Mark Ulriksen is a San Francisco-based artist and illustrator whose instantly recognizable portraits and whimsical take on life have led to projects for a variety of major clients. He specializes in figurative work that blends humor and darkness with psychological insight. Ulriksen is best known for his work for The New Yorker, where he has been a regular contributor since 1993, with more than 45 magazine covers to his credit. He was interviewed by for Bay Crossings in 2015.
Cultural Currents: Baseball season is underway, and a great many of our readers use the ferry to attend Giants games. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to love the game?
Mark Ulriksen: I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a wee lad growing up in San Carlos. I played it (poorly) all through adolescence and love so much about it—the acres of mowed grass, the uniforms, the changing perspective of the diamond depending upon where one sits in the stands, the back-and-forth between pitcher and batter, and the action that ensues once a ball is hit. The only thing I don’t like about the game is the economics, which is totally insane.
CC: What makes baseball so much more compelling for an illustrator than other sports?
Ulriksen: I think a lot of it has to do with the light. It’s the combination of the game being played outdoors where you can watch the changing shadows on the field and the players (provided it’s a day game) and take in the big skies overhead as well as watch the light change. Their uniforms allow you to recognize players not only by their number but also by their physical presence. I also enjoy painting soccer players for the same reason that I relate to baseball as a subject matter. The game itself—played outdoors with recognizable players—is all very appealing.
CC: You hold a special place in your heart for dogs, too. What is it about them that so moves you?
Ulriksen: I grew up with dogs just like I grew up with baseball and perhaps it’s a first-love type of thing that I’m attracted to. But as a subject matter dogs are as intriguing as people, with unique personalities and physical types. Painting a dog’s nose is way more fun than painting a human’s, and we don’t look quite as adorable as a dog does when our tongues are hanging out. Plus dogs wear their hearts on their sleeves, they’re much nicer than people. Dogs express themselves all the time, making it easy to capture their emotions. I love dogs because their main objective, outside of eating, is pleasing the people they’re around. What’s not to love?
CC: You have been favorably compared to the legendary Norman Rockwell, but what other illustrators do you admire?
Ulriksen: So many. Past heroes include Miroslav Sasek of the This is SF; This is Rome; This is Paris series of books from the 1960s and Ben Shahn, who straddled art and illustration and tackled the politics of his time. Among today’s field I really admire New Yorker cover artists Barry Blitt, Peter deSeve and Ana Juan. I like Marc Burckhardt for his contemporary folk art, children’s book illustrator and Giselle Potter for her folk arty naiveté. Local illustrators Brian Stauffer has a dramatic problem-solving style, and Vivienne Flesher for her simple beauty. Andrea Ventura, Gerard Dubois and Martin Jarrie. Guy Billout, Brad Holland and Blair Drawson have all been big influences too.
CC: Many Bay Crossings readers know you chiefly for your work for The New Yorker. Do you bring a certain San Francisco Bay Area sensibility to that magazine?
Ulriksen: Who knows? I am a product of the Bay Area and I’ve lived in the City for 30 years so I guess it has rubbed off on my work. I enjoy the crazy quilt of people you find here as well as the open-minded, curious nature of folks. I’m sure the clouds over the Pacific have influenced me as well as the golden light we get here along the coast.