Interview with Sara Blake (ZSO), Illustrator/Fine Artist/Graphic Artist on Influences, Style & Tattoos
Sara Blake, aka “ZSO” (pronounced “zoh”), is an illustrator, fine artist, and art director based in New York City. In just six years, she has amassed an impressive body of work, some before even graduating from NYU’s Galllatin School of Individualized Study in Graphic Art and Postmodern Studies. Her commercial clients have ranged from Condé Nast to Marc Jacobs, as well as projects for charities including Santa Monica’s “Heal the Bay” and DACS - Designers Against Child Slavery. Her work, a combination of hand-drawn illustration and digital magic, is a dizzying array of swirling inks and vibrant colors. She joined us for a quick discussion of her art, what inspires her, and her impressive collection of tattoos, among other things.
stated: How would you describe what you do?
SARA BLAKE: The short answer is I make hybrid art using both traditional and digital methods. The long answer involves things like dreaming, falling in love, making mistakes, getting lost, not sleeping, drawing until you get calluses only to throw everything away, learning, failing, panicking, laughing, and waking up loving what you do.
stated: How did you first get started?
SARA BLAKE: I don’t think I can remember a starting point, it was just always something I wanted to do even as a little kid. I can remember doing a big series of animal drawings when I was in kindergarten. Looking back at them now, they’re really nothing special. My mom still has them somewhere and they just look like pretty standard disfigured kid art. But I can remember that being the moment I started getting encouragement and picking up my pace creating things. I just liked drawing from life from a pretty young age. I remember making a fort behind the Christmas tree one year, being typically anti-social, and drawing the ornaments and pine needles. I’ve been trying to figure out why I need to do what I do all my life, and I’m still not sure I can really answer this question. The only thing I do know is that there is nothing else I know how to do in life that really makes me feel like I exist and gives me a sense of purpose. Everything else I do in life is fleeting but art lives outside of you. I think I could be happy has long as I was making things, be it art, teacups, food, birdhouses, whatever.
stated: Where did you grow up? Do you come from an artistic family?
SARA BLAKE: I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. I’m actually waiting for a flight back there right now for a wedding! Creatively, Richmond felt pretty sheltered. Nowadays, I think people are finally starting to see how artsy downtown Richmond is. VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] is an incredible art school, but when I was growing up it really wasn’t widely known. Mainly I think I have my art teachers to thank for broadening my horizons. I don’t think my family was particularly artistic, and there were no artists in my family who I knew about, but I think I came from an open-minded group of close relatives who encouraged the interests of all the kids and were very creative individuals. My dad always had really weird taste that I think has influenced me to this day. My sister is a musician and we actually just collaborated this year. But my dad is a doctor and my mom works in finance. I don’t think I fully realized who I was artistically until I came to NYC though.
stated: What was the project you collaborated on with your sister? Was that your first collaboration?
SARA BLAKE: I consider anything besides personal work a collaboration. All client projects are a collaboration in some way I feel, because you have to consider the feedback and direction of others. I’ve done several projects with other artists in the past, most recently one with Joshua Davis, but I think the one with my sister was one of the most personal ones I’ve ever done. It was a design for Sakroots for a line of bags that will be released summer/fall this year. As a company they are very inspired by nature and peace in their products. The assignment was to create a song and a design that were co-inspired. My sister wrote a song called Treehouse, and I created a print including birds, feathers, leaves, and plant life inspired by its lyrics as well as my relationship with my sister. I’ve always been my toughest critic, so it was a challenge working with my sister because I felt like I was up against two me’s. We’ll have a video and images of the work plus my sister Emily’s song up on my site as soon as we are allowed to release it!
stated: Keep us posted. You’ve described an artist’s individual style as “more of a fingerprint—just a mark you leave naturally when you touch your work.” Your fingerprint is certainly evident in your work and yet it spans such a variety of styles and contexts, from commercial in-store Nike displays to airy studies on child slavery. How do you find your approach changes depending on the project and audience? Or does it?
SARA BLAKE: Well, I think initially when I wasn’t working for clients and just did art to fulfill personal needs, I kept things super loose. I would rarely sketch out a full piece beforehand, which of course often led to lots of spatial problems, but I didn’t care and sort of liked it. I never was trained in school as an illustrator, so I never practiced planning out pieces, making thumbnails and sketches and really experimenting more with multiple compositions for the same piece. Now that I work more commercially, that is definitely something that has had to change. There is more focus on design and specs and overall sketching, and I think that naturally changes the work a little. I think things turn out differently when you already know where the line is going to go before you draw it. Often with personal pieces I don’t really know what anything will look like before it happens. I’ve felt concern about this in the past, worrying that it’s changed my work, but ultimately I still believe in the “fingerprint” theory. If you ask 10 people to draw a bird, each person will draw it differently, and that’s still what is pretty exciting to me.
stated: Absolutely. Many of your pieces have been created in response to specific guidelines such as with the Q Department Directors’ Series piece you created inspired by two Silverchair songs. You’ve also spent time in the commercial world, so it’s not unknown to you to work within others’ prescribed guidelines, but do you find such projects limiting or freeing as compared to working strictly “for yourself?”
