Mark Zug was born in 1959 in Indiana. He attended the Pennsylvania School of Art and Design. He has worked as a freelance artist doing illustration for works by authors ranging from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Harlan Ellison, and Isaac Asimov to Diana Wynne-Jones and Tanith Lee. He has created cover art and fantasy game book and product art in the Dune, Star Wars, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Battletech, Shadowrun, and Magic: The Gathering universes, among others. His work has been featured in magazines such as Popular Science, Dragon, and Dungeon. He is the illustrator for the best-selling Septimus Heap series of fantasy novels by Angie Sage. His work has won a Jack Gaughan award, a Chesley award, and an Illie award, and is regularly featured in Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantasy Art. He lives in Lewisberry, Pennsylvania. His website is www.markzug.com.
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The influence of Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth and the Brandywine school of illustrators is apparent in your work. The sense of adventure and optimism in their work reflects a lot of the viewpoints and values of Romanticism in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century and strikes me as particularly American in feel. Somehow, you’ve managed to capture and transplant that sense of brightness and potential in your works depicting very different times and places. How are you achieving that? Is it the light, the composition, the breathtaking sense of expansiveness and scale in clouds and vistas? Even for viewers who are not familiar with Pyle and Wyeth, there is a sense of excitement your works convey that viewers naturally respond to. What are you doing as an artist to trigger such response?
First of all, I believe in that romanticism myself. The frontier romanticism, which is often seen as American, is really a siren song that unknown spaces sing to humans down through all ages. And your question is really how to compose a romantic picture, which requires a very long answer. But I think I can boil it down to a couple of things: The painting must be concerned with the problem of being alive, and so include some sort of actor who is motivated. Second, the environment is a star in its own right and must be rendered as multi-dimensionally as the main character(s)—whether that environment is a vista with mountains and clouds, or a dark prison cell illuminated by a single shaft of moonlight. The environment is like a “Dungeon Master,” setting terms and possibilities for the actor. I think this is the sense of immersion emanating from Pyle’s or Wyeth’s work, which you interpret as expansiveness—because the environment is rendered truthfully enough to seem to extend way past the edges of the canvas.
Are you familiar with the work of N.C. Wyeth’s grandson Jamie Wyeth, who explicitly embraces a sense of otherworldliness in his paintings while still showing the clear lineage of the Wyeths and Pyle? And the book Wondrous Strange that collects the works of Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth, emphasizing the sense of otherworldliness that characterizes the works of Pyle and the Wyeths?
I’m not familiar with that book, though of course I know Jamie’s work. He was firstly always a fine artist, with the perpetual freedom to explore a kind of idiosyncratic wit through odd juxtapositions and unexpected perspectives. His mission was different from N.C.’s—he never had to imbue a potboiler with an aura of excitement to please a recalcitrant art director, for instance. And Jamie was, like his father and grandfather, preoccupied with the luxurious texture of his paints. N.C. did it with meaty smacks of broken color, Andrew did it with a meticulous “hair” of fine tempera brush strokes, and Jaime seemed to be running a perpetual skunkworks experiment in how to apply oil paint. In style, the three generations of realists could not be more different from each other. And yes, N.C. is my favorite—though I do enjoy the work of both son and grandson.
The other elephant in the room is Maxfield Parrish. The elemental paintings such as Helium, skating on a wire above the beautiful forms of a fantastical metropolis, clearly have the dramatic lighting, saturated hues, and neo-classical feel of Parrish’s work. Talk to us about the influence of Parrish on your work.
Maxfield Parrish had more influence on me as an experimenter in magical paint quality in my early days than he does explicitly on my compositions. Helium was one of the rare times when I deliberately flatten or cartoon elements of the composition, doing so with the radial streaks of sunlight—and I owe more to J.C. Leyendecker for that. I think you may be seeing the amount of Parrish which generally soaked into my DNA during all of my museum-haunting and poring over his reproductions in books. It’s hard not to be seduced by his sheer chromatic power, masterful gradients, hard contrasts, and perfect rounding of forms. I used to create tints out of huge dilutions with oil or varnish and put them on in transparent layers as he did, which is tremendous fun—even though I’ve long since come back to just plain linseed oil and mineral spirits. So if Parrish is an elephant in the room, then he is just as frequently out of the room, displaced by other acts in my circus—I challenge you to see any Parrish at all in Radon, for instance.
You have worked on some of the most famous properties in science fiction, including Dune. Further, you were tasked with interpreting an existing visual interpretation, namely, David Lynch’s film version. Can you tell us about the experience of working on the card series based on Dune? I, like you, adored the David Lynch version. He made the narrative changes he needed to in order to make the film coherent as a stand-alone interpretation of a massive book introducing us to a sprawling world. And the visual interpretations that he came up with were astounding. The sandworms with their tripartite mouths have become iconic. The bald Bene Gessirit with their metal teeth. The outrageously Baroque architecture and costumes. The cackling Baron Harkonnen with his shock of bristle brush red hair. The subway trolley spice cradles for the Navigator. The little gold earring on the Padishah Emperor. The Atreides family royal pug. All Lynch’s innovations and contributions. How did you work under the weight of interpreting an interpretation that already achieved such wildly original imagery? And then, when the film license was taken away and you were directed to avoid Lynch’s interpretations as much as possible, how did you drag yourself out from under its weight when you had to?
