Updated: Apr 20, 2020
First Friday is a staple in any art scene, galleries open their doors to show off what new creations they’re unveiling and viewers flood in to revel in artistic bliss, as well as hopefully snag some free wine and cheese. But the glory of living in the city means that First Friday expands beyond just the galleries or art collectives and one can find art even on the walls of their local dive bars. Those very walls are where I discovered Sam Heimer, a Philadelphia based illustrator whose work I instantly fell in love with. Heimer’s work uses a brilliant combination of linework and color to create a balance between hand-done and digitally refined imagery. think an effective illustrator can rely solely on their drawing when they have to and I think Heimer’s work is a brilliant example of that. His heavy, but controlled line and black work allow pieces to operate without color. This allows his delicate and muted colors to act only as an enhancement to illustration itself and not appear to poppy. His work is dark in both imagery and style but clearly defined light sources not only give depth and detail to the piece but create a guide through the elements of the work to subtly and effectively establish a narrative.
Heimer is also skilled in adding text or brand imagery into work in a way that it can act as a label or poster but not take away from the full image. Control is always key in illustration and if a brand wants to use your work but you can’t insert their name, or text, or imagery without it dominating the piece then you’re not making effective illustrations. Heimer’s control in the branding work he’s done is truly admirable, some of my favorite that I’ve seen. He never strays too far from his style and allows the brand to adopt his style without sacrificing their integrity.
I could probably ramble on even further about how much I enjoy Heimer’s work but I’ll let him speak for himself. I got to chat with Heimer about his illustration, the path it’s taken him on, where he’s going, and where he’d like to go beyond that. We even got to go into the exciting things he’s doing with toy making. It was an exciting interview to get to do, as I’m always thrilled to chat with artists I’m a big fan of and I think looking at his work paired with reading his answers will certainly make you a fan of him as well. For more Sam Heimer goodness you can find his website at https://samheimer.wordpress.com/, his Instagram @Sam_Heimer, and shop his work at https://www.etsy.com/shop/samheimer. Thanks so much to Sam for working with us and giving such awesome answers, it was a real pleasure. Enjoy!
1. So to start off, give us a little background on yourself as an artist. What got you started? Any schooling? Just a general origin on you as an artist.
I have my Parents and Brother to thank for my art career. From an early age I never had an idle moment. Every Saturday I was bird watching, taking art classes, participating in youth sports leagues, if there was a class or club, I was going. Bit by bit it was clear that I was no athlete, and the sports were swapped out with more art classes. In school, I excelled at nothing but art, or rather nothing held my interest but art. My brother James, three years my senior (and also a freelance Illustrator) was on a similar path, making comics and zines and focusing on art. From high school he went to University of the Arts and I did the same, seeing no other real path or option. I got a BFA in Illustration and honestly, was none too happy with my time spent at UArts, but I won’t get on that soapbox now. As far as tone, my Mom was showering me with garage-sale books at an early age, and it didn’t take long for me to gravitate towards the Hitchcock short horror collections, and discover my favorites like Blackwood and Lovecraft. I think this reading at a young age did more to shape my work than any singular artist I might have enjoyed when younger.
2. Expanding on that a little bit, I want to talk about your illustration style. You've got this awesome blend of Halloween, old school comics, classic horror movies, and much more in your illustrations, so what are the origins or inspirations of your particular style?
Again, I’ll avoid the soapbox, but just want to say that I’m a firm believer in the fact that ‘style’ is naturally occurring, and not something that can be specifically worked on or achieved. I see a lot of line-language emulation in art today and it bugs the shit out of me. You have to understand anatomy before you can warp anatomy, and a lot of artists seem to try and skip this step, and call them stylistic decisions. Nah bud, you just can’t draw a hand.
If you spend a few minutes looking at my work, you can probably guess which artists I loved as a kid; Gustave Dore, Edward Gorey, Guy Davis, Posada. Artists with an engravers line quality. A lot of black and white, texture heavy, shadow reliant art. And they all have a great sense of humor in their work. I pride myself on there being a child’s touch to what I do. Sure, everything’s rotting, but I try to not push anything too gory, too dark, or too serious. I do draw inspiration from vintage Halloween, classic horror and the such, but it doesn’t weigh on what you might call my style. I also comb through and study the past masters for composition… er, help.
