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Fallston artist celebrates Baltimore icons with markers on paper

For The Baltimore Sun

Like most children, Steve Mull loved Disney movies when he was little. But for the Fallston native, the appeal wasn’t just the songs or the stories — he loved the movie posters. 

As a little boy, he drew those images over and over. At the time, he thought he was just having fun. But as it turns out, he was teaching himself to be an artist.

Today, Mull, who still lives in Fallston, now with his wife, Liz, and their 2-year-old son, Charlie, works with simple tools — markers and paper — to create fun, colorful depictions of Baltimore icons, from Ray Lewis to crabs and cans of Natty Boh. He sells both originals and prints via his website and occasionally at local shows, like the Gunpowder River ArtFest at Boordy Vineyards.

Being an artist was never Mull’s career plan. At Towson University, he played lacrosse (another subject depicted in his work) and studied business administration and marketing. “I had no idea what I wanted to get into,” he laughs. “I figured business was a safe bet.” (In addition to his art, Mull works in medical sales.)

It was also at Towson that he met his wife. As a college student, he didn’t have the money for extravagant Valentine’s Day and Christmas gifts, so drew her pictures instead. “She loved them and encouraged me to do more,” he says.

During his last year of college, Mull worked primarily in pencil, mostly making drawings for Liz and his family. “I was learning as I was going along because I was never formally trained,” he says.  “But I was starting to get bored with black-and-white drawings.”

As a graduation gift, an aunt gave Mull a large pack of art supplies. The gift triggered experimentation.  “I started messing around and did a couple pictures for my parents of my brothers and I playing lacrosse, in colored pencil,” he says.

Mull liked the colored pencils but still wanted to find a more unique mode of expression. That’s when he started using markers. 

“I was drawn to them because the colors were brighter, a little different,” says Mull. He liked the idea that he was using media that few artists embrace.

In early 2012, Mull wanted to create a wedding gift for friends that was quintessentially Baltimore. He chose crabs with a can of Natty Boh, using markers to bring out the details in the beer label and the variations of red in the crab shells. The gift was a hit.

The crab-and-beer photo was a turning point for Mull. Once people saw the work,
he discovered he’d touched a nerve. “People
asked for copies,” he says. “And they said they’d
pay me!”

Working with markers is challenging and can be unforgiving, Mull says. He starts by hand-sketching an image on rough paper that can withstand lots of erasing, using photos or real-life items as inspiration. Once he is satisfied with the sketch, he uses a light box to transfer the image to higher quality paper, tweaking it a bit more. 

“Once I start laying the marker on, I can’t take it back,” he says. “It’s not like graphite. Once it’s down, it’s down.”

The process is lengthy, he says, since he focuses intensely on details. One picture could take between 24 and 48 hours, though between his family obligations and day job, he feels lucky to snatch an hour or two each day.

Mull’s clean lines, strong colors and lighthearted subjects harken back to his childhood, when he amused himself by copying Disney movie art. Today, he still loves the time he spends creating art. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever turn to art full time, but in the meantime, he’s having fun.

“We’ll see where it goes,” he says.  

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