Through my natural capacity for flippantly second-guessing the mighty! I first read Dune in 1974, and the visions I came away with were ones a fourteen-year-old in that year might do. Safe to say that there were more things on Arrakis than were dreamt of in my philosophy, and David Lynch saw a few of them. The movie, when I saw it, quickly displaced many of my inferior visions, some of which you’ve named. Others were eerie in their correspondence: The casting of Paul and Jessica seem almost clairvoyant. On the other hand, Lynch made choices I didn’t agree with: His Baron was a very cardboard psychopath with pustules to boot, while in Herbert he was a more nuanced sybarite with a ruthless political sense. Lynch’s Sardaukar just looked like welders—no aura at all of the “terror troops” they were supposed to be. And Sting was not at any time Feyd Rautha. So with my awe perforated by a smattering of nerd grievances, I was well-placed not to feel too much of a burden. And it helped that the guys from Last Unicorn [Games], Christian Moore and Owen Seyler, were nonchalant about it. They encouraged me to draw from Lynch at will, but not slavishly, which is a way to work that is second nature to me. Later when they steered me away from the Lynchian stuff, it was not so much dragging myself out from under a weight as throwing off some mooring lines. It was no big deal. You also have to realize that I got paid very little for the Dune stuff, and it was literally the job I landed just before walking into a temp agency to investigate the prospective whoring out of my hours. So in terms of possibly shortchanging some creative legacy or other, I was definitely staring at a much more depressing alternative. Plus I had already done Ellison and Asimov, so I may have been a bit devil-may-care.
With the Septimus Heap series, you are given the opportunity to be the first to create visual interpretations of a deep fantasy world with a wide readership. How much freedom do you have in interpreting these works and how much feedback or control does the author or publisher have? What has the reaction of Septimus fans been to your interpretations?
The reaction of the Septimus fans has been uniformly wonderful. I’m flattered by the Septimus fan art on deviantART that is drawn from my work, and given the young ages of these artists, reminded me of the cyclical nature of life and of inspiration. As for creative freedom, every sketch and final drawing gets shown to Angie Sage, who is contractually entitled to utter control and approval. And so she has the ability to really make my life hell if she wanted. I also think Katherine Tegen, her publisher, has a lot to say in that brain trust. But I’d say that 99% of the time, she and Katherine are completely and supportively on board with what I’m doing. I do follow the manuscript carefully, and am an utter orthogonal geek about getting things right vis-à-vis directions, terrain, architectural layout, et cetera. Angie has been much sweeter than she needed to be on the occasions when I’ve stressed the need to have this to the Northeast and that due South, based on “facts” laid down in the first book. Thankfully it’s been a good alchemy—she is convinced that I “get” Septimus’ world, and I’m convinced that she’s writing a world that is crazily easy for me to envision.
So many artists working in science fiction/fantasy illustration today are turning to or at least partially incorporating digital methods into their work. From what I can tell, your work remains strictly hand-painted using traditional techniques and materials. Is this because you simply have not explored digital techniques, or is it a deliberate choice to keep your work defiantly handmade and analog because you feel that something is lost by digitizing parts of the process?
I’ve explored digital techniques since my first time owning a computer, around the year 2000. I’ve gotten some interesting and fun results along the way, and I also use it to quickly build color roughs for publishers. I have in fact published digital art, in the book Septimus Heap: the Magykal Papers. You can see some of it on my website: it’s the stuff that looks for all the world like watercolors—it’s actually Photoshop. I think there is more of that kind of digital in my future, where I use it as a way to color pencil or ink drawings. But whenever I am confronted with the job of facilely rendering a strongly dimensional form in paint, it is so much easier for me to work in oil paints than to fight with software. So, no, it’s not got anything to do with purity or with defiance, much less with digiphobia. I’m a science fiction devotee and a technology enthusiast who’d love nothing better than to see the invention of a perfectly compliant medium. But at this stage, it’s still an issue of sheer practicality, finished quality, and not messing with a good thing.
Do you remember your dreams? Do you ever draw from your dreams for imagery in your works?
I do remember some of my dreams, and I’m pretty sure they’re of interest to no one. And I almost never make art from dream imagery. I say “almost” because it’s possible I’ve forgotten one or two—but really, I doubt it. It’s probably because I don’t consider them terribly important. I do envy artists able to believe in and draw from this resource. Zdzisław Beksiński is one example; he has said that he wanted to give the impression of having photographed dreams, and at this he succeeds past all reason: His work is mind-twistingly arresting. My work however, is drawn almost always from daydreams, which I much prefer.
What is your dream project?
To illustrate an audiobook. I think the explosion of Audible.com is symptomatic of our thirst for a basic, primal storytelling, voice-to-ear, the same kind of storytelling they could have done 100,000 years ago. And we could see an accompanying slideshow of art on a listening device—I’m sure we have the technology. Speaking as a visually-occupied worker who could more easily spare a few seconds to look at a piece of art in the middle of an audiobook, than say, watch a movie, I want this both as creator and consumer.
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