'Limitations are Very Liberating': An Interview with Sam Kalda, Narrative Illustrator

Sam Kalda is a Brooklyn-based illustrator, graphic designer, and cat whiskers-collector with a portfolio we loved for its lovely combinations of narrative storytelling and flat design. Clients include papers and journals like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Popular Mechanics, The Washington Post, and others, but Sam's portfolio retains a sense of playfulness and features many characters from literary classics, just for fun. We interviewed Sam recently about how Bob Ross got him on the path to illustration, and what is perhaps my favorite ever ongoing series, Men and Cats.


Men & Cats: Joseph Spies

On Behance, you identify as a cat-fancier. Me too! How often do cats make it to your sketchbook, and who else will you feature in your 'Men and Cats' series?

I don't religiously keep a sketch book----it tends to be a bit more sporadic. Cats appear often in my work, it's true. There's that Norman Rockwell quote: "If your painting doesn't work, put a dog in it." I put in cats, I guess. As far as other cat men are concerned, I'm working on Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway.



Men & Cats: Montaigne and his cat


Men & Cats: Jean Cocteau


Men & Cats: Edward Gorey with his beloved feline


What's your favorite story by Edward Gorey?

I love The Beastly Baby. Also, The Gashlycrumb Tinies is fabulous. Frankly, if Edward Gorey illustrated a shopping list, I'd be excited to see it.



Edward Gorey with his beloved feline, the real photograph

How would you describe your style of illustration, and are there any other artists who have inspired your work?

I think my work would be characterized as stylized narrative illustration. In terms of influences, I love Maira Kalman, Will Barnett, Edward Gorey, Neo Rauch, and many others. I also love vintage graphic design and furniture design as well. Next to cats, I love drawing chairs.


The Work of a Generation



What kind of artwork did you do as a kid? When did you start to draw inspiration from literary sources?

When I was kid, I experimented with all sorts of different media. My parents were really encouraging. Like many people my age, my first go at oil painting came in the form of a Bob Ross set. In high school, I worked in ceramics----I'd love to get back to that at some point. In regards to literary sources, that began in high school with some fairly embarrassing pieces about Oscar Wilde. I had just discovered The Smiths and yadayada.


Splendid Objects


Splendid Objects

Do you remember the first illustration you did for a journal/publication?

Of course! It was a small piece for the Chicago Reader. It was for an article on Chicago's secretive cultural plan – very contested apparently. I was over the moon to get the job.


The Toronto Chicago Cultural Plan (February 17, 2012)

Where do you work? What does your desk look like, and what are are your favorite drawing tools?

Right now, I work out of my apartment. I have a little vintage desk I found on the street with a Breuer chair. I have my computer and a shelf with all my other supplies----pens, pencils, paints etc. I love drawing with sumi ink and black watercolor pencils, but mostly I use Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. Best pencils ever designed.




When did you start doing digital illustration, and does your attitude or style change between pen and part, and digital work?

I started working digitally when I began graduate school----I'm in my final year of FIT's Illustration MFA program. As I began to get more editorial work with tight deadlines, I started incorporating more digital to help streamline my process. In general---though it depends on the piece---I work in mix of traditional and digital. I still do all my sketching with a pencil as I'm not entirely comfortable working strictly with the tablet. My work became a bit flatter and more graphic working digitally, which, generally speaking, I like.



Globe and Mail: Book review for 'Sandrine's Case'


How do you work through 'artist's block' or lulls in creativity?

When I'm feeling a creative block, I try to convince myself I'm just overreacting! Coming up with ideas is the hardest part for me---making the big decisions right away. However, I do find the pressure of tight deadlines can help generate creative decisions that I might normally not come up with if I worked at a leisurely pace. When I'm really struggling, I try to give myself strict limitations---palette, materials, etc. Limitations are very liberating.


The Great Gatsby


The Great Gatsby


The Great Gatsby


Have you ever drawn someone in public without them knowing it?

Yes. It's a little nerve-wracking. I took a reportage class a couple of years ago that certainly improved my drawing skills. In general, though, I'm not a fan of someone watching me draw. I once was drawing a jogger who was resting on a park bench. Midway through the drawing, a giant rat scurried under her feet and she didn't notice! I rushed to finish the drawing before she realized and had a complete meltdown. Thankfully, the rat took pity on both of us and ran away. I probably should have been more charitable and told her, but you know what they say about hindsight...



Starry Party


For more of Sam's work, visit Sam Kalda Illustration and his Behance portfolio