An Interview with Mark Adlington, Author of Painting The Ice Bear


As someone obsessed by travel and nature, I so loved Painting The Ice Bear by Mark Adlington that I cheekily asked him if he would be interviewed for Linda’s Book Bag. Luckily he said yes!

You can read my review of Painting The Ice Bear here.

Painting The Ice Bear was published by Unicorn in partnership with John Martin Gallery on 16th December 2016 and is available for purchase in hardback here and from the Gallery here.

Painting The Ice Bear


Fascinated from the outset by all things wild, Mark Adlington has travelled the globe, seeking out, observing and painting many of the rarest, most breathtaking animals on the planet. Combining intensive on-site work and preparation with countless subsequent hours in the studio creating his images, Adlington has become one of the most popular wildlife painters working today.

This stunning quarter bound edition brings together more than one hundred of Adlington’s images of polar bears, following the world’s largest land predator from cub to maturity both above and below the water. The product of countless trips to wildlife reserves in northern Europe and the frozen expanses of the Arctic, these images are engaging and powerful in equal measure, as Adlington brilliantly conveys the many, and often contrasting aspects of this most charismatic of animal icons.

An Interview with Mark Adlington

Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Mark. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your work. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?

Thank you for asking me Linda! I grew up in a wild bay on Ireland’s Atlantic coast, and after a childhood floating about in a boat watching seals and otters, have an obsessive interest in wild places and animals. I am however a painter by vocation,  so constantly strive to find a path between these two overriding interests in a way that makes some sense of both.

Please  could you tell us a bit about how Painting The Ice Bear came about?

I have always wanted to make books with painting, but was never attracted to the idea of illustration per se. The opportunity really came about after the Unicorn Press used a lot of my watercolours of otters for the centenary edition of Gavin Maxwell’s classic “Ring of Bright Water” ( which had been a firm favourite of mine throughout my adolescence ). Luckily the success of that edition gave them the confidence to want to make another book with me, and by that time I was already deep into the Polar Bear project. They decided to take a punt on it, and the idea of “Painting the Ice Bear” was born.

You’re predominantly an artist. How does your work in painting and sculpting translate into the practice of writing?

I have always enjoyed words and language, and in fact originally  went to University to study English Literature. What is fascinating about paint though, is its ability to bypass literal understanding. At its best paint can give the viewer a direct link to the experience of the artist when confronted by his/her inspiration/subject. It is what John Berger describes as a “burrowing under the apparent” in his brilliant essay A Professional Secret. I think the two media have very different strengths.

There’s a mix of sketches and finished paintings in Painting The Ice Bear. Why did you decide to present your work this way?

One of the joys of making a book with my images is that I was able to give equal emphasis to both sketches and large canvases. In the art world, oil paint has a tradition of being more “valuable” and important, whereas for me a line drawing from life which might take a few seconds is often more precious (capturing the ephemeral nature of an encounter), and might well portray the essence of the animal better. I can’t change the art world single handedly, but I could in this book, give a double spread to a few lines!

I was struck by the palette you use. How easy or difficult was it to decide how best to represent polar bears?

It was an unusual palette, and during the course of the project I became obsessed with cobalt violet and cerulean blue – unfortunately two of the most expensive pigments available to an artist! I think I was trying to give a sense of the otherworldliness of the polar bears environment. The Arctic was so  utterly unlike anywhere I had ever been, and while I am not a landscape painter I was keen to somehow suggest that strangeness with the choice of palette.

It seems to me that your purpose in producing Painting The Ice Bear was to show the full gamut of polar bear existence and I found looking at the images very moving. What would you say was the purpose of the book?

Thank you for saying that Linda – it’s lovely to get that sort of feedback. I think you are right to suggest that a “portrait “ of the polar bear in the round, the full gamut, as you put it, was one of my main aims. Though as I say at the end of the introduction, that was inevitably setting myself up for failure, as you can never observe or understand, let alone capture everything about any species. Taken from another angle I also  wanted to show the full gamut of an artist’s working process – to give people who might never have been to a painters studio an intimate look at how I approach a subject through the marks, media and colour which are the physical mnifestations of where the eyes and brain have travelled…

How did you go about researching the factual detail about polar bears in the introduction to Painting The Ice Bear?

