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Hitchin artist Mark Payne: faded cover star

PUBLISHED: 09:57 23 July 2018 | UPDATED: 09:57 23 July 2018

Mark Payne in his barn studio with a selection of his framed works (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)

Mark Payne in his barn studio with a selection of his framed works (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)

BJP Photography Ltd

Painter Mark Payne has a love affair with old books and magazines, lovingly recreating their battered covers on a big scale. It’s a world away from his Hitchin CGI company

Rare old books and magazines – those not only aged but dog eared too – are the lifeblood of Mark Payne’s work. The subject is not important however, what is key for this meticulous painter is the cover artwork and equally the volume’s history – signs that it has been read, passed on, loved and absorbed.

‘I’ve always had an interest in rare books,’ the 56-year-old explains. ‘I carried Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, a regular little paperback, with me for years. It was literally falling apart but I loved it – the way the book decayed made it interesting.’

Cosmopolitan magazine, September 1948 (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)Cosmopolitan magazine, September 1948 (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)

After painting a blown-up version of its front cover, positive reviews prompted Mark to produce more. Commissions followed and, as his reputation spread, galleries were keen to stock his work.

At the time he was full-time at his Hitchin-based digital illustration business, which uses a combination of CGI, photography, film and animation to create striking images and films, but now devotes two days a week to his art when he exchanges pixels for paints.

At work on a French publication of HG Wells' The War of the Worlds (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)At work on a French publication of HG Wells' The War of the Worlds (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)

‘They have to have a strong design with good typography,’ he says, ‘but just as important to me is the condition. Being in too good a shape doesn’t make an interesting painting because little tears and nicks are evidence of a book’s life. I can’t analyse why, but they are fascinating.’

Mark limits himself to three colours – blue, red and yellow, plus black to mirror the ‘cmyk’ (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) tones used in the magazine printing process.

A striking cover of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. Mark lovingly recreated the battered original (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)A striking cover of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. Mark lovingly recreated the battered original (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)

‘I usually paint in groups of six paintings,’ he explains. ‘This is down to technique. Essentially the process is this – I start with a white canvas and produce an underpainting, basically in a shade of grey. Then I add a pencil drawing and paint over it with black oil paint, which then resembles a black and white photograph of a book. I apply up to 30 layers of transparent colour known as glazes, but each has to dry before you can apply the next, so this is time consuming. Each new glaze changes the optical qualities of the layers beneath, creating a richness of colour. Using transparent paint means you don’t obliterate anything underneath. I spend a couple of hours at a time on each painting.’

The individual 1mm layers are sanded to remove impurities or dust before the addition of further layers, making the ‘super smooth’. The interesting aspect, for Mark, of working this way is that the creative process is visible, the pencil drawing can still be seen. This technique is a variation of one used by many of the Old Masters.

Theatre Magazine, October 1923 (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)Theatre Magazine, October 1923 (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)

‘They would start with an underpainting,’ Mark explains, ‘and, once finished, paint over with successive layers of colour because pigment was so expensive. It’s generally accepted that the most beautiful qualities of a colour are in its transparent state. This is because transparent colour appears back-lit with light reflecting through the glaze, bouncing back like a stained glass window, in contrast to opaque paint which simply reflects light off the uppermost surface.’

Stashed in a barn at his home, which doubles as a studio where his two Schnauzers, Connie and Alf, are ‘both companions and foot rests’, is Mark’s collection of books. Collected from bookshops and the internet, they are the artist’s pool of inspiration.

HG Wells, La Guerre des Mondes, 1912 (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)HG Wells, La Guerre des Mondes, 1912 (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)

He says, ‘Earlier this week I spent several hours going through about 6,000 cover images to identify my next batch. I love doing that, it’s exciting, and I know in a flash if they’re right.

‘My inspiration to paint has got better and stronger. I love the whole process. When I drop off paintings at the framer’s, I can’t wait to see them again. My problem now is I can’t paint quickly enough!’

Cosmopolitan magazine, May 1950 (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)Cosmopolitan magazine, May 1950 (photo: BJP Photography Ltd)

As a ‘welcome departure from books’, Mark also paints landscapes, which are equally in demand.

‘The other day when out walking the dogs I saw a single tree and had to paint it,’ he says. ‘I like producing books and landscapes and would love to be known for both. It’s nice to be able to switch between them.’

Trained in technical and scientific illustration, Mark was happy to take a step back from his award-winning Mission 3D company, allowing him to ‘get back to my old skills.’

It goes without saying that an e-reader is not something Mark would ever contemplate owning. For him, a well-thumbed novel or magazine is not only a good read, but a direct link to all those who have held it before.


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