Originally from Petersfield in East Hampshire, Emily Sams is an established illustrator, collagist, and tattoo artist with a distinctly intricate and ethereal style. Taking inspiration from her many travels across the globe, and incorporating organic materials wherever possible, her work brings into focus the beauty and complexity of the natural world. With a diverse portfolio including everything from large scale murals and book illustrations, to intricate hand-painted jungle seeds, we were excited to meet with Emily to discover more about the concepts and processes involved in her work.
So, how did you first become interested in making art?
I don’t really remember as it was so long ago. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to express myself in some way or other. I feel like art is something I’ve always been interested in. My mum would put colours and paint in front of me to keep me out of trouble, and at school I was constantly doodling on my hands and paper when I was uninterested in class. I remember having to go to the front of class to show my teacher my hands to check I hadn’t been ‘tattooing’ them.
I’ve always turned to art as a distraction when I’m not contented for some reason or other. I guess in some sense it has always been a form of meditation for me, whether I’ve realised it or not.
And what inspires your creativity – can you describe the process?
Last week I had a wonderful dream of painting this big mural. I woke up with the image and story of it so clear in my mind, and was very grateful for my subconscious giving this one to me. Meditation helps inspiration flow. Reading too. I’m currently sadly realising what halts creativity: limited time, tight deadlines, not being able to have enough time to step back and reflect. Too much technology, Instagram – too many images, which will fill me with surface inspiration but little depth. Overloading my thoughts. If I feel rushed I wont create happily, And if I don’t create with my heart in it, to me it never looks beautiful, and I don’t think it does to others either.
Your work is heavily influenced by the natural world. How did this interest in nature first come about?
Since coming into the world, or out of it, I have naturally been interested by my surroundings. I love pattern, so regularly turn to nature for reference for this. Gaia always knows best. Being surrounded by forests or ocean is always such a healthy place for the mind to be that I guess that too fills me with inspiration, and naturally I will take elements from my surroundings.
And what role does nature play in your work?
I’ve worked in environmental education since graduating, in a couple of different roles, and yeah I guess that does come into my work. Not so much in the sense of direct education about issues, but more so to inspire a greater love for our planet, and hopefully to encourage the viewer to look a little deeper into the world around them, and perhaps a little deeper inside themselves. I don’t like to directly tell the reader what to think about my art. I prefer for it to be more suggestive and conceptual, each person finding in it what they need.
You’ve travelled a lot and completed commissions across the globe. Where have you most enjoyed working and why?
I have a few favourite spots where myself and my sketchbook have flowed together well: Namo Buddha monastery, near(ish) to Kathmandu. I loved using drawing as a way to communicate without language, and learning from the monks there. Also the balcony of my treehouse in the forest near Chiang Mai, and a beautiful grassy spot on Pendennis point in Falmouth.
And what’s been your most exciting commission to date?
I was pretty excited after graduating to work for a big publication in the UK. But to be honest, at the moment I see success differently from how I used to, not so much related to money or fame, but rather enjoying what I make, making a client happy, and enjoying the experience. I get really excited about creating a personal tattoo design and inking it onto someone I love. My favourites have often not involved money at all, but remembering why I love to create and being able to share it with someone. The connections you have while you tattoo someone are incredible. I find even after tattooing some of my closest friends I feel I know them on such a deeper level afterwards.
How easy is it to transfer your designs onto the human body?
Not easy at all. When I’m drawing and doodling for myself, I like to lose myself in detail and intricate patterns and textures. These don’t translate too well onto skin, as skin will change and the images blur over time. Since designing tattoos I’ve been trying to learn the art of making something beautiful yet simplistic – less is more. I still struggle with this and find the simple designs often take as long to draw up as detailed ones.
What would you say have been the biggest challenges in your career so far?
Trying to work as a freelance illustrator whilst living in England straight out of uni was hard. One barrier after graduating was being unsure about whether I should be trying to make illustrations that fit the mould and sell or whether to make art that I enjoy, art that flows naturally, but maybe doesn’t fit the market, going against what was suggested during my degree. My degree was great, and I really appreciated learning about the industry, what sells and what doesn’t. But I do believe it’s important to make art without the intention of making money from it. Finding that balance is hard though. When you’re solely working as an illustrator/artist, you’ve got to find a way to pay the bills. But it’s important not to forget what you love for the sake of money.
How did you survive those first few years?
Funnily enough, living in Kathmandu made it a lot easier to get by as an artist. I was there at the right time. The art scene in Nepal used to be very traditional, lots of Buddhist art and replicated paintings, all of which was incredible but not that new. I met a bunch of wonderful artists who’s collective was introducing international graffiti art to the city, and was lucky enough to paint murals with them throughout the city. It was amazing to see Herakut painting one of their giant powerful pieces next to the bus station. After that, a few of my Nepali friends wanted me to paint restaurants and hotels for them, and Kathmandu has a strong community, and word spreads, so it expanded from that. Also, the living costs as you can imagine are very different from England, so money goes a long way out there. Plus being somewhere like Nepal, filled me to the brim with ideas and inspiration! More so than ever I think. I do miss being on the roof of the world.
You’ve created art on everything from walls to jungle seeds. How do you go about choosing which materials to work with?
Haha! Usually whatever’s in my bag decides that for me. Or on the floor. I used to love collaging with found material, especially when travelling and finding scraps of other languages and strange ephemera on the floor. I haven’t been doing so much of this recently but I love the stories it creates and the memories of all the forgotten treasures it holds on to.
Can you tell us about any projects that you’re working on at the moment?
Right now I’m coming towards the end of a very busy season in my work. I also work in outdoor education, which is wonderful, but does involve long trips away. So right now personal projects have been put aside, and I’m just tattooing in my days off. I have a sketchbook full of notes and ideas though and can’t wait to put them to paper next month. My boyfriend and I are also writing a children’s story but I think this won’t be finished for a couple of years yet. Once life gets less busy, I’m itching to do some murals again too. Hopefully I’ll find some walls once I’m back in England. Oh and my good friend who’s a photographer and I will be combining photography and illustration and hopefully having an exhibition at the end of 2017. Really excited for the next steps!
And can you give us any clues as to what we can expect to see from you in the future?
I thought about this a few days ago and started to jot down some future dreams and ideas, and maybe a three year plan or something. But as I started to try and plan and think about the future, my dreams were mostly about creating a life that keeps both myself and others happy. Once that is in place, the art will always flow. So I’m not going to plan too much career related stuff right now. Just keep on drawing and tattooing, travelling and enjoying what comes my way.
About the Artist
Emily Sams graduated from University College Falmouth in 2010 and has been working as a freelance illustrator ever since, painting or drawing on anything she can get her hands on, whilst exploring the beauty in the world as much as she can. When she’s not working digitally or in a sketchbook, she often uses recycled and reclaimed material, transforming ‘trash’ into something more beautiful.