Snowboarding and art have always gone hand in hand. The relationship between both worlds is extensive and founded in each’s demand for creativity and originality. Both are expressions of character and act as extensions of ourselves. Just as those that strap in for a living inspire with their riding, those that create visual art inspire with their craft. And while there is a long list of riders who actively creative in various art spaces, there is a much shorter list of artists who have made substantial contributions to snowboarding. Of those, Mark Kowalchuk is decidedly on the short list.
Hailing from Calgary, Mark has been increasingly influential in not only the snowboarding community but also that of skateboarding and music. His accomplishments within the boarding world include a continued list of graphics for YES., Academy, SPY, Ovan, Trouble Andrew, and more. He even owns his own skateboard company, Artschool Skateboards. Given his impressive resume, we only thought it right to reach out and tap the mind of a man who very likely has created the art for the board under your feet. With everything from advice for hopeful artists, to stories of how he got to where he is now, the story below only scratches the surface of what Mark has created and continues to make. Dive in here to peel back the film of one of snowboarding’s most substantiated artists, and make sure to follow along with his current works to keep a keen on eye on what comes next.
How did you get into making art?
I have always been interested in art–it was pretty easy for me to know what I wanted to do in life. I went to a fine art school and majored in drawing, painting, and printmaking. After that, I was trying to figure out if I was going to get my masters and become an art teacher, but it was at the time where graphic design was starting to really take off. It was all pretty new then and seemed like a cool thing to get into, so I moved to Toronto and got schooling for design.
What were the early years of your career like?
I always had people telling me that it was near impossible to make a career out of it. And I am not saying that it wasn't, because it definitely takes many years of commitment to stand out and climb that ladder. For me, it was always clear that it's what I wanted to do whether I was ultimately successful or not. I was definitely a little bit of the black sheep, but I had a supportive family and they backed everything I did. They are still some of my biggest fans to this day.
I would imagine it was a long road.
It is definitely a long road, and I do have something to say about that—the industry has quadrupled if not more than that in popularity. Everyone wants to be a graphic designer these days. You have all of these people coming out of school, and it is a different vibe and mentality now—not that it is more entitled, but people see the success of the earlier generation and they expect that instantly. Personally, it has been twenty years of hustling to get where I am now.
How did you first get into creating graphics for board brands?
For years I only did fine art and my own design work while I skated and snowboarded on the side. They operated independently of each other. I didn't even realize I could make art for snow or skate brands. My first skate gig was when I moved to Calgary about fifteen years ago. A friend was skating for a local company and he asked me to design his pro graphic. My first snowboard graphic was in 2007. It was with Jason Broz, who lived in Calgary for a short period of time and started a snowboard brand called Clyde.
What kind of things were you doing before you got into the board world?
I had an art studio and I was working on honing my trade for myself—and then working a design job on the side. It really didn't become real to me until 2008 that I could take my fine art, combine it with my design work, and have a career in board design.
Do you have a difference in approach between snowboard graphics and skateboard graphics?
I think so. You really have to consider binding placement on snowboards, and truck placement on skateboards. I also feel like layout wise, what is in style has changed dramatically in both skate and snowboards over the last couple of years.
Do you have a preference between the two?
No, I like them both. They both have their challenges, and style-wise, I find what people want skateboarding is a little different than snowboarding. Don't get me wrong, there are so many exceptions to the rule, a brand like Lobster has that rebel skate vibe to them. But most people like nature more in snowboarding and more satire humor in skating.
Do you have a favorite graphic that you have designed?
I get asked that one quite a bit, and it's a really hard question. I think for me, it is really about certain boards or works I have done that mean more to me as a turning point in my career–works that I feel I was able to hit some sort of target with. Some of the first graphics I did are some of my favorites because it was my first time joining up with brands that I still work with today. Some of the stuff I did for the band In Flames was really big for me because I was such a huge fan of their music.
What role does music play in your life?
Pretty much all of it. I am hugely influenced by music and movies more than anything. If I weren't a fine artist I would pursue music. I listen to a lot of lyrics and pull a lot of ideas from them for my art.
What are some of the larger challenges you have faced as an artist?
I think as an artist we always want to challenge ourselves. If we didn't, it would be stagnant and boring. When I toured with In Flames and live painted on stage for them–even though I have live painted a thousand times–I have never done it in that format. Strobe lights in my eyes, I only have two hours to hammer out this painting, and I am surrounded by tons of distractions. Full metal music blasting with crazy fans–I honestly didn't know how I was going to do it. But it worked out, once you get it done it gives you the confidence to do the next big challenge.
Are you able to feel satisfied with completed projects?
I don't think I am ever satisfied. I think that is mostly just my own hang-ups. I am always trying to push myself to be better and to improve my skills–be it with a brush or a pen or whatever my medium is—it can always be cleaner. There is always more detail, and I don't think perfect or being content exists.
How would you define your style?
It is hard for me to define my own style, but people have told me that they think it is like a graphic novel meets skateboard art. When people ask what kind of art I do, I tell them I am an illustrator.
