For the last fifteen years, Antwerp-based illustrator Sam Vanallemeersch (°1978) has been churning out an astonishing body of work, published globally, appreciated universally. Sam works in two distinct styles: Kolchoz for polished graphic-based illustrations and Sovchoz, for vibrant, mind-blowing pencil drawings. Here’s why.
Tell us a bit about your background, Sam. Where does your appetite for illustration come from?
An uncle of mine was an artist in West-Flanders, to local acclaim. In the 1960’s he made amazing prints, but he never ventured much further than his village. He picked up a teaching position in a technical school, sketched far too many nudes, designed weird village fountains, went to Paris with other ‘artists’ and never really got the break he deserved. As a kid, I was mesmerized by his work. And he allowed me to goof around with his material. I was also reading comic books from the library, voraciously. And I went to Art Academy, which I enjoyed very much. I was drawing non-stop.
So, illustration was an evident choice after high school?
Actually, I first enrolled in graphic arts. But it was… very conceptual and hyper artistic. I wasn’t ready for it. When you’re 18, you’re a kid. So, I switched to illustration, which came more naturally. Making ‘real’ art was all good and well, but the lowbrow side of things had infinitely more appeal to me.
Which is also reflected in your current work.
“I am interested in weird films and in comic books, in narrative structures. I don’t feel a desperate artistic urge to express myself. I’m a big fan of stories and I simply like to draw.”
There are two distinct styles of your work. How did they come about?
I suppose you can compare it with musical taste. Older brothers feed you with more mature music. So, from a young age, I was into Kraftwerk and Frank Zappa. Two opposites. In drawing, I was attracted to similar opposites. I had an interest in graphic design, posters, billboards and typography… Which is evident in Kolchoz. The other thing, Sovchoz… I’ve only been developing it recently, 9 years ago or something. It was a very pragmatic choice. I knew I would never make money with my free drawings, so I focused on Kolchoz. That was where the money was, pure and simple.
Do you need the two?
Nah… People say I got two styles, but I disagree. I only got one. The one thing is my artistic soul or whatever, the other has nothing to do with style, it’s just a job. Clients are often surprised I’m so pragmatic about it.
Do they influence each other?
I shift back and forth the whole time. In my drawings, I work with lots of mass and details, in quite elaborate scenes. I am able to pull that off because, in my stylized work, I’m always starting from a tight layout, that’s easily understood. For a while, I’ve been using purple, orange and green in Kolchoz, unconsciously the same colours popped up in my sketchbook. It goes back and forth the whole time.
When is a drawing finished? Is it any different for the two styles?
I start drawing from left to right. When I reach the middle, I feel it’s enough. You can always add something, but you just know when it’s done. In Kolchoz, the moment is more evident; it’s like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place. In this case, I’ll leave things out, whereas, in my freestyle, I’ll usually add more stuff. You know, it often looks like I start from something fucked up, but usually, I’m developing a very simple idea. Yesterday, for example, I was thinking about drawing a waiting room with a lot of action in the foreground and subtle weirdness in the back. You’re not going to notice the background much because there’s so much going on in the front… It’s a joke.
Do people get to know you when they see your work? Or, alternatively, do you put a lot of yourself into your work?
I have weird dreams. There were times, two years or so, I had nightmares every night. They didn’t even wake me up anymore. To other people, my regular dreams would be nightmares… All the so-called nightmarish stuff, it’s not really that bad. If people find my work scary, they don’t know what scary is. So, there’s an influence, but not consciously… Comics, movies… There’s a Brian de Palma movie, ‘Body Double’, that comes very close to the way I see and experience things. There’s a key scene, with Frankie Goes to Hollywood in the background, I watched over and over on YouTube, sometimes up to 50 times a day. I want to make movies, but I can’t, so I make my drawings very dynamic.
What is bad design to you? And what’s good?
That’s a hard one. Usually, it’s technical, if things aren’t right technically… It’s a matter of taste, of course. Though I don’t like one-trick ponies. They apply the same mechanism over and over and over again and stay within the boundaries they’ve set for themselves. They do one thing, all the time. In illustration, you need flexibility. You have to work with other people’s creations, text, whatever. You can make them stronger or go against them. When somebody writes an article about the Baader-Meinhof group, your illustration can say something about terrorism today. Or not.
Are you often inspired by fellow illustrators?
I’m going to be honest here. 80% of what I see, including my own stuff, is shit. 10% is okay. And I could talk three weeks about the final 10%.
We don’t have three weeks, but can you point out three artists we definitely need to check out?
Helmut Newton. Not an illustrator, but a photographer. I know, it’s a lot of fetish and tits, but his image building is amazing. I like Blutch and Yves Chaland. A God, to me, is Moebius. It’s all good, everything he does. He’s an inspiration in the sense that he populates a universe with recurring characters. De Palma does the same thing: his characters move through a micro-universe of his making. You cannot replace them. You cannot replace Nicholas Cage in ‘Snake Eyes’. He HAS to play that character. It’s the same with Blutch and Moebius and most great illustrators or photographers: they create universes. I try to do that as well.
I know you’ve been working on a comic book for ages. How’s it coming along?
Working on it, man… Always busy (laughs).