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True Colors: Portrait Artist Mark Baker Personifies Some of Rock’s Greatest

Apr 7, 2014 at 5:00 PM | Featured Stores | By Rock Square

Sure, rock stars owe much of their iconic status to some sort of ineffable charisma, but the musical deities we come to idolize have no small amount of assistance from the artists, photographers and fans that immortalize that strange magic. Such work is exemplified by none other than Rock Square seller, Mark Baker; whose detailed paintings portray some of rock’s greatest musicians in a way that we’ve never seen before.

While Baker may describe himself as a husband and proud father, the humble, Irish-born artist is regarded as one of the world’s best, specializing in photo-realism portraits. After all, he’s been creating his high-quality images since childhood and even had one of his paintings displayed in Dublin’s National Art Gallery at age 5.

Since then, the 29 year old prodigy has amassed a stunning body of work that flawlessly splits the difference between whimsy and reverence, gaining him recognition all over the world. From David Bowie's Aladdin Sane to Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Baker has painted the some of the best of pop culture’s past and present.

His unique style and technique paired with the emotive passion of his portraits enables him to personify his subjects with uncanny precision. And through it all he has retained graceful modesty and a sense of humor.

Rock Square recently chatted with Mark about his storied career and what he’s got planned for the future.

Rock Square: When you first started painting, you were only a child. What was the subject of your first painting and how did you draw inspiration for your work at such as young age?

Mark Baker: As a young child I suppose I would paint and draw the same things as every other kid, but I think it got to the stage where the stuff I was doing was being noticed by people as being above the average, or having something special about it – whatever that was I am not quite sure. I look back on paintings my parents kept from when I was a child and to be honest they just seem like the normal doodles of an average kid. I suppose it’s all context. When I was in school aged 5 we were all asked to paint a winter scene – my picture of a snow scene (snowman etc.) was picked up by an art expert and ended up winning a national art contest and being displayed in the national gallery. I guess it stood out from the rest. I drew my inspiration as I do now I suppose – from my surroundings. I would draw cartoons, paint my mother’s flower vases, I would draw animals, dinosaurs, whatever I was into at the time. One thing I did quite differently was instead of coloring in the pictures in kids coloring books, I would copy the pictures on my own sheet of paper and color my own. I guess it meant my parents only ever had to buy one coloring book for me and my brother [laughs]!

RS: When did you realize that painting photo realistic portraits was your passion? 

MB: I always strived for a good likeness in my work – ever since I was young. I was never interested in abstract art, I think it serves a purpose, and some of it is quite interesting, but I was always in awe of the Masters such as Leonardo Di Vinci, Michelangelo—all the Ninja Turtles [laughs]—Caravaggio etc. I was just amazed at the process and the fact that humans could create such realism. So, when I was probably about 13 or14 years old I started to copy realistic paintings in pencil. That’s always the best first step that I recommend to young artists asking for advice. Start with pencil, then black and white paint, then color. Form is more important than detail. If your proportions are wrong there is no point in painting them in realistically.

I used to then sketch footballers and musicians from magazines for my friends in school and then began selling them. I quickly realized I could get pretty realistic results with pencil. I took my time—I am a natural perfectionist, which I get that from my father. I think it was the reactions I got from people that made me want to keep doing the realistic stuff. Every picture I did was a test to improve on detail and likeness. And when the internet came along, then I could really be inspired by more contemporary artists.

RS: Your musical tastes must have developed so much during your formative years. What made you move towards depicting the great musicians we’ve seen in your recent work?

MB: My musical tastes have changed over the years but there are some bands that have remained my favorites. My musical tastes have been heavily influenced by my brother Kevin who is 3 years older. It’s always good to have an older brother when it comes to what music you should probably be listening too; keeps you on the right track as to what’s cool. Being from Ireland the big band is of course, U2. I was obsessed with U2 for many years since I was about 13. I still love their music and regularly flick back to Achtung Baby or Rattle n Hum—amazing albums. I have seen them live about 10 times.