Who do you draw inspiration from within the art community?
My biggest influence is MC Escher. He was one of the best print artists of the 1800's. He did everything by hand and the detail level he got was ridiculous. Also, old skateboard artists like Jim Phillips and V.C.J. from Powell Perlata–their line work really inspires me.
You have done many collaborations in the past, what is your favorite part and what is the most difficult part about working with someone else?
Everyone has his or her own unique way of producing. I have my methods of how I get things down on a canvas, and everyone isn't the same. It’s tough when you need to smash processes together. I tend to get all my fills and underpainting done, and then I add all of the line work over the top at the end. Some people color block their stuff in and do the line work first. I think working with another artist is fun though too. When you are in a band, you are jamming with some other dude, and he has his style and you have your style, and then you sort of feed off each other. That happens in art too, they start doing something cool and you start playing off it. It doesn't matter if it turns out or not, because it all just works on a level of having fun and creating together.
I would imagine it can also be pretty helpful as far as evolving your own style–seeing what they are doing and then incorporating it into your own work.
It is crazy how that happens. I actually have two really good artists friends that live in Squamish in Whistler. I used to live paint and do a ton of collaborations with them. I remember painting one day and my buddy mentioned that I should use Indian ink with a brush for my linework–because you can do some really cool fluid strong lines with it. Now I use it every day, on every painting I have done since. It changed my style completely.
What are your favorite mediums?
I have two different styles that I think I am known for. A lot of people know my pen and ink stuff, which is a bit more detailed. I will do all the linework by hand, and then I will scan it and color it digitally. On the other side of the coin would be my painting, which I use acrylic and then I will do all of the linework with Indian ink over the top. Those are my two main mediums.
Do you prefer one to the other?
I think that most people are more impressed with my ink and pen work, but I also enjoy painting a lot. I find live painting to be quite relaxing and there is a part of the process I really enjoy. I get more detail out of drawing than painting, so I have a bit of a different style with drawings than my paintings. People that don't know my process, they will think it is the same, but I know my work well enough to know that my line work is tighter when I use ink.
How much of it is a therapeutic process for you?
I think it is a bit of a full spectrum. A lot of times I will have a list of projects that I need to get done and some of them are obviously more enjoyable than others. Sometimes I am told to draw this or that for some project, and it’s a job. Other times, I am getting something done for myself or I have free reign because the client likes what I do and they will just pay for that. If you are being told to draw something or it is a gig and it is about money, it isn't that enjoyable and you just do what you can in your own style. But sometimes it can be really therapeutic if you are drawing for the sake of drawing. Just sketching ideas or painting because you have an idea that you want to put out there.
Are there any projects that you are looking forward to in particular?
Here is the thing; I draw every day. I often have a pretty huge list as far as projects that I need to get done and I end up turning a lot away because I just don't have enough hours in the day. But sometimes, I will have these sketches, that are just floating and ideas for things that I have wanted to use, and an opportunity will come up. So I will flip back through the sketchbook and make that idea come to life. Sometimes they just sit on the shelf for a year.
Do you like working on murals?
Besides doing commercial work at home; I do tons of live paintings and murals. I did a huge one at the Cochran skate park that the city had commissioned me to do in the big bowl there. I did a nice big one a few years back for Volcom at the new store they opened in Calgary. They are one of my favorite types of projects to work on because it’s such a unique challenge given the size.
Do you see any emerging trends that you are excited about, or perhaps other patterns that are maybe a little tiresome?
There are definitely always trends in art. You can't avoid it. The times change, and the artists evolve in certain ways depending on what people are into. At the end of the day you need to sell your work, so while you are doing things for yourself you are also doing things that will sell. There are a lot of things that have been drawn a lot–like skulls, pizza, and all of the classic reapers and wizards. I don't really think that things get old or tiresome, just as long as they are done in a unique way that reflects an artist's style.
In your mind, what are some of the parallels between the art world and the board worlds?
That's interesting. I don't know, sometimes I feel that I am super detached from things because I spend so much time in my art cave. I keep my finger on the skate and snow world–I own a skateboard company–but I am almost not on the pulse of the art world. I follow a few artists that I think are sick, but I don't really know what the scene is. I stick to my own guns. I think with artists—a lot of us get into art because we are a little introverted and often get stuck in our own heads and imagination. Sometimes we look in so much that we forget to look out.
If you were to give a budding artist that was interested in getting into the board world space some advice, what are some of the things you might tell them?
I honestly think the best thing you can do is to work on your trade and work on your skills and constantly just improve your methods for yourself. Don't try and measure your success off someone else's success. Just love what you do. Draw every day. Even if you have to get another job doing something else until your art career takes off. There are certain steps that I have taken to get where I am, and I think working on your portfolio, building your website, taking on grassroots projects that you can put under your belt and that will give you experience–things that you can send to bigger clients later–those are all helpful steps. But you also need to be patient. It takes years. You are going to find that most of these artists that come out of school won’t have success in the first five years, and then they probably find something else. If you have twenty artists that come out of school, you will have five that stick with it.