3. As far as process is concerned, how does a piece start for you? How much of your process is by hand? How much is digital? Does it vary piece to piece or are you very structured in your process?
Every piece starts the same; with a loose, tiny thumbnail or doodle. I try to plot the composition and heavy shadows and the general shapes, and then set to work laying in the bones. 99% of my process is by hand. I work in physical layers. The main ink on bristol, and then using semi-transparent layout comp, I ink (in black) layers of shadows, highlights, color-fields and type. Then, at the very end, I scan and collate. It gives me maximum control without having to rely on a computer. The only thing that varies piece to piece is the initial ink and it’s use. I ink to scale, so I can’t approach an album cover the same way I approach a t-shirt. Something that is going to be screen-printed can’t have as much minute, labored texture. I’m not big on color, but the color I use is swatches cut from vintage comics, scanned and made into a palate.
4. Your work has been shown in several publications, featured on posters, and of course several gallery shows, as far as publications and client work is concerned was this just a byproduct of you showing your work and getting seen or was this a conscious effort to work with or be shown in certain places? Or a combination of the two?
Eh, not really connected, and if I never showed in a gallery again, I’d be fine with it. I never set out to be a gallery artist. My goal is and always will be to be a freelance Illustrator. My work doesn’t have mass appeal, so finding my niche has been the hardest part of what I do, and trying to find applications for my work is the constant struggle. If my art appeals to anybody, it’s folks in niche communities, be it Halloween, Horror, very specific publications or record labels, and other assorted companies that cater to the aforementioned demographic. And even then, it’s a niche within a niche. My work appearing in galleries is really just the byproduct of having run a few gallery spaces, and having a lot of friends that show in and coordinate local shows. I participate less and less in these sorts of things and it’s fine by me. I’ll avoid that soapbox too.
5. You sell prints, but I've also seen you take a step into acrylic figures (I believe they're acrylic, correct me if I'm wrong), what made you want to take this step? What was the process like? Do you think it's something you'll continue to do and possibly expand on?
Resin actually. I always wanted to make toys, but never allowed myself the joy, chalking it up to being too nostalgic. I was worried it would encroach on my studio time and somehow cast me in a less-serious light, maybe even lump me into the pop-culture, IP theft peddlers. But when I found my main sculptor Igor, who is pretty good at translating my work into 3D sculpts, I loosened my collar and dipped a toe in the pool. It’s been two and a half years and so far it’s been great. I get to connect with a demographic I never had access to, I get to sharpen skills I was letting get rusty, and running a micro-company has been pretty enlightening. I have a very relaxed approach to it, so the work flows a bit easier. When I hit a wall with an ink, I design or pour toys till I’m ready to pick the brush back up. It’s therapy that I miraculously get paid for. And it’s also great for networking. I’ve met a ton of amazing creatives I would probably not have met if I wasn’t peddling designer toys.
6. How important is the Philly art scene to you and your growing popularity?
I’d probably say not at all (as far as career trajectory). I know I have customers in Philly, and folks buy my work when I show it locally, but framing and hanging an ink in a gallery setting has never led to work, whereas every album, beer label, and poster has several people looking me up and reaching out. If anything, the Philly art scene serves as a way for me to stay connected. There’s folks I only see when I attend a friends opening. There’s people I only get to get shit-hammered with at certain annual shows. I both love and hate the Philly art scene, but again, no soapbox today. Just please, stop taking selfies at art shows.
7. Finally, we end on some plugs! Any new projects coming up that you're excited about? New shows? Where can people find you?
Hell yeah. HH Toys has a bunch of cool stuff in the pipeline, including Mythos Series 2, some custom painted figures (by pros, not me) and a new bigger scale figure. I’m also working with a Toy Company that’s in the Big Leagues (as Sam Heimer, not HH Toys) but I shouldn’t say too much more. I’ve also got art on several beers coming out from now till the end of the year with Abomination, so keep an eye peeled in your bottle shop. Beyond that, a few shirts, an album, and I just started the Halloween Train back up. And Jason McKittrick’s and my Halloween Club (Order of the Thinned Veil) is also in full swing and approaching some cool releases.