Painter Applies Extraordinary Skills to Portraits and Landscapes

By Scott Campbell

As painter Mark Topp discusses the elements of his craft, both comprehensible and oblique phrasing peppers his speech. There is “You learn by doing.” Or, “I do my best work when I’m not even thinking about it.” And, “You need to think through the materials…the painting and the painting experience are one.” None of it surprises those who know Topp, a 2008 émigré to the Harrisburg area.

Without any formal art education, the 60-year-old Syracuse native has produced brilliant oils and pastels that compellingly suggest otherwise. Topp is a gifted portrait painter who is able to seamlessly transfer his exceptional skills to landscape subjects. His use of color, deft brushstroke and solid compositions combine to fashion contemporary realist pieces that any objective viewer must admire. They are the culmination of decades of observation and practice.

But Topp was not without instructors. “I call Robert Hofmann my mentor,” he declares. “He was internationally recognized and an artist in residence at Syracuse University. When I was still in high school, I took portrait lessons from him. Later on, after I had been away from home, I bumped into him again, and we renewed our student-teacher relationship.”

Topp adds, “Hofmann was Austrian, very intelligent and traveled to five continents, a consequence of the upheavals generated by World Wars I and II.”

He points to several Hofmann paintings that he owns, one a gouache of a Middle Eastern marketplace. He later helped to organize a traveling exhibition of Hofmann’s works that visited every State University of New York campus.

Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, Topp was exposed to some of the giants of the golden age of illustration – N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Dean Cornwell and Maxfield Parrish, to name but a few. They, along with the finer comic book artists, motivated the talented youngster to pursue drawing and painting.

Topp is also a keen student of art history and does not hesitate to apply that knowledge to his work. He presents a surrealistic oil painting of his two nieces riding a winged horse. “I modeled the horse after a painting by [the French Romanticist painter] Eugene Delacroix,” he says.

The West Hanover Township resident tries to paint on location as often as possible. Accordingly, those particular pieces tend to be modest in size, generally 16 by 20 inches or slightly larger. Paintings of more impressive dimensions are completed in the studio from numerous life drawings and studies. A panoramic view of the Market Street Bridge and Harrisburg, as seen from City Island, is an example.

His surface of choice is primed canvas glued onto quarter-inch plywood board, which offers the desired resistance and is easier to store than a stretched canvas. Topp uses Grumbacher pre-tested oils and, most frequently, Loew-Cornell sable brushes called shaders, which are basically flats. A matte varnish provides the finish.

“To start, I sketch in a few basic shapes to get the general composition,” says Topp. “After that, the subject determines how I proceed. I’ll put down some dry washes, sometimes in black and white, and then apply the colors. I love to work wet in wet. I build up different parts of a composition as the light changes, keeping a number of plates spinning at the same time.”

Interested readers can view Topp’s work starting next month. He will be the featured artist at Schein Ernst Eye Associates, Capital Drive, in Susquehanna Township. The exhibition will be in place from January 2 through March 16. In the region, he is represented by Harrisburg’s Gallery@Second.

To learn more about the artist and his work, visit