of years. We were fortunate to be in Carroll Gardens Brooklyn and everything we needed was at hand. So I started to record daily life. Then in 2020 a building on the corner of Smith Street and Union Street collapsed. That propelled me to record every corner as it all seemed on the verge of collapse! This led to research of the local neighborhood history and the realization that little had changed there since the buildings were built. Why had those buildings survived and prospered and catered to different populations? I’d like to put a book together someday…

Mark Oliver is an English-born watercolor painter. After a long career as an architect in New York City, he has recently retired to enjoy all the charms of Lambertville NJ. See more of his work at Mark Oliver Urban Landscapes, on Instagram at Hebbburnny, and at the Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville, New Jersey.

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