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Mark Dixon: When Design Turns to Art.

Updated: May 7, 2021

It's autumn. We see the leaves turning golden outside our windows. We feel the nip in the air when the evening comes. We even turn on the heat to knock the chill off our houses when we first rise. Autumn is here, and it comes with the sense of needing to hurry things up a bit. The horseman in the painting above crosses the rippling waters of that creek pulling his pack horse with a determined persistence. The hint of yellows and golden-green foliage indicate that the seasons are changing, so wherever he has to go and whatever he has to do must be gotten to and done soon. The slanting trunks of the dead trees are reminders that not everything survives in these high mountains. The trajectory of the slanting trees adds tension to this scene of an ordinary drama set in the magnificence of a rugged mountain landscape that is isolated, incredibly beautiful, and totally unforgiving. The first snow hasn't hit yet, but it may very well be on its way. Therefore, the man depicted here amidst this wild beauty is about his business. It is the image designed by the artist that presents a story which allows the viewer to appreciate that splendid environment and, at the same time, nod in agreement with the man that he indeed must hurry along.

The painter of the scene above, Mark Dixon, is originally from Pennsylvania, where the landscape, though lovely, is not quite what one finds in the Rocky Mountains. Dixon graduated from Penn State with a degree in Marketing, but a few years later, he got another degree. The second degree was from Colorado State in Fine Arts. Along the way he discovered that design and art were his primary interests. Throughout Dixon's work, one sees the precision of the graphic designer applied to the creation of an artful image.

The painting above is indeed a fallscape, with autumn colors from the foreground to the middle ground of the painting. Their color is heightened by the drape of deep green conifers in the distant background where there is still some hint of yellow, showing that it is autumn back there, too. The mountains are even further back and the white clouds come from somewhere behind the mountains. Layer after layer of elements lead us further and further back into the painting, added to by the skillful placement of a meandering stream that beckons us to follow it deeper into the golden countryside. All of this is done with a designer's eye of how to place each element within the painting to give a full experience to the viewer. As well, the technical skill needed to create this scene and make it come alive is also present. We see art and design working hand-in-hand.

" There is always something that you see that interests you. What I like about figures and faces is the considerable challenge in capturing just what you see." Mark Dixon

When Dixon turns his attention to figures, he shows a sensitivity to time and place. His approach differs accordingly. Just take a look at the two figures below.

When looking at the figure on the left, Pink, there is a sense of modernity. The angular lines found in the representation of the clothing, which are quick and sharp, are combined with a rather flat treatment of the shirt, skirt, and blouse. They have the look of a quick fashion sketch. The lines of the clothes move with the rhythm of jazz fusion. Her arms and hands are well enough drawn but outlined to emphasize the sketched aspect of how they are represented. This is not the technique of the Renaissance of Leonardo, Botticelli, and Raphael. This is modern. Yet, the face of the young woman is much more in keeping with the application of classical skill in representation, without the demand to create an idealized beauty. This is a very real, contemporary, young woman, with a sunburned nose, a full bottom lip and deep-set soulful eyes with a dreamy expression that is offset by the hand on her hip and the way she cocks her head. The color pink, which one sees on her tank top and on the wall behind her, is the very color the women's movement uses.

"Pioneer" on the other hand presents a figure that seems to emerge from the American past of settlers moving west. One gets more a sense of the fullness of the body under the layers of clothing. The hands are fully and skillfully rendered, not just outlined and shaded in. Those hands are important. While they are shown calmly folded in front of this woman, we see strength within them. Though young still, they have already carried many a pail of water and baked many a loaf of bread. She meets the viewer with a calm, straight forward stare. There is no dreaminess in her eyes. She knows what she is about and accepts the challenge.

Dixon says he did this from a photo of a pioneer woman, hence his use of gray-scale tones. However, that also feels appropriate for the subject and the mood of the piece.

"I think that a good piece of art works abstractly in that the arrangement of shapes, colors, and values all work together to make an interesting and eye-catching composition."

Mark Dixon

In the painting above, called Red, Gold, and Blue, the viewer can see that combination of the abstract in the loose, angular handing of the drapery and the background, along with a modified and modernized reality in the handling of the figure. The pose of the young woman lends itself to angularity, which Dixon highlights in his treatment of her neck and back as though they were a singular, irregular block. She sits precariously propped on the edge of a support covered in red cloth, her feet on point as a way to keep her from slipping off that edge. The twist in the torso and the turn of the head add to the feeling of contortion. The blue color on the wall is matched by that on the woman's back and legs, as though they both perhaps come from a blue and red colored light projected onto them from outside the picture plane. The figure is outlined in a heavy line reminiscent of Picasso's cubism. The curves and lines of her body are echoed by those curves and swirls on the wall of blues and reds which match those colors on her body. The model and the environment are rendered as being of one and the same in feeling.

"I've learned that there are many different paths to good artwork. I've learned that it's easy to do so-so art, but to kick it up to a better level is very hard. [It involves] all of the incredibly subtle changes in color and value that you have to get to make it right."

Mark Dixon.

As with any good artist, Dixon is an avid sketcher. He works en plein air for both painting and sketching. Here in this page from one of his sketchbooks, we see a rendition of a tree. Its spare quality works well with the few blades of grass and the pile of stones the tree seems to be growing out of. Those crooked limbs devoid of anything that might once have been green create a sense of character that had been developed by the nature of a harse environment. This tree was a standing natural sculpture, a survivor of sorts, and a piece of art for anyone with time to look and eyes to see. Dixon was obviously that person.

Mark Dixon is an easterner who has taken well to landscape and nature of the Rocky Mountains, just as he has transitioned principles of design and draughtsmanship into the creation of unique and eye catching works of art.

Mark Dixon currently shows work at Bella Gallery in Monument, Colorado. His website is, and he may be reached at

For another article featuring a piece of Dixon's work, go to to the October 10, 2020 article, "The Fine Art of Drawing and Wine for After Dinner, Marsala."

For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at

She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on

© Marjorie Vernelle 2020

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