Sam Washburn takes a blue collar approach to his expressive illustrations. He blitzes subject matter with drawing after drawing in order to uncover personality and movement in each line. Rarely do his characters appear still; he translates energy and playfulness across bright, limited color palettes with dynamic, articulate poses.
If you grew up digging Saturday morning cartoons or classic video games, Sam Washburn’s swashbuckling style taps into that same fun.
TL: Sam, thanks for doing this! I’m a fan – you’ve been around the Plaza for a few years now, notably with prints and stickers in DNA Galleries in the past. How did you catch up with this neighborhood?
SW: It kind of happened by accident! I grew up in the Midwest, and I lived in St Louis for ten years after graduating college. My wife was in St. Louis for law school, but she was from Oklahoma, and she convinced me to move down here. That's the short of it.
In the search for neighborhoods to get involved with, we lined up with Midtown Rotary, and they directed us to the Plaza. Once we started making friends with folks, I brought stuff to DNA, and they happened to like it, which is always great.
But there’s a weird missed connection I failed to mention in there somewhere – I actually did caricatures with Matt Raney at Six Flags Over Texas, he sort of trained me. And when I moved here to OKC, I facebooked for people I knew. Lo and behold, Matt Raney pops up and invites me to Pencil Pushers, which is how I met you guys.
It’s always funny like that in the Midwest; you have all these weird connections that travel across states and cities. If you’re in NY or LA you don’t get that. Out there you get, "That guy in the other borough," but here it’s like, “You know that guy from three states over?”
TL: Small-town America vibes. Has that backdrop influenced your work? I’m a big fan of the liveliness and expression you work into your characters. How did you develop this style?
SW: Definitely – it’s lots of trial and error. I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis around 2009. I had grown up watching old Disney cartoons, and doing this crappy imitation of James Jean to start. I kept experimenting and tweaking, which led me to this project where I forced myself to draw an animal in a suit every day for a year. And I ended up with over 400 of them. It was wild. And I realized that a weird sense of humor carried my work a lot further, a lot more people dug it.
The whole marketplace changed too. It went from people wanting these really realistic things to these really expressive things that reminded them of their childhood. I kind of slid right into that nostalgic space.
TL: Does that space come with a streamlined Sam Washburn process? What’s your practice strategy, and is there any advice in there for younger artists interested in drawing and developing characters?
SW: This slots in perfectly – I’m teaching a class on developing characters right now at UCO, which is another thing that sort of happened by accident. It has always been beneficial to me to utilize the funnel method of design – start broad and then narrow. Questions come from the punchline – what story do I want to tell, and how do I used simple shapes to tell that story? And then I typically begin with 5-10 variations of each thing.
For example, for this show, I knew I wanted to do an abominable snowman, and I knew I wanted him to be huge and kind of goofy. So to show that scale and his expression, I added this tiny person and the little dog, so the snowman has something to tower over and to look at. He’s bent over watching them, and he looks like a mountain. But I’m able to channel that against the goofy vibes of those old stop-motion Rudolph movies. By starting out with all of these questions, the composition and the goofiness present themselves as answers to a hopefully compelling visual story.
TL: Who are some of your favorite artists?
SW: Jack Kirby, Mike Mignola, Eric Pow, Nigel Buchanan, illustrator Ed Emberly…there are so many.
Take someone like Dr Seuss – he's so influencing, but he’s also so ever-present people don’t seem to mention him. He’s so universal, how can you not be influenced by it? Hannah-Barbara is like that too, a shell of itself, but people love those old cartoons. All of these old movies being remade, millennials turning 30, we’re drawing all of this inspiration from Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario, all these characters burned into our brains.
Hannah-Barbara gets eaten up by the WB, and everything gets swallowed by Cartoon Network, which has great stuff. It leads to this sort of cartoon collective conscience. And then Adult Swim, they picked it up and ran with it, kind of like the last great generation of Hannah-Barbara cartoonists. There’s no way to do a new hit version of Yogi Bear or the Flintstones – you’ve seen these live action movies which are mostly terrible, so we just remember the old cartoons instead. And cartoons have evolved with shows like Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman. And the themes are much darker now that these Saturday morning cartoon-watchers are grown up. Everything sucks out there, the world is scary, it’s like we’re trying to find our way back into the arcade. People like the goofiness, it’s an escape from all the crap going on.
