The Art of Making Art: Mark Cleveland



Beauty all around us

During the pandemic, almost everyone stayed closer to home, and many suddenly had plenty of spare time through normal activities that were no longer available. For Mark Cleveland, a graphic designer who creates oil paintings, stained glass, and illustrations, that extra time translated into driving and walking around Evanston – his community for 30 years – and watching its sights much closer than ever.

What he found was incredible beauty and untold stories all around Evanston. Cleveland has seen buildings that were built in the 1950s and as far back as the turn of the 20e century. The companies occupying these structures may have been passed down from generation to generation, or they may have come and gone, but the architecture has remained despite the changes taking place inside and outside of them. The stories of these buildings and their businesses inspired him to bring master-based techniques to his paintings. Cleveland had discovered that he didn’t have to look to iconic Chicago imagery for inspiration but could stay close to home.

Open to Business: Cross Rhodes (Photo by Mark Cleveland)

In one example, he saw the Cross Rhodes restaurant on Chicago Ave. It started out as a meat shop explaining why the building’s facade is bright red terracotta with a carved cow’s head. Today, it is a multigenerational restaurant that has happily survived the pandemic.

This article is about the large oil painting project that Cleveland creates based on Evanston’s.

There are two studios in his home and most of his paintings are created with a combination of outdoor and studio work.

For his paintings last year, Cleveland selected a dozen locations that meet two criteria he developed during his COVID walks and reflections on the community. First, it needs to be a unique frame where he can use a 12 “x 12” canvas to create a forced perspective showing a building in the context of his community. For example, his painting of the iconic Evanston Main Street Newsstand, you see not only the Newsstand, but also the street to the Firehouse Restaurant. This isn’t a sight you would see if you stood around the corner, but definitely one you would think of if you had walked that street.

The second criterion is a place where Cleveland can create on canvas a “… sense of time and the existence of a long period of time…” even though we are only here for a limited time. Cleveland experiences a similar sense of time in his love of music. He plays a 1917 mandolin and often thinks about the fact that the creator was not yet familiar with the soon to be World War I. He believes that timeless icons, like buildings and the mandolin, give a sense of confidence in the future that helps us be more positive especially in difficult times. Cleveland notes that in times past and in times to come “… people have passed here, and we will not be the last either.”

Bennison Bakery (Photo by Mark Cleveland)

When Cleveland started with Evanston’s paintings, he posted them on social media and they sold out before the day was over! So inspired, he continued to create them. Also interesting are the stories of those who bought this art. Her painting of Bennison’s Bakery was purchased by a woman who kissed her future husband for the first time while standing in line there.

The Main Street Newsstand painting was purchased by a woman whose husband had lived across the street and looked at the newsstand daily. The Fish Keg image on Howard was purchased by someone who had grown up next to now 3rd generation business. And a second image of the Fish Keg, was purchased by the same family. Each are examples of places representing a timeless quality of memories.

Cleveland’s techniques have a timeless quality as they borrow from the techniques of Old Masters from different periods. He first painted the canvas in yellow. Then he paints the whole building outdoors using brown or blue depending on the light. This creates the study of tone on which the painting is based. Then he painted details using an impressionistic style rather than realism. But there is no doubt what you are watching. Close the books on the bookstore shelves, it may look like paint stains, but when you back up it is books. The latest Cleveland step that arguably contributes the most to its distinctive style is the 1930s-based glazes it applies. He lightly adds paint to the glaze, then adds layer after layer to the paint in the shaded areas to add depth.

Cleveland works six days on each painting, obsessed with details. Each step requires a long drying time. and as often as not, it will wipe all the paint off the canvas and start over. He may return to the location of a given building to paint outdoors several times before being convinced that the painting is a worthy representation of the iconic Evanston.

Not everyone can afford an original oil painting, which is why Cleveland can create peripheral products such as high quality Gicl̩e printing Рprinted in Evanston Рor note cards.

Family, Chicago Summer Fruit Stand (Photo by Mark Cleveland)

Evanston’s first Cleveland icon exhibit at the 1100 Florence Gallery owned by Lisa Degliantoni sold completely to her amazement and pleasure.

He is also working on a number of commissions for Evanston’s houses and images of the lake in the summer. Based on the popularity of his Evanston designs, he received requests for other neighborhoods, including North Chicago, the Howard Street Corridor, and other places further north.

If you would like to see Cleveland’s work, visit


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