Fusing fantasy and reality, crafting his illustrations with both traditional and digital methods, Sam Weber has done everything. Rob Carney caught up with him in his studio.
Sam Weber is an illustrator who, by his own admission, finds it very difficult to sum up his style. "I have no idea how to describe it without sounding like a total moron," he laughs. "It was a fairly organic development. My time in graduate school was pretty unrestricted, which allowed me a lot of time to explore my own visual vocabulary and ideas about image-making. In the end, the artwork that people seemed to respond to the most was stuff based on what I was doing in my sketchbook. I spent a lot of time trying to make usable illustrations, which really got me nowhere. In the end I sort of just gave up and began making pictures based on things I was interested in instead: villains, Shakespeare, and fairy tales, to name but three. The more personally driven illustrations resonated with clients a lot more, which was really exciting. I still sometimes can't believe that I'm actually getting away with all this."
But getting away with it he is. So much so in fact that the biggest names in contemporary illustration just can't stop bestowing awards upon him. With a gold award from The Society of Illustrators, another gong from the industry-renowned Spectrum Annual, and a Best Illustration prize in the Canadian National Magazine Awards for his Walrus magazine cover, God's Slow Death, these all prove that the personal approach is working. And all that's without mentioning his contributions to such publications as Spin, The New York Times, Time and Rolling Stone.
After studying at The Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, Weber completed a Masters at The School of Visual Arts in New York. "I'm not really sure at what point I decided to become an illustrator," he says. "As a kid I loved comics, animation and book illustration. I guess at some point I just clued in and realised that it was the illustrators who were making the pictures I loved, not the artists as I'd thought. Once I got to art school things became a little more clear - who was making what, and how to go about getting involved in the types of art-making that excited me.
"I'm painting a lot in watercolour these days, which has its own interesting idiosyncrasies," explains Weber, beginning to detail the process behind the hand-drawn, often fantasy-themed imagery that litters his portfolio. Describing an editorial brief, Weber takes us on his creative journey. "After I read the content I usually sit down and start drawing - just small scribbles, as I've never had much luck making word lists, or sitting back and thinking. It seems all my ideas come from doodling." He continues: "Playing around with ideas and compositions by sketching is really the only way I'm ever able to get anything accomplished. Afterwards I'll refine the sketch, either for the client or just for myself. I usually end up redrawing the picture in pencil several times, either compositing the final piece from various sketches in the computer, or working on layers of paper over my light table. I'm pretty obsessive about this stage, as any sort of problems in the finished piece usually result from errors in this part of the process. I find that a bad drawing will inevitably lead to an awful image."
When The New Yorker - specifically art director Chris Curry - approached Weber to illustrate a piece on the book Free Radicals by Alice Munro, the illustrator threw himself into the story. "The book was fantastic," he says. "And set close to where I grew up, in Canada. The narrative revolves around a woman who is held captive by a murderer on the run. She crafts a very elaborate and beautifully told lie, intended to forge a bond between the two of them and save her own life. The power of story telling - it's really wonderful. There were all kinds of great imagery in the piece - at one point they are drinking red wine out of china teacups. That's one of the things I love about illustration, the way in which the actual content of the narrative will send you in directions you might never have thought of on your own."
Continuing to break down the project, Weber describes the initial brief. "Chris was pretty clear that she wanted an ominous edge to the image, but that it should still feel sophisticated and understated. I based the metaphors and objects in the picture on things directly mentioned in the fiction. Sometimes, when the subject matter of a story is complicated, esoteric or just plain boring - think mutual funds and retirement plans - I delve into my own vocabulary and collection of imagery to solve the problem. But in this case, with so many exciting metaphors and symbols already present within the piece, it was really more a matter of dissecting it and pulling out the things I wanted to explore."