The first live concert I went to see was when I was about 13 and my brother brought me to see Oasis in Landsdown Rd on the ‘Standing on the Shoulder of Giants Tour’. It was absolutely brilliant. Pretty rough for someone that young, but I was a big Oasis fan and it really cemented my interest in rock ‘n’ roll. I remember painting a Liam Gallagher mural on my bedroom wall. That house was sold, so I wonder if anyone painted over it, could be worth something now [laughs]! I actually went on to meet Liam Gallagher at one of my exhibitions a few years ago. It was surreal to meet a childhood idol and have him really appreciate my work. I think he preferred the John Lennon piece beside his though. He stood (in typical Liam Gallagher stance) staring at it for quite some time. I had a good chat with him; he asked me how much his [painting] was and how much Dave Grohl’s was. He was very happy when I told him that his was the more expensive painting. I kept that particular painting of Liam (which he signed) and it hangs proudly in my studio.

Other bands and artists that I really love are Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher, The Rolling Stones (I was lucky enough to have a joint exhibition with Ronnie Wood who is an excellent painter), Led Zeppelin, Bowie, Eric Clapton, The Doors, The Smiths… too many to mention.

Growing up, my father would also play a lot of music, especially in the summer months: traditional Irish Music such as The Dubliners, The Chieftains, Christy Moore, and also some Johnny Cash.

My wife then introduced me to The Beach Boys, Springsteen (we are huge fans and go to every Irish concert, we hope to bring our Daughter Layla to see him when she’s old enough), Nirvana, Simon & Garfunkel, Roy Orbison, Aerosmith, among others.

My musical tastes also span other genres – I listen to Jay Z, Eminem, and some other RnB stuff.

I had a quick look at my iPod and at the moment I am listening to The National, KISS (due to background inspiration for the latest painting), and a lot of Irish artists such as James Vincent McMorrow, and Hozier.

RS: You’ve got a wide ranging musical palate, is part of your creative process seeking out artists who visually inspire you, beyond their sound? Has this in turn broadened your musical tastes?

MB: Yes, I think there is a full package to being a rock icon. A lot of bands today probably don’t subscribe to this philosophy and would say it’s all about the music. True, some artists become iconic without any apparent effort. Bob Dylan comes to mind… But, I think the imagery is very much an important part of the package, whether it be an album cover, an outfit, a live concert, or a band logo. KISS are a prime example of this. There was so much thought and creativity put into the visual appearance of the band as a brand, and this synergized with the music. Gene Simmons is such an iconic figure of rock, and it was a fantastic subject to paint from an artist’s point of view—very fun to do. I have, in turn, become a big fan of the music of KISS. To look at me you probably would never expect me to be a fan of Glam Rock, but I suppose I am now.

U2 are another example. Every album had its own color scheme and each live show was visually distinct from the other. And the imagery went hand in hand with the songs on the album: the themes, the messages in the songs, the feeling of the album as a whole.

Whenever I get a personal commission to paint an artist or band, as a research tool I will listen to their music while I paint. Whether I’m a fan of the music or not, it serves a purpose, it gives me a feel for the subject and also keeps me focused and interested. As a result of this, my tastes have broadened into other genres such as R&B, and country music.

RS: Your ability to personify these musicians is uncanny and some of our personal favorites include Blondie, Dave Grohl, The Stones, the Gallagher Brothers, Bono, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bowie – to name only a few. What are some of your personal favorites and why? 

MB: Thank you. To be honest, I don’t dwell much on a painting as soon as I feel it is complete. I tend to over analyze and criticize my work—the perfectionist in me. So it will just annoy me if I keep looking back on them. I do admit that my favorite painting is a portrait of Johnny Cash I did in 2007 I think, called ‘Johnny Cash in Black’. I was at the stage where I was still testing my limits as a painter. I wanted to see how realistic I could paint. So after many hours of torture trying to get it right, I stood back and thought to myself ‘that’s it’, I’ve proved to myself that I could achieve that level of realism. Now I can relax and be more adventurous with my painting. It’s always the hardest ones to paint that turn out to be the best… well, that’s if I don’t break them in two in frustration.

RS: Your attention to detail and exceptional technique has gained you a lot of respect and appreciation from not only the art industry, but from many of your famous subjects. Have you met many of them in person?

MB: Yes, I’m lucky to have met many of my subjects, some very high profile ones at that. I don’t feel it’s overly important to mix with celebs, etc. but I tend to paint interesting and talented subjects. So getting to meet them is always a bonus.