I love research and have always had a voracious appetite for animal knowledge. The internet is obviously a contemporary bonus on the research front – though it needs to be treated with suspicion and all facts triple checked in these days of “alternative facts”. I was also given many wonderful suggestions of reading matter by arctic specialists when I was in Svalbard. Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams in particular is a mesmerising blend of science history and literature.

Which aspects of producing Painting The Ice Bear were easiest and most difficult?

Strangely by the time I came to write the introduction (days before the deadline!) the words seemed to fall onto the page, in order, with minimal effort. I think unknown to me, it had been writing itself for three years in my head! So that was probably the easiest aspect. Trickier by far, was the business of editing down hundreds and hundreds of images to fit the 160 pages of the book, and ordering the shortlist in such a way as to make sense, variety and some form of narrative – Felicity Price-Smith from the Unicorn Press came to the studio for the final layout and we were both too exhausted to speak by the end of the day…

I adore the cover  to Painting The Ice Bear as it seems to convey a determinism in the animal to me. How did you decide which image to use and what were you hoping to convey about polar bears?

The Unicorn Press effectively gave me carte blanche  with all creative decisions, but when I went for the meeting about the cover, with my many mock-ups and ideas, I discovered that they had already chosen one – the image which you have been so nice about! I have to admit that it was not one I had even thought about, but they were extremely firm on that one point, and it seems from your reaction, that they knew what they were doing!

What made you select the poem Polar Bear by J. Patrick Lewis as the only other text than your introduction, as opposed to any other piece about polar bears?

I was introduced to the poem by Simon Perks of the Unicorn Press, and immediately knew that it would make a great end page for the book. I am passionate about conservation, having seen even in my lifetime the shocking decline in numbers of almost all other species, and wanted the book to have some impact in this regard without being too obvious. I loved the way the poem gives you a sense of the polar bear as seen through centuries of different human cultures and then leaves you with a terrible sense of its potential extinction (again at our hands) in a few words at the end.

You’ve also worked on images of other animals. What can we expect next from a Mark Adlington book?

I have so many ideas, and some books that are almost ready to be made from previous projects, such as a book on the world’s only wild horse, the Przewalski, and the extraordinarily beautiful and little known wildlife of the Arabian Peninsula. Currently though I’m ready for a shift into warmer climes, and colours, and finally feel ready to try and say something original about the iconic species of Africa. I think I know what I am going to be working on, but don’t want to jinx the project until I am a little further down the road ! Watch this space….

When you’re not writing, painting, sculpting and taking photographs, what do you like to read?

I read widely and very eclectically, from thrillers to classics. I do like to read around my current subject matter though, and the last book I read that had a deep impact on me was The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding – set in Svalbard and Copenhagen in the 17th century. In the subtlest of ways it is a cry from the heart to re-examine man’s relationship to the earth. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

And finally, if you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Painting The Ice Bear should be their next purchase, what would you say?

I think I’m way too British to do that Linda, so will have to resort to quoting your lovely review and say that Painting the Ice Bear is a “glorious, sumptuous, celebratory book… for any animal lover, anyone interested in natural history and any artist.“

And I meant every word! Thank you so much, Mark, for your time in answering my questions.

Thank you Linda for responding  so intelligently to the “Ice Bear”. It’s been a pleasure.

About Mark Adlington


Mark Adlington is a London based artist who travels extensively in search of the wildlife which has been his principal obsession since early childhood. He works extensively on site before returning to the studio to try and recreate the immediacy of his responses to the animals using various and often mixed media. Mark exhibits regularly in London and abroad, and occasionally works to commission. He is represented by the John Martin of London Gallery in Mayfair, and by the Bridgeman Art Library.

You can find Mark on Facebook, and visit his website where you’ll see some of the stunning images from Painting The Ice Bear.

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