And interestingly, the final piece was one of the first ideas Weber came up with. But to get the discussion started, the illustrator sent a selection of rough sketches to the art director before beginning work on the agreed concept. Painted in watercolour, with refinements in Photoshop, it's typical of Weber's technique. "I like deadlines, but I hate too much pressure," he says of how he works best on these kind of projects. "My process has become so slow these days that really short deadlines are no longer feasible. Too much time can be dangerous also. There's a happy medium in there somewhere, which I rarely get to experience unfortunately. I never feel like I have enough time for things."
Another favourite project of Weber's is a piece commissioned for Canadian general interest magazine, The Walrus. "I always love getting the chance to work with Antonio DeLuca, he's a fantastic art director," he says. "He puts a lot of trust and faith in the people he works with.
"The piece was about religion, and the sort of contradictions one experiences if they have faith," he continues. "It was important that I didn't over-think the problem too much. I'd wanted to do an Abraham and Isaac piece for some time - what a great and horrific story - and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to do so."
On the subject of art directors, Weber himself also worked as an assistant art director on The New York Times, something he describes as "a really great experience, getting to see how other professionals worked and solved problems." He continues, offering an insight into the working relationship between the client and illustrator in publishing: "Working with a good art director can be a wonderful experience, but nowadays the quality of the experience can have very little to do with the actual art director, as the editors and marketing teams often have a lot of control over what a finished image ends up looking like. It depends so much on what their relationship is with the people who are making the final decisions. Art directors who receive a lot of trust, and who give a lot of trust to artists, generate the best results, without a doubt." Amen to that.
"The content of the actual brief is probably the best part," says Weber of working on editorial projects. "A good story, or an opportunity to employ my own collection of symbols and imagery - that is what is exciting about being an illustrator. Finding a solution can sometimes be challenging or frustrating, but when it works well, and your ideas and pictures are better because of the struggle, then it's a very exciting experience."
Weber is equally intrigued by his personal projects. Painted for the Microvisions charity auction put together by Irene Gallo, art director at Tor Books and illustrator Dan Dos Santos, Masked was inspired by a conversation with a friend. "It came about through sketching and just playing around with ideas. I didn't really have any sort of planned concept in mind, just a general mood that I was going for. The piece evolved very organically. Once I hit upon the general concept and composition, I re-styled it several times, giving the girl different hair and clothing. Although it wasn't really for a client, I did spend a lot of time in the planning stages, partly because the finish is painted in watercolour, and so required some thought.
"I do use reference, a lot of it, although you probably can't tell, as I usually don't adhere to it very accurately," says Weber when asked about the often-contested matter of whether an illustrator should use reference material. "Making things up - creating stuff from imagination - can be really rewarding also, but I find I get better results if I'm looking at things, even if I'm not copying them directly. There are subtleties and fun surprises that come from observation; exciting things that sometimes just don't happen when I'm drawing from only my imagination. I think reference is important also in keeping you from repeating yourself, as it's easy - especially when there's a deadline - to just resort to tricks and shorthand that can end up feeling derivative."
With high-brow editorial clients continuing to knock on Weber's door, along with a recent run of House of Mystery covers for DC, the illustrator leaves us to crack on with a series of theatre posters and more comic covers, but not before giving his final thoughts on his workflow. "To be honest, once a piece is finished, I rarely think about it much afterwards. The work is over, and the whole experience has kind of died for me. I rarely love anything after it's been completed, or if I do, only for a short period of time. It's not that I don't take my work seriously, or feel that everything I do is unsuccessful. I guess I just move on at some point, and then it's sort of hard to even remember what it was like working on that piece in the first place - the concerns that I was having, the types of visual problems I was dealing with at the time. And then all you have left at the end is this artifact of that time spent, which is great, but to be perfectly honest, I'm always far more interested in what I'm working on this exact moment."
Sam Weber is a New York-based illustrator, recently awarded a Gold Award by The Society of Illustrators and the Spectrum Annual. He graduated from The Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, before completing a Masters at The School of Visual Arts in New York. His current clients include Time, DC and Rolling Stone.