I had a big exhibition backstage at Oxegen Music Festival in Ireland a couple of years ago. It was great, many of the artists attending came along to view the work and have a chat: Dave Grohl, Fergie, Slash, Liam Gallagher, Chris Martin, Gerard Way, and Julian Casablancas. All really nice people I have to say—especially Dave Grohl. It was an honor to meet him and we had a good chat. He loved the painting but did give me one tip… next time I need to round the front teeth off some more. I had them too straight. He told me from years of biting the microphone they had been grinded down. He proceeded to show me up close. It was a strange situation to be staring into the mouth of one of the biggest rock stars on the planet while he described his dental issues [laughs]! Such a nice bloke – he really confirmed his status as the nicest guy in rock ‘n’ roll. The Foo Fighters played a fantastic set that night. I got to watch from the side of the stage. I nearly lost my hearing!

I’ve also painted commissions for Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day Lewis. Steven was incredibly friendly and complimentary on the painting. He was in Dublin for an event and premiere of his movie Lincoln. We had a chat about normal things, and he even had a pint of Guinness. Daniel is very intense as you would expect. You can really feel it when he walks into the room, again, very friendly. He really looked at the painting in great detail and was very humble and appreciative of the work.

RS: Did any of these artists surprise you as being more accessible or real than their reputations?

MB: Yeah, mainly Liam Gallagher – he has the reputation of being temperamental at times but he was genuinely very friendly to everyone. Taking “selfies” with people, signing stuff. He even complimented my friend on his shirt!

RS: Many of the musicians that you depict in your art have larger than life personas that seem to overshadow their true identities. How do you navigate these two opposing agendas in your work? Do you embrace their persona or look for something deeper? 

MB: Well it’s always hard to tell how much of the “persona” is an act, and how much is genuine personality. A method I have of showing this contrast is called the ‘In III’ series. This is where I will dissect the image of the “persona” and in the middle, or beneath, I will show the subject at their most “normal” by almost exposing the subject. After all, at the end of the day these icons are just “normal” people who do normal mundane things like the rest of us. This method also works in the opposite direction.

RS: There’s a saying, “music is what feelings sound like.” Do you think that you’ve been able to build on that adage and illustrate some of the feelings that your subjects communicate through their music?

MB: Wow, that’s deep, even for an artist. Well for me, feeling emanates from 3 things. Facial expression, form (the position of the body), and color. Detail doesn’t necessarily have to come into play. With a stand-alone head and shoulders portrait a subtle movement of the brush can create a feeling. The face is so expressive; our brains are very adept at noticing subtle nuances. This is why portraits are so hard. It’s very easy to go wrong. So you have to be very careful and really think through what you want to put across with the portrait. Also color helps to amplify certain feelings. Certain colors on the color spectrum create certain moods and feelings. This is used in art, photography, in live music gigs, and in film and TV.

The television show Breaking Bad is a very good example of this. I recommend people Google the color schemes used in that show; they are unbelievably complex and very effective. Certain people are associated with certain mood, so my paintings of them must reflect their personalities and music, or else something just doesn’t sit right.

RS: You tend to paint in three different styles – ‘In III’ as you mentioned, ‘In Black’ and ‘In Live’. What are the chief characteristics of these styles, and how do you decide what approach fits each subject best?

MB: Again, it depends on the subject. The ‘In Black’ series is supposed to be quiet, dark, reflective moods. This suits Johnny cash, maybe an older Bowie, and older Bono. The ‘In Live’ series suits live rock: a young Rory Gallagher, a young Phil Lynott; people in their prime, where the position of their body and musical instrument really shows movement and power. The ‘In III’ series is the most interesting because you can contrast personas, age, emotion etc. This is my signature style, and my most favorite to do.

RS: Do you experiment with any other painting styles or techniques?

MB: I experiment with different materials: acrylic, oil, pencil, colored pencil etc. Sometimes they are unconventional, but whatever works [for the piece]; I’m self-taught. I would like to maybe be freer with my brush strokes but the perfectionist in me won’t leave it alone. I could spend hours on things that nobody would even notice! But I’m gradually teaching myself to let it go.

When I experiment it’s more about the subjects I choose—whatever catches my interest. At the moment I am preparing for an exhibition of Comic Book Superhero paintings. It’s a nice change mixing the simple with the realistic. It creates a nice contrast.

RS: Charles Dickens once said there are two types of portraits, “the serious and the smirk.” It appears your work debunks that philosophy.

MB: Well I think this may very well have been relevant in Dickensian times. But, art is constantly evolving, and so is portrait art. I think with the advent of photography, visual art had to adapt and give the viewer something different, something a machine could not capture. I try to add something into my paintings and portraits that wouldn’t be able to be captured by a simple photo. The placement of form and color comes from the artist’s brain, ideas that have stemmed from what he or she has experienced in his or her unique life.

