You may already know artist Samantha Baker from her popular Instagram series, #sdionbakersketchjournal. Admired by over 60,000 Instagram followers and clients around the world, her distinctive style of artmaking, which she describes as “playful storytelling with words and pictures,” showcases the interplay of her work in typography, design, and illustration.
Join us on Friday, September 22, from 6–8 pm, to meet Samantha and experience a live artmaking event. Using The Met Store’s exclusive line of art supplies by Caran d’Ache, Samantha will create a page in her signature sketch journal series, drawing inspiration from artworks in The Met collection. Learn more on Facebook.
Until then, here is our conversation with Samantha, who gave us insight into her artistic practices along with some helpful hints for starting your own sketch journal.
Tell me about yourself.
I am from Philadelphia, and I come from a family of artists. Most on my mother’s side, but also on my father’s, so I was always encouraged to draw and express myself creatively. I did my homework in my grandmother’s sculpture studio, went to gallery openings, and watched my older sister draw and my mother illustrate. My father taught me about photography and how to use a manual camera. I can’t think of a time in my life that art was not interwoven into my days or being celebrated. Someone was always working on a commission or making work for a show, or I was seated in front of a slide projector to view my mother and father’s recent photographs. Most of the artists I grew up around were women artists, which is something I have never taken for granted. Having strong female artists as role models really helped to encourage and shape my creative path.
What made you want to become an artist? How did you make this goal a reality?
Because art was such an integral part of my life, it took a little time for me to appreciate my own desire and passion to pursue art and design as a career. It wasn’t until high school that I really embraced my skills and decided to study as much and as often as possible. I then went to The Cooper Union here in New York City and took courses in design, typography, and printmaking. After about 20 years working in front of the computer, I started drawing and illustrating, revisiting the skills that I had abandoned so many years before. Since picking it up again, I haven’t looked back. In some ways, I don’t consider myself an “artist,” because to me an artist has a proper studio that smells of turpentine or is filled with pieces of wood about to be carved. I have recently accepted the word “artist” as a way of defining what I do. So I guess that goal from high school is now a reality. It’s not to say that I didn’t love the work I did as a graphic designer, and its influence on my current work is easy to see, but I realize now that I am much happier drawing and painting on paper than I am dealing with technology. Luckily, many contacts and clients that I had established in my design career have embraced my newfound skills and have reimagined how I am able to work for them.
How do you define your aesthetic?
This is a hard question for me because I am always conflicted between my work being “illustration” or “art”—what is the difference, or is there a difference? Because I spent so many years working as a graphic designer, I sometimes classify my work as “illustration design.” Is it abstract? No. Is it realistic? Not really, although I do draw what I see and what’s in my head in a pretty realistic way. I guess I would say my aesthetic is playful storytelling with words and pictures.
Can you tell me about your sketch journal series? I’d like to hear how it began, and how the project has evolved over time.
My sketch journal series is responsible for a life change and a career change, which I really had no idea would happen until about one year into the daily practice. I had made a commitment to myself to incorporate some drawing/sketching/doodling practice into my journal every day. It began in a blank journal that I used primarily to jot down notes and my kids’ milestones. Once I got into a groove, I changed to a square Moleskine sketchbook and began to share the daily drawings on Instagram. These daily drawings and patterns led to a practice of illustrating my days. Each day a new page turned, and a completely new expression of that day is put down on paper. As I shared the pages, the response and feedback from my friends and followers were so encouraging that, in the summer of 2014, I decided to illustrate 28 consecutive days during a trip to Scandinavia with my two boys. Every day I shared the pages, and when I returned home, I printed a limited-edition replica of the square Moleskine. It sold out so quickly that I knew I was on to something. Since the first run of books, I have self-published two other collections of journal pages. All three books are available to reserve and view at the Watson Library at The Met for anyone who would like to see them. I have many people asking me what’s next and why I haven’t printed more books. It’s been a little hard for me to keep it quiet, but I promise that exciting things are in the works! In a few more months, I will be able to share more.
How has your professional work informed your personal art-making practice?
My design background has had a huge impact on my illustration work and my personal artwork. It’s very natural and even exciting for me to arrange a blank page with multiple objects, drawings, and words. I studied and worked for years with typography, calligraphy, and letterpress, so I am able to draw letterforms in many styles. In fact, I often ask clients if I can write something when I work on their illustrations, as I always feel something is missing if I do not incorporate some form of typography or lettering into my pieces. Composition, relating random and unrelated images and words, typography (or hand lettering as it is often called today), and knowing how books and other printed materials are created from start to finish, are skills that I carry with me throughout all of my work. If you flip through one of my sketch journals, I believe it is very clear that my background in design has had a great influence on the work and the way I communicate my days on paper.
What do you like about visiting The Met? I’d love to hear about your favorite objects/exhibitions/visits over the years.
It’s hard to say just a few things I love about visiting The Met. For me, it’s a transcending experience just to be in the building. I am fascinated by how much the Museum holds inside. I have always suffered a little from megalophobia, or a fear of large things, so the Museum, literally affects my whole being, not to sound dramatic. Really, all this means is that I can only handle small doses, which is nice because when I visit, there are always unseen rooms to wander through, making the Museum always feel brand new. My response to the space is similar to a child’s, always looking up with a wide-open mouth, a touch intimidated by its vastness. I often visit with my two sons, and they love to go directly to the shop to look at the kids’ projects, the art supplies, and books. We see special exhibitions, almost always walk through the European Sculpture gallery to see Ugolino and His Sons, and then head to the Modern and Contemporary collection. I have loved the shows at The Met Breuer. Since The Met took over the building, which happens to be one of my favorite NYC buildings, I visit regularly. A highlight was diane arbus: in the beginning—such an amazing experience to see these timeless photographs I have known for years, all in one place. I also loved Seurat’s Circus Sideshow and Rei Kawakubo at The Met Fifth Avenue and, most recently, the Ettore Sottsass design show at The Met Breuer.
What are your essential art-making materials? How do the materials influence what/how you make art?
I always start in pencil. A softer pencil like a 2B or a 3B is my go-to. Then ink, always ink (although I am starting to break away from the ink outline and experimenting with going directly to paint). I use a few pens, but my very favorite is a Copic Multiliner with a .1 nib. I also often use Pigma Micron pens. Watercolor and, more recently, gouache are my preferences for color. I have gotten really comfortable working in watercolor, and my work would not be where it is today without it. Pencil, ink, watercolor, in that order, are what I am most comfortable with, therefore, there is a greater amount of confidence in my lines and my process. Even if a drawing is imperfect, and often my drawings have slight imperfections, it’s the confidence in the lines that make the mistakes look fluid. It’s very important to keep growing and experimenting with new materials, but my top three are always in my pocket, literally!
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
I would say not to let that inner critic get the best of you. Style and creativity come in so many forms. I think it is very important to have a foundation by studying basic drawing and design techniques. Get a feel for some of the “rules,” learn about perspective and composition, and learn how different materials work and have worked in history. Then, I think it is much more important to find your own voice, and to feel free and empowered to break the rules as you search for it. Since working in a sketch journal has become my thing, I do have to endorse how beneficial it is. In a sketch journal, you can experiment, turn the pages as you practice, and make tons of mistakes, while writing down thoughts as you go. Then you can close the cover and look back when you are ready. Think of it as a meditative space just for you. What’s inside of these books can prepare you for the larger work, for that big blank canvas or paper.