TL: Your work is marching along with this lineage of cartoons. Take me back, is that where the appeal began? And was there a moment when you began to take art more seriously?
SW: I was actually really clueless before I got to college. The only career I knew about was being an animator for Disney. My parents were really supportive, but they were both nurses. They didn’t know either. So the idea was get into a school with a drawing problem. I was looking for a margin between artsy-fartsy and technical-professional.
John Hendricks and Dan Zettwoch, professional illustrators and teachers I had in St Louis, were really great about teaching us the basics and making sure we were down to earth - here’s how to invoice, here’s how to work for a client – these are the tools and this is what I can do for a living.
I can sell illustrations, license my characters, and as long as I bust my hump I can control what I want to do. Before that it was like, uhhh maybe I’ll cluelessly find some way to work for Disney, I don’t know?
TL: The art scene in Oklahoma City is becoming increasingly visible – but let's get real, there's still plenty of room for growth there. I always ask artists this – what are some of the advantages of being an Oklahoma City-based artist? And what are some of the disadvantages, or some of the things you’d like to see change
I can afford a mortgage here, a decent middle class lifestyle as an artist in OKC. A car, some basic amenities, and a willingness to hustle goes a long way. That may not be everyone’s experience but it’s been my experience.
The community is also really primed to prove itself – they feel like the underdog, and because of that they work harder and want to prove it - we’re just ask good as those places like Brooklyn and San Francisco but we have our own unique quirky twists on it. That also makes the community more welcoming.
Just like this right now! Being invited to hang and interview, that feels very midwest, there’s a stronger sense of community. It’s not a complex or weird spiritual thing, it's just a city that purposefully in the 90s made an effort to bring in more diverse creatives. And now we have artists from all over carving out these little places to call their own.
Disadvantages – there is the Oklahoma stigma…I’m really involved with local civic organizations. On the ground, everyone is very neighborly. The positives of small-town America. But you have to put up with some of the stuff going on in the state house. It’s irritating to me that some are alienated – my friends who left the midwest, all these who went to New York and California who didn’t feel welcome or like they couldn’t make a living here...I can’t sugar coat the fact that the leadership in the state has this weird relationship with creatives, where they want to bring in the artists, but they don’t want the artists to say certain things, where you have to be on eggshells sometimes. And you have to wake up in the morning and hear what frustrating things the state legislature is doing that day, 4-day school weeks and all of that – all you really want to do is draw pictures, but you have to go out and be involved whether you like it or not, because maybe to a certain extent, the state is not going to do it.
I do think it’s changing for the better.
TL: Showtime. Your show opened Friday (9/8). What can people expect from this one? What should they look for?
SW: Sure! The general theme is monsters from around the world. I got an itch last year to do a run of 1960s monster-mash style illustrations, and when we landed this date for October, I was excited to crank out even more of these. It's a throwback to feel-good monsters from the 60s and 70s. Maybe it’ll open people to monsters from Norway, Asia – the Penanggalan for example, she's this really cool witch, her head pops off and flies around to basically vampire people. I first heard about it in a Hellboy comic. There are hydras, greek monsters...it's a very diverse set.
TL: Last but not least, a little free advertising! Anything you're working on right now that you want to share? Where can people find more of your work?
It's called Discount Force, and it's basically a D-list Avengers setup with Dinosaur men, robots, and luchadors - a total throwback to 80s comics. We’re going to try to sell them all over OKC.
Big thanks to Sam for hanging out with us. Keep your eyes peeled for Discount Force, which should be circulating OKC soon. Check out his oversized prints in-store, grab a set of four for $25/apiece, grab some stickers, and then catch up with him at Artcade on 11/3!