Sam Pash is an Australian illustrator who currently lives in London. He uses both traditional and digital methods in his work but specializes in ink-and-brush illustrations, most often inspired by the natural environment and colored digitally or with watercolor or gouache. Sam’s work has been featured in publications including Popshot Magazine, Scoop, 20×20 magazine, Voiceworks, Kill Your Darlings, and Going Down Swinging.
Artists who collaborate with Creative Nonfiction generally read the essays first, then come up with their illustrations. How did this process work for you?
I am quite used to working this way. It was great to have the opportunity to explore each essay and I also enjoyed working within a limited palette. Being able to work on the cover as well as each essay meant I could create a common aesthetic that tied the illustrations together.
Did certain phrases or ideas stick out? Do you have a favorite essay in this issue?
“The Man on The Tracks” essay stood out to me for its simplicity. I felt it had a strong atmosphere to work with and hope my illustration creates a decent word/image relationship through simple light and shapes.
You’ve done illustrations for a number of magazines. In creating art for a publication, to what extent are you guided by its aesthetic versus your own sensibilities? How did you navigate this with Creative Nonfiction?
Sometimes it’s a challenge not to be too precious about your own ideas. Working with editors and art directors makes the process more of a group effort—you’re working towards a harmonious whole. Stephen Knezovich and Seth Clark gave me a lot of freedom to work with my own ideas, while also giving constructive feedback.
What’s your creative process usually like? If you had to give it a label (something like evolving doodles, energetic emission) what would it be?
Subconscious fragments, could sum it up. A lot of my ideas come from finding fragments in details. My process also depends on the text that is being illustrated. I usually take a lot of notes on details, think about different perspectives and try not to be overly literal in my interpretation.
Do most of your art pieces have stories behind them or do you start creating and see what happens?
For my personal pieces, I’m interested in creating chance operations, in a William Burroughs or John Cage type of way and seeing where it takes the work. Similar to how a collage artist would collect source material, I gather my own drawings and textures to rearrange digitally. I then create a narrative from what is being juxtaposed, often incorporating an element of chance. This process can be seen mainly with the Essays cover for the current issue.
In illustrating Issue #49, you said you “worked to create a space between the text and the image for viewers to interact with and interpret.” How did you create this space? How do you allow for ambiguity or the unknown in your art?
I like how the human brain can connect visual information with a narrative without even consciously trying. The viewer always connects micro to macro, from marks on paper to pixels on screen. Working with this in mind, I can hopefully break away from obvious modes of thought while not going too far away from the text. This is mainly why I use the chance process mentioned earlier.
What similarities do you see between the creation of literary and visual works of art?
Creating a mental space where the viewer/reader can go is so important. Literary and visual work can both be pushed to abstraction, and then back to representational. This can either explore the possibilities of both or completely fall apart. I find this balancing very interesting.
Your illustrations often feature people intersecting with nature. How does your interest in the natural environment inform your visual work?
I grew up in Australia and outside of the cities you’re constantly surrounded by natural diversity. I’m interested in biodiversity in ecosystems and make a lot of studies [sketches or drawings done to prepare for a more finished work]. These often creep into my work without me being fully aware. These studies are a way for me to express my interest in the natural environment without making some over-the-top environmentalist statement that could overshadow the work. Viewers can find what they want in my work.
Your artist bio mentions that you specialize in highly detailed ink and brush work. What draws you to these techniques and what do they allow you to express?
Ink is scary. There’s no erasing or no undo button, and that’s what makes it exciting. It’s about making those mistakes that lead you in directions you weren’t expecting. Working with ink and brush is so versatile—from making subtle textures to broad expressive lines. Ink is such an ancient medium as well, which adds another dimension to the work.
Of your own work, what’s your favorite piece? Why?
I find it hard to have a favorite personal work. When my illustrations are printed with accompanying text, they feel more complete. I’ve recently finished a large project with The Folio Society on a new illustrated edition of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet [a classic Australian novel]. The Folio Society produces luxury illustrated editions of books, and the new Cloudstreet is traditionally bound and wrapped in cloth, with 10 full-color illustrations. It was an honor to work with The Folio Society and with Winton’s classic novel. The new edition is available through The Folio Society’s website.
Everyone has different qualifications for what makes a piece of art great. What are yours?
I’m quite old fashioned and like to see any art form that has time and dedication behind it, and at the same time, explores the possibilities of the medium. In a time of visual overload, seeing that a piece that has taken time to make becomes more valued. Another thing I’ve always kept in mind is something my old art lecturer said, “The piece should look like it just fell there.”
What initially drew you to illustration and watercolor?
I have more of a fine arts background with traditional mediums, but have always been interested in graphic arts. Illustration sits in between the two and can lean both ways.
I’m drawn to watercolor because it can be layered digitally, which ends up having a similar feel to Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Watercolor is great for combining texture with the flatness of ink. Texture creates an overall atmosphere, so it’s the back-and-forth of the tonal depth of the texture, to the flatness of the picture plane that interests me.
What art forms or artists do you wish more people knew about?
Our visual culture is overloaded with images, so it’s important now, more than ever, that we appreciate work that took time to make, and that requires the act of looking and exploring visual possibilities, rather than blindly letting visual subtleties pass us by.
This said, the old etching masters could be exhibited a bit more. I always keep an eye out in galleries, but they are often not on display, which I find disappointing.
What book or work of art do you find yourself returning to?
I grew up with my grandfather Frank Pash’s landscape paintings on the wall and frequently go through the collections of books that he illustrated. I think it’s because of his work that I’m always drawn to suggesting a broader landscape within my own illustrations.
In six words, give us your artist statement, world view, or life’s story.
Must make more mistakes more often.