RS: Some say that the “Golden Age” of rock music has already come and gone. What are your thoughts about the state of music, past and present?

MB: Well the ‘Golden Age’ of everything is never anything that has happened recently. By definition it has to be a past period in order for people to reflect upon it. I wasn’t around in the 60’s or 70’s so I can’t tell exactly how much impact on my life the likes of the Doors or Jimi Hendrix would have had. There’s no doubt the music is genius and timeless, but I suppose I can’t see anything nowadays that could be viewed in a similar fashion.

In relation to music trends, I think it all comes in waves. Sometimes it seems that pop music has full dominance, certainly over the charts and the youth, and sometimes I feel resurgences come along. For example, a decade ago the likes of the Strokes, The Vines, and the White Stripes were everywhere. In Ireland and the UK a decade before that, it was Britpop with Oasis, Blur, Pulp etc. This had a very strong cultural dominance at the time. As I search my brain I can’t think of any current bands that have potential to have this same influence. I suppose if you think about it, the artists with the strongest influences are the pop artists such as Justin Bieber, One Direction, Lady Gaga, Rihanna etc. Their grip on the youth of society is really strong—scarily strong. Luckily enough, a lot of kids and teenagers soon grow out of this mentality, and hopefully broaden their horizons when it comes to music and other types of idols.

RS: Do you feel this may affect your future work?

MB: No, not really. For two reasons… firstly, the likes of Jim Morrison, Elvis Pressley, Lou Reed, will never really die. That’s the great thing about music and visual art for that matter. Once it’s out there it’s very hard to get rid of it. I can always look back to the old school icons for inspiration. And for a lot of these people there are not that many photographs. By creating more interesting images I feel I am adding something new.

Secondly, some of the new era of pop stars are quite interesting looking and make some equally interesting lifestyle choices—they can be good to parody. I also like to do work that isn’t so serious.

RS: Most of your work ends up being featured in museums, galleries, exhibits or personal collections. Beyond that, you’ve also worked with charities like the upcoming John Varvatos Stuart House Benefit.

MB: Yeah. I always like to help out good causes when I can. I usually choose a few at the start of each year. Many times, I am also contacted during the year by different organizations asking if I can help out in any way, usually it is charity auctions. My work typically does very well at these kinds of events, and people have been extremely generous. Irish people in particular are a generous bunch, they always have been.

Some of the past charities include The Ronald McDonald Children’s Charity who support families whose children are seriously ill in the hospital—a painting I did of Bono raised $5,000. Also a local charity The Wicklow Hospice Foundation, who are raising funds to build a hospice for the elderly—my signed painting of Steven Spielberg raised over $6,000. Another signed painting of Irish Olympic Gold medalist boxer Katie Taylor raised over $2,000 for a local hospital for children suffering from cancer. It’s nice for me to be able to help out in some small way just by doing something I love to do.

Paul (Rock Square’s founder) originally approached me with his idea to help at the John Varvatos Annual Stuart House Benefit. After reading all about the charity, I was more than glad to help out. I have a 2 year old daughter and another baby due at the end of May, so I am a parent myself and always feel that children’s charities are the most important in my eyes. It’s a very sensitive subject that Stuart House deals with and the work they do is crucial to many people’s lives. If I can help in some small way, that’s great.

Through my collaboration with Rock Square the original idea was to donate a limited edition print to be included in the silent auction. The one chosen was of my painting of John Lennon. I suppose Lennon is now a symbol of peace, love, and hope, so he was the ideal choice. We both agreed it was a fitting contribution.

RS: The print is fabulous, and will no doubt be a hit at the Stuart House Benefit.

MB: Thank you. I hope so.

RS: Finally, who’s on your wish list to paint next?

MB: I have too many to mention! I have new ideas throughout the day and have to write them all down. Unfortunately there are not enough hours in the day! Right up next is a National Portrait competition so I am trying to choose the right subject. It can actually be anyone I want, but they will have to sit for me so they must also have as much patience as me… so that might be a difficult one.  I still haven’t decided.

As far as my wish list for subjects from the world of music – I want to try some people that I have never painted before. But the main one who I have been meaning to paint for some time now is Jimi Hendrix. Should be a fun one to do.

To check out more limited edition fine art prints and originals from Mark Baker Art, click here.

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