Artist of the Month: Mark Marcuson: Art Versus Science

American Artist Artist of the MonthMarcuson Violin oilThis Nebraska artist went from scientific illustration to still lifes and figures that enable him to examine life in a new way.

Marcuson Cranberries oil
2008, oil, 24 x 16.
Collection the artist.

by Naomi Ekperigin

Mark Marcuson is an equal-opportunity artist. Having spent most of his life drawing and painting, he has not simply dabbled in various media, he has devoted time to mastering them. After high school, he received an associates degree in art at Colby Community College, in Kansas, and shortly thereafter got a job as a scientific illustrator. “I was actually preparing to study historical geology after I completed my art degree,” he recalls, “but that summer I had a job working at a triceratops dig site and one of the university employees saw some of my artwork and encouraged me to apply for an open position within the research division of the University of Nebraska Natural History Museum. I didn’t expect to get hired, but I did, and began my career as an illustrator.” As an illustrator for the museum, Marcuson worked in a variety of media, including graphite, watercolor, acrylic, oil, colored pencil, and pen-and-ink. The artist worked in this field for 11 years, making time for his fine-art work on weekends and during the evenings. This personal work was a sharp contrast to his scientific illustration, which tended to be in black and white, and was finely detailed. “My illustration was linked to systematic research,” the artist notes, “So there’s not a lot of room for self expression. After some time, I began painting murals, and I was able to have some fun. Eventually that allowed me to leave my job at the museum and divide my time between murals and fine art, with only an occasional illustration job to help pay the bills.”

Marcuson Violin oil
2007, oil, 30 x 30.
Private collection.

With his schedule slightly more flexible after leaving behind full-time illustration, Marcuson went back to school to receive a B.A. degree in Linguistic Anthropology. When asked why he chose to go back and study a field other than art, he expresses confidence in the path he has taken. “I have been diligent over the years in expanding my knowledge of art through personal study,” he says. “I have an extensive library, and take every opportunity to visit art museums and traveling exhibitions to study the original works of my favorite artists, which include John Singer Sargent and the Northern European still-life painters. At the time, my wife and I were planning to work in Asia for a significant period of time, so I felt earning a Linguistic Anthropology degree was the best way to prepare.”

In 1999, Marcuson went to Nepal, where, in addition to studying linguistics, he taught scientific illustration and drew illustrations for the Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal, in Kathmandu. The four years he spent there greatly impacted not only his outlook on life, but also his artistic process. “I’d never painted people before my trip to Asia,” the artist says. “I was so impressed with the people I met there. I saw the challenges many of them faced to meet basic needs, and their endurance made me examine life in a new way.” This analysis is evident in paintings such as Nepali Woman With Basket. “You can see the tension in her hand,” Marcuson notes. “The expression on her face is indicative of the weight she’s carrying.”

Marcuson Nepali Woman With Basket oil
Nepali Woman With Basket
2007, oil, 48 x 30.
  Collection the artist.
Marcuson Bread and Olives oil
Bread and Olives
2007, oil, 26 x 18.
Collection the artist.

For the last 12 years the artist has been painting exclusively in oil, and paints mostly figures and still lifes. “I like to work with subjects that have strong visual contrast,” he says. “My figurative work tends to be more brushy and loose while my still lifes have more detail.” Although some of Marcuson’s illustration work was in oil, he faced new challenges in his fine-art work. “Being able to see the relative juxtaposition between warm and cool colors and figuring out how to use them to affect the sense of depth and form in a painting was difficult at first,” he says. But through experimentation, he gained the skills and confidence he needed to move forward and excel in the medium.

“I start with classical composition lines and a lot of thumbnail sketches, in which I plan out the balance of lights and darks,” the artist says of his process. “This is the most difficult stage, but also the most important. If I rush this to get to the fun part—painting—I regret it later.” Having spent much of his art career creating highly detailed work, Marcuson also finds it difficult to know when a piece is finished. “I’ve trained myself to stop sooner than I might otherwise, and then look at the painting over the course of several days or weeks before making any final adjustments,” he explains. The artist advises that others who wish to try a new media go in with an open mind, and be willing to alter their expectations as they work. “Go slowly,” he says. “There has to be time to learn, evolve, and experiment. I also suggest researching the various techniques used in the media you want to try, and then experiment from there. I also recommend finding an artist you like and going to a workshop—there is nothing like watching another artist pick up a brush and paint. Most people will discover what they need to discover, but they’ll progress more quickly if they can learn from others who have gone before them.”

For more information on the artist, contact him at

Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.


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