“I say no very easily because I think freedom is very important when making work. But when somebody offers me €10,000, my principles go out the window!”
Like most professional illustrators, Sam Vanallemeersch finds himself torn between working for himself and for clients. But unlike many of his peers, he deals with this by drawing a line between those two sides of his practice, approaching them with different attitudes and two unique visual languages.
Left to his own devices, Vanallemeersch’s work is frenetic and unscripted, each blank sheet of paper approached with no more than a few loose ideas and a ready supply of ink. The resulting imagery is thick with intermingling narrative and crosshatched complexity from his hasty pen. Where clients are concerned, the scene is just the opposite; he slowly maps out his page with care and concentration, intricately planning to ensure clarity in the final result.
“I like making that work because it’s really relaxed,” says Vanallemeersch. “It’s like going into sleep mode. I still put a lot of effort into making perfect compositions, but I consider it to be graphic design; you have an A4 rectangle and a mission to fill it, and then you just start constructing. In the background I play TV shows, because I still need to have something to occupy my mind and stay in this sleep zone. I make a lot of sketches and, at the end, a very simple image.”
Those who count themselves fans of Vanallemeersch’s commercial work may be horrified to discover his nonchalance towards imagery that comes so close to perfection. That these slick geometric creations can be dashed off while watching reruns demonstrates the sheer scale of his talent, and the single-minded focus with which he creates.
“There was awhile between 2012 and 2014 when I had a lot of assignments with my drawings, and suddenly it stopped, but I didn’t mind. In that moment I was glad that I could really do what I wanted with my drawings and I didn’t have to pay any mind to anybody. I might have cared if I didn’t make any money, but I make money from my illustrator stuff. As long as I can draw it’s all okay.”
A resident of Antwerp, Belgium, Vanallemeersch trained at the prestigious Sint Lucas, where he studied traditional print processes like wood block and etching, before transitioning to into a degree in illustration and graphic design. Disinterested in the world of fine art, he retreated into his studio after graduation and began the slow process of making a career from his skills.
“It never really occurred to me that comics or illustration could be an option in life,” he says. “I always thought you had to be more talented to do comics than to be an artist. Art just seemed easier. The comics I read and admired really had a lot of detail, but when you’re a painter you make one painting and people go ‘Wow it’s beautiful!’ When you make a comic book you have to make 10,000 little paintings and drawings, and people aren’t in awe of that as much—they prefer things that are two meters by two meters. It has to be a big macho image and then people all go wild and drop their panties for it.
“In a way I’ve always been jealous of real artists because they get away with that kind of thing, but I’m not that person. I like to be in my studio, behind my small desk, making little drawings.”
Paradoxically, Vanallemeersch never wanted to be a comics artist, either. “I really liked comics artists, but I was scared of becoming really whiny—that kind of person who makes 1,000 pages where they whine and whine.” Now 38, he’s in the middle of working on his debut, a dystopian sci-fi narrative about a wealthy entrepreneur who deals in trauma. He’s been adding to it sporadically for the past three years, and with no end in sight, has started to whine a little himself.
“Every year I say I want to get back to my comic, and then as soon as I get back to it I want to make a different drawing again. But then my girlfriend gets mad because I go on about this comic, and I’ve still not finished it. So now I’m finishing a load of pages and I’m going to serialize them on the web. At times I want to rewrite the whole thing, but I’m trying to resist the temptation.”
When its released, the comic will be the first instance of Vanallemeersch combining his two working methods; carefully planning in pencil before inking with signature tenacity. It’s been a conscious decision to use a personal project as a testing ground for this approach. In the past he’s been burned by attempts to make ink drawings for clients, including one particularly painful collaboration with the one of New York’s biggest editorial names.
“You have this idea that you have to get your drawings out there and do things for big magazines because they’re really cool, but then you’re doing the work and it’s awful. I’ve had experiences where I’ve had to send clients scans every day in the morning, afternoon, and evening. They were crazy! And then when I had made a drawing that was extremely redacted and I wasn’t pleased with, they said it was good. Then they decided they didn’t like it and didn’t want to pay me either. No wonder their magazine looks so boring!”
Difficulties with reputable publishers aside, Vanallemeersch’s career is thriving and diverse. He’s recently released his first animation, has large-scale drawings hanging in a group show in Copenhagen, and still takes on the odd bit of “sleep zone” work to keep the bills in check.
“I once got an assignment for a huge oil company and all my red lightbulbs were flashing; don’t give me that assignment! But when you have a house that needs fixing, and a wife and daughter, you can easily jump into these traps that are set for you with all the money. But Oil? No thank you! Sometimes when the commercial client is not too terrible I just say whatever, but I do it just often enough to keep drawing what I want. That’s the most important thing.”