Sam Caldwell


The illustrator Sam Caldwell contributed to our Sweden and Canada issues. Sarah Kelleher finds out more about this talented artist. Could you tell us a little bit about your background – where you trained/ how you learned and what inspired you to become an artist and illustrator when you were younger?

I grew up in Bolton, a town just north of Manchester. For as long as I can remember I have always been interested in storytelling and have tried to document the world around me. Drawing and painting have always been the most natural way for me to do this.

I moved up to Edinburgh in 2010 where I studied painting at the Edinburgh College of Art. I initially went to study illustration but switched over to the art department in the first week as it seemed a lot more fun!

I moved to South-East London after graduating and have since been chasing a career in freelance illustration.

You’ve lived in a number of places, from Lancashire, to Edinburgh to South-East London.  Have the locations you’ve lived in influenced your work in any way?  Are there any landscapes that are particularly important to you?

Yeah absolutely, place is very important to me. I think growing up in a post-industrial town has had a huge influence on the kind of images I make. I love the moorland around Bolton, the old terrace streets and disused mills still loom large for me.

Discovering the Hebrides and the Highlands of Scotland were a big thing too – looking back at the work I made whilst living in Edinburgh, so much of it was inspired by windswept Scottish landscapes and the idea of North.

It has really only been in the past few months that I’ve seen London seep into my work. Since moving down here I have struggled to figure out how to make a living from drawing and have tried on a few different creative hats in the process. It is only recently that I have started to look around me again and make pictures based on my surroundings. I’m really interested in trying to document some of the struggles living in this city throws up.

Looking at your work, it’s clear that you enjoy creating and referencing comic book art.  Are there any comic book artists whose work you particularly like or are inspired by?  Are you working on your own comic-book projects?

Comics are a fairly recent interest for me. I read the Beano and the Dandy as a kid but it’s only been in the past couple of years that I have started drawing my own and really thinking about it as a medium for story telling. My way in was through Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan as well as the first few Nobrow anthologies. Jon McNaught has been a big influence on how I’ve thought about comics – he has an incredible knack for creating a sense of place through these slow, often uneventful stories.

I just finished ‘Hubert’ by Ben Gijsemans which I would highly recommend to anyone who likes the quieter side of comics.

The main comics project I am working on at the minute is a collaboration with a writer based in Austin, Texas called James McNulty. He sent me a screenplay a few months ago and we are working on adapting it into a graphic novel. It’s tonally similar to something like ‘The Missing’ or True Detective’. The story is set in small town America and focuses on a series of kidnappings. It is pretty dark stuff but it had me totally gripped on my first read through!

You’ve produced work for a number of publications and shows, and although there is great variety in your work, it’s also possible to tell that each piece was created by you – how have you developed your own personal style over the years?

That’s very kind of you to say so! I don’t think it is a particularly conscious thing, hopefully it is something which has happened naturally. That said, I have always found it useful to draw quick versions of other artist’s work. I think it is a really useful way to learn how people you admire use line and shape and space.

I used to draw pretty obsessively, filling sketchbooks with drawings of photographs I would find on blogs and in books as well as invented characters and scenes. I still try to get at least one drawing down every day. Style is definitely defined to some degree by what materials you use too. I find that I draw completely differently with a pencil than I do with a brush and ink for example.

The pieces you’ve worked on for Lodestars Anthology have been related to the cultural life of the different countries covered by the magazine, and you have been very adept in referencing the books and films from the written pieces in your art.  Do you have a strong interest in literature, film and music?  How does this play out in your work?

I definitely have a real interest in all of those things, anything which tells a good story or seems to have a unique perspective on the world always grabs my attention. Although I definitely don’t read as much as I would like to, I do often find inspiration in fiction and poetry. I’ve been working on turning a series of Simon Armitage poems into comics recently actually. Film is a pretty big influence too; I will usually have to dig back through movies to take screengrabs or photos of particular scenes and shots. I love work which nods to or references its source of inspiration in some way. Inspiration can come from almost anywhere, you just have to learn to be receptive to it and always carry a notebook!

You use pen and ink, ink wash, pencil and digital art to create your work – do you have a favourite medium to work in?  Do you like to experiment with new mediums?

I love working with physical materials. I feel as though I am in a constant battle with Photoshop and my tablet, always trying to make my images more print friendly and contemporary. Working digitally is great for tight deadlines and getting a clean finish but I always seem to find myself going back to my trusty set of watercolour paints. I really like the unpredictability of using a watery wash of paint or ink, building images up from loads of thin layers allows me to get colours and textures I just can’t achieve working digitally.

I enjoy trying out new mediums from time to time, drawing with a dip pen and a pot of ink is fairly new to me and something which has really changed my approach to making pictures. You can’t mess around too much with ink, it forces you to roll with any mistakes and work a lot more confidently than you would in pencil for instance.

Your work encompasses both landscape and portraiture – do you enjoy working in both these areas?  Do you have a favourite?

I like both equally I think. I am really interested in the idea of place and how people relate to and are to some degree defined by their surroundings. I like to think of my pictures as stills from a film. I want my pictures to evoke some sense of narrative and to have a definite character. I think you can get just as much character from a landscape as you can from a portrait.

Your work is very atmospheric – often with a muted, or deep colour palette that can seem quite ominous, and we particularly saw this in the illustration you did for ‘Let the Right One In’ in the Swedish Literature piece for Lodestars.  Do you enjoy creating works of art with a slightly darker feel?

That piece was fun because I got the chance to read up on a film that I am almost certainly not brave enough to actually watch!

Without sounding too gloomy, I am definitely more drawn to things with a darker feel to them. Not so much horror but I have been told that my pictures often have a certain feeling of melancholia to them. I guess I just find that kind of thing more intriguing. It is probably a bit of a hangover from my teenage years spent reading Philip Larkin and listening to The Smiths! The films, books and pictures that really resonate with me usually have a similar tone to my illustrations. Generally speaking, I am interested in depicting characters who seem to have a complex story surrounding them. I think that often darker stories are more engaging than light-hearted ones.

Your portraiture and people work is very expressive – how do you set about conveying a sense of emotion or character through your artwork of people and personalities?

It’s all about the eyes and eyebrows, these are undoubtedly the most expressive parts of the face. If you can get those right, then the rest of the portrait usually follows pretty easily. I always start with a loose layout in very faint pencil. Once I’m settled on the composition I will tighten up this pencil layer and sketch in some of the facial features. The bulk of the working out is done at this stage. I then get the ink pot out and draw the face. I always start with the eyes. I like to do this stage fairly quickly; faster lines almost always look better than laboured ones. Once I have inked out all the line work I go about blocking in the first layer of watercolour. This is undoubtedly a backwards way of doing things but I often find my colour palette is influenced by the feel of the drawing underneath.

Do you have any illustrators whose work you particularly admire and follow?  If yes, then why these artists?

I admire tons of people’s work, the list is endlessly growing.

Ben Shahn is my absolute all time favourite painter. His pictures really capture a particular time and place and are an endless source of inspiration for me. As far as current working illustrators go, Dadu Shin, Roman Muradov, Patrick Leger, Sam Bosma, Eleni Kalorkati, Lizzy Stewart, Benji Davis, Thomas Haugomat, Matt Rockefeller, Adrian Tomine and Jordan Crane are all excellent, to name but a few. Closer to home, anyone reading should check out the work of Seamus Killick, Tom Brice, Jamie Johnson, Mark Connolly, Sarah Sheard, Laura Griffin, Efa Dyfan, Kyle Noble, Tiina Lilja, Gwen Kehrig-Darton, Herbert Green, Ben Hall and Supermarche.