Monday, September 7, 2015

STUDIO SPACE: Mark and Mary Willenbrink

Mark and Mary, best-selling authors of the Absolute Beginner series, have been working as a team in the publishing industry for decades. Sharing the fundamentals of art in understandable terms, they enjoy encouraging others to pursue their creative potential. Mark is also a fine artist and teaches art classes and workshops. Mary is an author and a home school mom. Mark and Mary live with their family, a loyal border collie and two mischievous cats in West Chester, Ohio.

Location: West Chester, Ohio
On the Drawing Table: We are working on the next Absolute Beginner book
Coming out soon: Name TBA; coming out in 2017 Look for a future announcement!

How did you get your start as a professional artist?
During the latter days of high school, where I was finishing my commercial art program at Scarlet Oaks, I worked at a co-op through the summer at Korb Check Printers. The work involved paste-up, industrial camera work, typography and printing plate making. This job also educated me in off-set printing.

From there, I went on to Central Academy of Commercial Art. After graduating art school I started in advertising, doing paste-up, layout, design and illustration. (This was before computers).

When computers were becoming common in the commercial art world, I decided to go freelance, exclusively doing illustration work. After interviewing to publish my artwork in Watercolor Magic Magazine, Mary and I started writing and illustrating articles for the magazine. These articles became the springboard for our first book, Watercolor for the Absolute Beginner. We are now working on our seventh in the Absolute Beginner series.

Mary has her Bachelor’s in Education from Eastern Kentucky University and her Masters in Counseling, starting at Cincinnati Christian University and graduating from Xavier University. 

Describe your work.
Mary and I create art instruction books for North Light Books. I develop the concept, write an outline and plan out the material, page by page, for the entire book. Next I write the text, with Mary’s help, and produce all of the line art and illustrations, which I then photograph. Mary works with the planning and editing of the written material, as well as the data entry, which includes the text and cataloging thousands (yes, thousands!) of visual images.

I also teach drawing and watercolor classes and workshops and Mary homeschools our youngest daughter.

Tell about your workspace.
Our home has both a living room and family room. Mary and I use the living room space for their office/studio. It has large picture windows so we can watch the squirrels chase each other through the trees in our front yard.

I work on a 3’x5’ drafting board, complete with attached T square arm. This is especially useful for producing print-ready art.

What are your favorite materials digital and traditional?
I work in traditional mediums, mostly pencil and watercolor, but I also enjoy oils, acrylics and pastels. When Mary writes, she loves Ticonderoga pencils, her “special” pens and, of course, the computer.

What’s your typical workday/work session like?
I typically work 8-5 Monday through Friday. Because family time is so important, Mary and I try not to work through the weekends.

What do you do to keep yourself motivated as you work?
Though we love working at home, sometimes it can be difficult to stay motivated. Meeting with other artists can help with motivation so we try to attend the illustrator’s lunch as often as we can.

Also, our book projects have far off deadlines which can make it difficult to stay motivated. I schedule myself so that I know how much I am to produce per week. This gives me clear, obtainable goals that provide a sense of accomplishment. Developing the concepts for future projects is another way to get motivated and keep the creative juice flowing.

What is your dream job?
This is my dream job. I do what I like, crafting books, where I like, at home and with my favorite person, Mary.

What do you listen to while you work?
We both are eclectic with our music. We especially enjoy Henry Mancini, Mozart, Schubert and Tchaikovsky. I enjoy listening to the old radio programs aired on WMKV and Mary especially likes listening to songs from Switchfoot, Toby Mac and House of Heroes. But while we are writing, we prefer the more relaxed atmosphere of music without words.

Who are your artistic influences?
In some way, I believe we are influenced by everything we are exposed to. With so many talented artists to choose from, it’s difficult to narrow the list. These are some of the artists that I admire and who have influenced me the most. Big Daddy Ed Roth, Peter Helck, Winold Reiss, Grant Wood, John Constable, John Singer Sargent, Andrew Wyeth, MC Escher and Norman Rockwell. Besides regarding each of these artists as very talented and able to communicate effectively, I find their art appealing because of the subject matter and the technique used.

What do you do that is not art related that inspires you?
I’m inspired by the world around us. I love nature and the beauty of the outdoors, and I also enjoy buildings and architecture. I enjoy learning about science and physics. With all of these interests, there is an order and purpose to it which I find fascinating.

Mary loves to spend time with family and friends, doing anything from sitting quietly together, playing games, laughing or talking about serious life issues. Mary always has several books available to read and she loves to write. She also likes to learn strange facts. An example, she just found out that we are both pluviophiles, which means we love rainy days. We also enjoy the way the clouds contrast with each other, watching thunderstorms and the fresh smell after a spring rain. These things lift our spirits.

What was the best advice you got in your career so far?
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart

and lean not on your own understanding;

in all your ways acknowledge Him,

and He will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6

With this scripture and others like it, we glean that we are to keep focused on God and to be true to ourselves.

Defining one’s identity can be a struggle. As an artist your art can become your identity. Am I just my art? Is an actor just the role they play? God has gifted me with artistic talent but that is just one facet of my life, and it is only a portion of my identity. I want to be open to the possibilities God has for my life as I learn to understand myself better each day. 

Japanese and Chinese translations!

What is your favorite color?
Mary’s favorite colors are yellow and orange because they are energizing. I like the calm feeling of blues and greens. Colors are not isolated. Their use involves their relationship with other colors. In that sense, it’s a matter of how effectively they are used. I think any color can be appealing if it is in the right setting.

How can we best follow your art online/on social media?
The Absolute Beginner books are sold in Michaels and on or through our publisher at and you can buy my prints at If you would like to follow me on social media, you can like my fanpage on Facebook or check out my website and blog at