SARA BLAKE: I spent my first five years working in advertising and design agencies and doing art “on the side,” so I’m pretty used to having strict guidelines. That was really what fueled needing to do art after-hours so that I could make something all for myself and all the way I wanted. I think the kind of work I do falls into three categories. One is personal work or gallery work, which is the most free. It’s amazing and cathartic and I absolutely love it. It’s also the scariest because there are no excuses. If someone doesn’t like something the responsibility is all yours. There is no blaming the client or the spec colors you were assigned or anything like that. It always feels like a big risk, but with most risks, the payoff is always the best too. Then there is client work, which is also incredible in very different ways. Clients have really pushed me to do things I didn’t know I could do, and that has had a tremendous influence on me. It’s not always the most fun work admittedly, but it’s incredibly valuable. And then the in-between sort of jobs are things like Q-Department. They do have some underlying guidelines and restrictions, but the work itself is pretty open. I’m still just a typical illustrator and would hedonistically choose to do nothing but personal work all day long, but I think this choice would ultimately do longer term damage and I would atrophy in some ways. You get a trainer at the gym to kick your ass and make you stronger. Clients do the same thing. Clients, we need you.
stated: Indeed. At stated, we’re inspired by artists who use their work for a good cause. You’ve participated in projects for a variety of charitable organizations, recently providing artwork for Santa Monica’s “Heal the Bay” charity, and last fall as a featured artist in DACS’ (Designers Against Child Slavery) Exposé exhibition. Would you mind telling us a bit about these projects and your involvement?
SARA BLAKE: With both these projects, their organizers and founders got in touch with me (as well as a bunch of other artists) and asked me to participate. I really love charity projects?who doesn’t like doing something you already love to do for a good cause? I usually don’t have time to volunteer, or at least I make excuses why I can’t, so to be able to do art for something that makes the world a better place is a dream. Both charities had very open guidelines, which really made it enjoyable. DACS in particular had a great amount of success and I’m looking forward to participating in the second annual show this year in my home of NYC. I think both these projects really helped me understand the value of art in the world?when you can really use it to raise awareness and help people. It’s easy to lose that when you do nothing but advertising. I’m hoping to launch a store this summer with proceeds of a couple animal prints going to charity. And on another note, I just wanted to point out how unbelievably supportive the creative community has been of Japan. Almost every single colleague has either made something specifically for Japan or is selling a print to raise relief funds. Go designers!
stated: Absolutely! Your poster artwork for the DACS project is particularly striking. What was the inspiration? Did you base them on any children in particular?
SARA BLAKE: Oh, thank you very much. I usually base all the people I draw on one or several people or reference images. I’m actually pretty terrible with drawing likenesses. It’s always a struggle, so even though I draw from reference, I don’t know how much they actually look like them. I tend to start with a likeness and then digress from there. I like this quote from Picasso: “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.” I guess that feels familiar for me. I think the idea with both pieces was to depict very young and innocent looking faces but to have them sort of deteriorating into other shapes, either fluttering away or just getting deconstructed. I can hardly imagine what it’s like for the victims of child slavery, but in some form or another it must take a huge part of innocence and childhood.
stated: Whom do you consider some of your influences?
SARA BLAKE: My influences are constantly changing based on what I happened to be looking at. I try to stay really connected to my colleagues, and I think the entire illustration community sort of feed off of each other’s energy and creativity. Generally I think I’m most influenced by nature. The natural world has some of the craziest colors and patterns that exist and has been inspiring art since cave drawings. I guess I’m no different. I just saw the Picasso exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art when I was home and it was ridiculously inspiring. I think that visit will stick with me and influence me for years to come. Lately I’ve been really engrossed in ancient Korean folk art and I’m working on a series right now incorporating some imagery from that.
stated: What else are working on?
SARA BLAKE: Right now I’m balancing some advertising work with some personal work. My last big commercial job called for very large-scale murals, over 14 feet wide. I’d never done anything of that scale before, and I loved it, so I’m working on some 6-foot tall birds. They’ll all be roughly based off of real birds but will mostly be an adaptation and abstraction. I’m hoping to have a show of the limited 6-foot prints and then have smaller prints for sale eventually. I’ll be traveling towards the end of the year to speak at some conferences which I couldn’t be more excited about, and I’m hoping teaching can one day become part of my future as well. Those are a just a few bullet points, but overall, the real answer to that question is: I HAVE NO IDEA! I hope I just get to make pretty things.
stated: So do we! And speaking of pretty things, your tattoos are quite impressive. No doubt, you’re asked about them constantly. How did that start?
SARA BLAKE: I first began getting tattooed when I was 18. I started small and I never anticipated being this covered, but something about it just felt really right for me. The more I’ve gotten tattooed over the years, the more I finally feel like I’ve become myself.
stated: Have you designed all of them yourself?
SARA BLAKE: Definitely not! Haha! I would never get anything I designed tattooed on myself nor will I take commissions to draw tattoos for other people. That’s a job for your talented tattooer and an arena I feel entirely unqualified for. I’ve gone to the same guy for 8 years, now a friend. Steve Boltz has designed and tattooed everything for me: arms, legs, back, hands. Steve rocks. He’s an incredible designer and tattooer. I think I’ll be his first completed suit!
stated: A living work of art, for sure. Thanks so much for joining us.
UPDATE: Sara has posted the video and artwork from her Sakroots collaboration with sister, Emily. View the video here and the art on her website.