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A world of dogs, sports and celebrity portraits: Mark Ulriksen covers it all
By Ed Attanasio

Ulriksen’s Watch Your
Back Mountain for The
New Yorker won the 2006
Best News Magazine Cover
from the American Society
of Magazine Editors
Who wouldn’t enjoy living in painter Mark Ulriksen’s imaginary world? It’s full of dogs, baseball, golf, football, and amazingly accurate portraits of celebrities in the news. His style has been described as ‘quirky,’ ‘witty,’ and a “blend of humor with psychological insight.” About his own paintings, Ulriksen has said that they possess “a simplicity; a kind of naiveté”; his style is unique, he says, because he “doesn’t want to get caught up in what’s fashionable.”

Ulriksen is a lot more than just an award-winning freelance illustrator who creates acrylic paintings for many of the country’s widely known magazines, book publishers and ad agencies. He’s probably best known for his 37 covers of The New Yorker magazine, especially Watch Your Back Mountain, an image he painted in 2006 prompted by the hunting incident when then-Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot and injured Harry Whittington. The cover depicts Cheney and George W. Bush dressed as cowboys, with Cheney holding a smoking shotgun. Ulriksen’s homage to the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain won the 2006 Best News Magazine Cover from the American Society of Magazine Editors and created a buzz throughout the world.

Since 1993, Ulriksen has published more than 500 illustrations and over 30 magazine covers for publications including the aforementioned New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Time, Utne Reader, Business Week, United’s Hemispheres, and The New York Times Magazine. He’s worked for advertising agencies, creating paintings for clients such as The Vanguard Group and Cole Haan shoes. He also paints commissioned pieces, primarily family portraits and dog portraits. In addition, Ulriksen has done 15 book covers, and several years ago illustrated his second children’s book, “The Biggest Parade” by Elizabeth Winthrop.

Ulriksen, 53, was born in San Francisco and grew up primarily in San Carlos. After graduating in 1980 from Chico State University with a B.A. in visual communications, he helped redesign the local weekly, Chico News & Review, where he worked for two years. He then moved back East and worked as a senior graphic designer for a publishing group at Northeastern University in Boston, a position he held for the next two years.

Ulriksen’s commissioned painting, Blues/R&B Legends,
will feature some of the biggest names in this
music genre including Muddy Waters and James Brown
photo: courtesy M. Ulriksen
In 1985 Ulriksen returned to San Francisco and tried his hand at freelance illustrating, finding the experience “very humbling.” A year later he moved to Cole Valley, where he currently lives with his photographer wife, two daughters, and Henry, the family dog.

During the 1980s, Ulriksen parlayed his freelance gig into an eight-year stint as an associate art director and then later became the head art director for KQED’s San Francisco Focus magazine. Then in 1994, he made a full-time commitment to working independently, and he hit the ground running.

“After I decided to seriously start marketing myself, things happened quickly,” Ulriksen said. “In the course of one week, I got assignments from GQ, Rolling Stone and Esquire. I knew at that point I could do this for a living.”

It takes Ulriksen approximately four days to create an illustration – one day to conceive it and two-three days to paint it. When he’s doing magazine covers, the deadlines can be very tight. “Typically the most a magazine will give you is a week,” he said.

In some cases, Ulriksen will paint portraits for publications and then later the people themselves will purchase the paintings. Martin Scorsese, John Travolta, O.J. Simpson, and attorneys Christopher Darden and Robert Shapiro have all bought original Ulriksens of themselves.

Within the last few years, Ulriksen is doing more and more commissioned work for individual clients, and he covets it for several reasons, he said. “I can work at my own pace, and I have the freedom to pick and choose what I want to paint. I’m currently doing a painting featuring some of the greatest blues [and] R&B artists throughout history and it’s a lot of fun.”

He has also been commissioned to do some amazing projects surrounding professional sports. “In 2008 I was hired to do ten paintings for the Masters Golf tournament for Golf Digest, and then that same year I got an assignment to paint a series of murals for the United Airlines Club at Soldier Field, depicting the history of the Chicago Bears,” he said.

Ulriksen is also currently working on a children’s book based on Henry, his affectionate and faithful dog. “I’ve worked on other peoples’ children’s books, but this is the first time I’m working on my own. There’s a lot of freedom in kid’s books and I’ve always wanted to explore that avenue more because I enjoy being a storyteller,” he said.

What does the future hold for Mark Ulriksen? “I’ll always be painting and doing commissioned work. I’d love to display my work more at galleries and some day I’d like to teach painting or illustration. Doing New Yorker covers has been a great experience and I obviously want to keep doing those as often as possible.”

To view a collection of Mark Ulriksen’s paintings starting in October, stop by the Descend Salon, 2185A Union Street (near Fillmore). For more information, call the salon at 415-440-6608.

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