Imagine having an original piece of art of yourself as a profile picture on Twitter or Instagram. Mark Stephenson can help make that a reality.

Mark is an Ottawa-based visual and electronic artist specializing in figurative drawings, paintings, and social installations. His most recent project, Social Portraits, is a series of oil paintings inspired by online social media profile pictures. These portraits are shared online using the #socialportraits hashtag and everyone is encouraged to view, like, share, and comment on them. Having just wrapped up a successful Kickstarter campaign, Mark is ready to embark on his journey of painting 100 Social Portraits.

I caught up with Mark at his Hintonburg studio to chat about Social Portraits, his creative process, and the importance of community in the art and tech worlds.

What’s the story behind Social Portraits?

I took graphic design in college and I’ve been working in the UX (user experience) web space ever since. My web UX side and my art side come together in projects like Social Portraits where I explore social media and interactions, and then pull them into an art piece.

Source Metrics, a startup that provided social media monitoring and measurement, is where the project got kindled. I was doing UI (user interface) design for them and was getting immersed in social media. The idea came about through working with all of these small social media pictures. The thought that people put into their little profile pictures really fascinated me. You start to see all these patterns: pictures on certain angles, everybody’s got their tilt, this and that. People pick and craft those photos.

I got into art because throughout my design career, I used to go to life drawing classes whenever I started to feel too stiff. Over time, I did some sculpting and painting classes. I got further into painting, started watching videos online, did a couple workshops, fell in love with it and started painting more and more. Every year, the paintings get better. I’ve been having a lot of fun; this project is going to have me painting a lot. It’ll be interesting to see how Social Portraits evolves.

Social Portraits 24 Shirl and 25 Pat, a husband and wife from Calgary that own an art store called Sunnyside.

Where are you right now with Social Portraits?

I calculated it and I think I have about 60 paintings to do. I want to get to 100 in total. I’ve got 20 done and number 21 is in progress. I have a list of people who’ve signed up to be painted.

What’s your process for creating a Social Portrait?

I make the panels myself. In the Kickstarter video, you see the CNC machine create the panels. I went over to Makerspace North and cut out a bunch. I coat and prep them all, bring up the profile picture on my iPad, and then I start painting.

Do you think you’ll keep creating Social Portraits after you paint 100 portraits?

I’d like to! I’m keeping all the paintings in my possession so I can do several shows. Everyone gets a high resolution photo and if they want I can help them get a print. Through Kickstarter some people are getting an original painting, but the deal is that I paint two and they can choose one and the other is for the series.

"This one is 27 Daniel. Daniel is one of the founders of Shopify and I’m so happy to have him in the series."

Have you ever been disappointed to have to part from a particular painting?

I still have all the Social Portraits so it hasn’t happened yet. When it does happen I think I’ll feel good about it as I think I’ll feel good about it because so many of these people I know or have gotten to know through the project.

How did you find out about Rebel?

Even before you rebranded as Rebel, I was your customer when you were still called I actually have two accounts and I have all kinds of domains. I know Rob (Rebel CEO) – he backed Social Portraits and is one of my upcoming portraits.

What are your plans for the domain

It’s currently redirecting to the Kickstarter project. On my to-do list is creating a nice, simple site where people can see all the portraits and get engaged in the series.

What impact has social media had on you?

I think social media is part of our culture now – social sharing and having your presence online. Being in the studio, there’s a lot of time when you’re by yourself. Social media becomes the water cooler. I can jump online, share a picture, and have some chats, which is really nice.

Do you go anywhere for inspiration? Are you inspired by something in particular?

I’m inspired by lots of stuff! As an artist, just by walking around you get inspired by all kinds of things… even just seeing the way the light falls on something and realizing how nice it is. As inspiration comes at all times, I use Evernote to keep track of things that inspire me. I love it because I can bring up my notes on all my devices and add and update as the inspiration comes.

"26 Bill, who is a fellow artist in Ottawa. I love that he used a photo from his youth as his profile picture."

What are you most proud of with the Social Portraits campaign?

Having done the crowdfunding campaign. Not just talking about it, but actually going through the learning process, writing the copy, making the assets, creating the video, putting it out there, and reaching out to the media. I had a great article in the Ottawa Metro newspaper and that triggered a lot of things, including an interview with CTV here in Ottawa.

Were you nervous during the media interviews?

Yeah! Despite being very happy that I did this, there is a lot of overcoming fear. You’re pouring a lot of time into it, you’re really putting yourself out there, and you don’t quite know how it’s going to come off. Just reaching out to the media involves a lot of wrestling with fear. Near the end, I was fearless. I was emailing anybody and everybody.

"I went through a pretty major change in the past couple of years. This is the liberated me feeling a lot more upbeat and positive. I wanted to capture that in a painting. I call it “Windows of Opportunity”. It was very experimental. You get to know yourself a little better, too. Blue’s a colour I really like a lot. My son was on to me, he said, “That’s so much blue, dad!”. But I like blue."

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists or entrepreneurs?

The theme I’ve been using is “be bold”; that’s my theme for this year. I’m just taking advantage of every opportunity, whether it’s the chance to paint, doing my Kickstarter, doing interviews, and trying not to shy away from opportunities because I’m feeling fearful about it. You never know what they’re going to lead to. If you don’t chase them, you just don’t know at all. I’ve been doing lots of asks, and it’s amazing how supportive friends and family can be. Timing is important, too.

Have you received any helpful advice that you’ve kept with you?

I read an interview with Richard Branson where he talked about just going for it and taking advantage of every opportunity. I’ve been keeping that in mind and using that to help frame my approach to opportunities. These days, I’m just going to go for it. Otherwise, I’ll just end up doing the same thing over and over.

I do like to push myself into areas that are out of my comfort zone. Live painting is one of those things. I had never done it before and I felt a bit out of my element. Then I realized how fun it is and that I should do more of it! That willingness to take some risks and put myself out there has been great for my confidence.

Mark's self-portrait entitled “Windows of Opportunity”

What are your plans for the future?

I want to do a Social Portraits show in Ottawa and then tour that show. The paintings are going to be spaced out on a wall and wrapping around the gallery space. I’m going to create stickers – heart stickers, thumbs up stickers, and comment bubbles so people can go up and add a little thumbs up or heart or even add a comment bubble and write in it. When people walk around, they’ll see what other people have written and can add to the conversation.

There’s also a new organization in Ottawa called CSArt (Community Supported Art) and I’m their visual artist for their first season. People buy subscriptions in advance and that gets them access to different art events, like a theatre play, private concert, an event with a ceramic artist, an event with spoken word poets, and more. You’re getting a great deal and you’re supporting the local arts scene.

Check out Mark’s amazing art at and on his Instagram account!

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