Interview: Sam Weber
Magic, mystery and trying not to sound like a moron: Gary Evans meets the artist who avoids painting in a fixed style
We talk to the book artist who’s tackled fantasy, sci-fi and horror commissions.
Sam Weber remembers being young and visiting a small art gallery with his mum. He watched her linger over one particular painting – it appeared to move her in some way. It made her sad. For Sam, it wasn’t the painting that had an effect on him; it was the effect the painting had on his mum.
In past interviews, the illustrator has avoided describing his own style. Sam has previously said he wants his work to maintain a bit of magic, some illusion, and worried that by giving a thorough description of his art he would come across as a “total moron.” So instead he tells intriguing little stories like the one above.
“I felt like an alchemist’s apprentice,” the US illustrator says, “learning the secrets hidden inside all those brightly coloured tubes and bottles.” We’re onto a different story now. Ten years old, Sam flew from Canada to Austria to visit his grandmother. Next door to his grandmother lived a family friend, a “real artist.”
This man liked to hear Sam’s ideas and talked to him like he was a grownup. So Sam woke up early every morning. He left his parents and sister at their nearby hotel and walked alone to the artist’s house. It was a mission: “Art still felt a little like magic then,
I felt like an alchemist’s apprentice learning about hidden secrets…
Moving to New York was terrifying. Everything seemed to be so expensive…
in a way that it probably doesn’t so much any more, and I remember how desperately I wanted to know everything I could about it.”
FROM DEEP RIVER TO NEW YORK
Sam was born in Alaska and grew up Ontario. His hometown in Canada is called Deep River. As well as a river, there were mountains and beaches and forests nearby. There was always exploring to do, trails to ski, some adventures to be had in canoes and on sailboats. To make his storybook childhood complete, he took art lessons “from an old woman with a huge dog who lived down the street.”
But Deep River also has a big nuclear laboratory. Sam remembers how some trails crisscrossed the woods around the hospital, all those sick people inside. And when he thinks about the beaches close to home they are always “cast in perpetual evening.”
Sam got into art through comic books. He went on to study graphic design and illustration at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, then moved to New York and the School of Visual Arts.
“Moving to New York was terrifying. I was pretty young and very naïve. The thing I remember most of all was just how expensive everything was.”
Sam lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side, which he shared with a friend from Canada. He slept in the living room on a “strip of foam.” But school, that was “an oasis,” the studios “beautiful,” his classmates “talented,” and his teachers “weird, mysterious and brilliant.”
SPREADING THE WORD
Sam worked hard. He also realised the importance of self-promotion early on. He sent out postcards and took lots of meetings with art directors. His first proper commission came from the New York Times – exciting and frightening – but he did it well enough to eventually be offered a part-time job as an art director’s assistant. By then
he was getting regular illustration work from newspapers and magazines. After two and a half years at the Times, he left to focus on his own work.
DAYDREAMS AND NIGHTMARES
Sam tends to use muted colours. Even when his work looks simple, it’s full of detail. There are often images within images, some symbol or clue that points to a story outside the picture. It mixes real-life and fantasy, daydreams and nightmares. It can be beautiful and sinister at the same time.
There’s always tension too, like the tension in his story about learning from an alchemistic art teacher but walking alone to meet him, or the idyllic woods in the shadow of the nuclear laboratory, or studying in the pristine art school and sleeping in the dingy apartment. Are we getting any closer to understanding Sam’s style?
“I’ve always had trouble with this sort of question,” he says. “I hope that the work speaks for itself, to be perfectly honest.”
Sam finds art a hard thing to do. And so some days are always going to be more productive than others. But if the work hasn’t gone well, he feels less anxious knowing he’ll be back at it same time the next day.
He bikes four and half miles to work and starts at 9.30am. He works till noon, takes 45 minutes for lunch, then leaves around 6pm. He shares a workspace – an old pencil factory – with friends on the waterfront in Brooklyn. It’s always a “complete mess” but has high ceilings and large southfacing windows that look out over Manhattan. They keep distractions to a minimum, “more to do with inertia than discipline,” which means after 12 years in the building they still haven’t bought a couch between them.
He prefers to paint and draw rather than use Photoshop. He’s always believed in the value of print and saw books and magazines as the best place to show his work. He’s since done covers for books by everyone from Stephen King and Neil Gaiman to William Golding and Vladimir Nabokov. His clients include The Criterion Collection, Little, Brown & Co, and National Geographic.
Sam says it’s important to let the process guide him. It’s more fun this way, more surprising. “Every image
I’ve always had trouble with this sort of question. I hope that the work speaks for itself, to be perfectly honest
I don’t think I’d make paintings if I knew no one would ever see them
starts the same way,” Sam says, “with small scribbly drawings.” For a book cover, he reads the manuscript or synopsis, then jumps straight in. Even if a job requires a “specific solution,” he looks for the answer on the page. “The trick more often than not is to keep from repeating myself or falling back on old ideas or solutions.”
The piece takes shape, he’ll get the okay from the client, then looks at references, stuff online, or perhaps hires a model, builds props, makes costumes, maybe even a maquette, and begins to refine the image.
It differs from job to job. Some clients leave him to get on with it. Others come up with a clear idea, sometimes even a specific visual reference. Sam doesn’t necessarily prefer being left to do his own thing. He’s messed up when he’s had total control, and he’s done good work by following an art director’s detailed instructions. He’ll say no to a commission if he feels he’s doing too much work of a similar kind, if he’s in danger of repeating himself. Instead, he’ll go away and work on personal art.
ALWAYS ANOTHER CHANCE
“As an illustrator I really try to give the client what they’re looking for,” he says. “The wonderful thing about picture-making is that there’s always another picture to make, so I try not to get too attached to specific things in any one project.”
It comes back to the painting in the small gallery that moved his mum, and how he was moved by how she was moved: “It’s so cool,” he says, “the way images can connect with a viewer’s own experiences. I’ve often said that I don’t think I’d make paintings if I knew no one would ever see them.”
But if he had to – if he absolutely had to – how would Sam describe his own style? This is much as we’re getting: “I think I’m most happy when it’s able to stir some effect in the viewer – discomfort, surprise, attraction or uncertainty.”