Posted May 10th 2005 by

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An interview with
SAM GILBEYwords by , May 2005

Sam Gilbey is an designer/illustrator who has worked for a whole range of big clients, including Motorola, The British Museum and Preloaded. He’s also partial to a bit of journalism and his articles have appeared in Digital Creative Arts, Computer Arts Projects and .Net Magazine, as well as being music editor on the popular portal Pixelsurgeon. How does he fit it all in? We thought we’d find out…

Morning Sam, welcome to the world of Thunder Chunky. How go things today?

Things are definitely going well thanks. It feels like summer is coming too, and it’s a Bank Holiday weekend, so it’s all good.

You seem to be involved in a wide range of projects, how would you describe who you are and what you do?

I suppose I would call myself a designer, illustrator and writer, in the sense that I’ve been paid to do all three of those things. But fundamentally I just have a desire to create, whether it’s an intricate interface for a website, or an illustration of a movie icon for my personal amusement. So the specific skills required might vary, but the fundamental attitude is always the same.

So how did you first get into the design world? What was your first big break?

I don’t think there’s a moment I can really pinpoint. It’s been a really gradual process for me. I built up a portfolio in my spare time over the course of a year or so, put it online, got a few links here and there, got some nice feedback, and started getting the occasional commission off the back of it. I also started writing for Pixelsurgeon a couple of years ago, so that was a great way to get involved in the design world generally, and meet people who were already making things happen.

A lot of your illustration works feature cult icons, but when you did an illustration of Shaun Of The Dead, it ended up on the wall of director, Edgar Wright’s office. How did that come about?

Shaun Of The Dead

Shaun Of The Dead

Yeah, I still pinch myself sometimes to see if that really happened! When I first did the piece it was just a personal project. I saw the movie, and wanted to do an illustration inspired by it – as simple as that. I’d been really into Spaced, so it was great to see those guys on the big screen. I had no plans for doing anything with the piece afterwards or anything. Then Ilovedust had been working with Edgar on Charlotte Hatherley’s Bastardo video, and I’d been speaking to them about it. Through that I got hold of Edgar’s agent, and got the chance to interview him for Pixelsurgeon.

Afterwards, I just thought I’d thank Edgar (through his agent) for his time. While I was at it, I just politely pointed her in the direction of the illustration. You know, I had the piece there on my site, so I thought, why not? It’s not an opportunity you’re going to get every day, and I certainly never expected a response. Then a couple of days later, I got an appreciative email from Edgar himself, saying that he’d love a copy for his office. Luckily the piece was fairly large, so with the help of the Blaugallery (, a 60 X 80 cm canvas (or something like that) is now on his wall. And also thanks to Edgar, the piece is now going to appear in an issue of IDW’s Shaun of the Dead comic later this summer. Excuse me while I pinch myself again. And, whilst I don’t want to sound like an extra on a DVD featurette, he’s just a lovely guy.

If you could do an illustration for anyone’s (other than Edgar’s) wall, who would it be?

Oh that’s easy – Jackie Chan. If ever you think you’ve done enough this week to perfect your craft, and are feeling just a hint of complacency, just think of everything he’s done. That always gets me inspired and back to work.

Most of your work seems to be done entirely on the computer, yet have an appearance of being painted/drawn in a traditional fashion. Is this an intentional approach, or just how your style developed over the years?

I don’t know about intentional, but I come from a traditional fine art background, and have had a crayon, pencil or drawing implement of some kind in my hand since around the age of 4. I think if you have to think about why you’re doing something a certain way then it’s not going to be natural. I mean, you always have to strive to improve, and be analytical about your work, but you also have to do what just feels right for you.

After University, I discovered Painter, and that was it really. I even used to paint with Acrylics because they’re water based and I didn’t need to mess about with white spirit. I can be pretty impatient, and always just want to get down to it. So Painter meant I could take my analogue style onto my computer and run with it. It’s just a much faster way of working, and when you’re doing it in your spare time, it becomes a pain to get the easel out every night. Not forgetting the fact that on one piece you can combine as many styles and mediums as you like, and all the refinement you can do in Photoshop afterwards.

Bill Murray

Bill Murray – Lost in Translation

What’s the process involved in creating one of your illustrations? Where do you start?

When it’s a personal piece, it’s just a case of getting the idea, and executing in the appropriate way when I get chance. But commissions are a different matter. First of all it’s a question of just running the concept round in my mind. I don’t tend to write anything down, or do any sketches at this stage. It’s like I’m trying to tempt that single sweet image that sums up the brief out of hiding. Sometimes you get that image in a couple of seconds, but at other times you need to help it along. If I’m stuck, I’ll draw those token simplistic ideas that came to mind first, and from that, play with it until I’m going in a more compelling direction.

In technical terms, once the idea is there in my head then I will sketch it out. You have to perfect that composition before you get down to detail, so it’s normally incredibly rough at this point, sometimes literally a 30 second sketch. Then I might get the Digital Camera out to gather source material, and put together a crude Photoshop collage combining a sketch with any relevant source material. I’ll then go into Painter and build it up. But you have to be flexible. I don’t have a fixed way of working; I just try to deal with each project in the most appropriate way. It’s important to not get too stuck in one way of thinking, whilst maintaining some kind of style.

Which illustrators/artists have influenced you most over the years?

I try not to be too influenced by specific illustrators or artists, although of course everyone is to an extent. I mean, I love looking at other people’s work, and I’m drawn to certain things, but I’m not so sure about influence. I’m probably influenced by movies, music, anime and robots more than I’m influenced by any individual artist.

Saying that, the artist I’ve spent the most time studying is probably David Hockney, and I also love strong colour. But do I use a lot of colour because he influenced me, or was I drawn to his work because I loved colour anyway? Those kind of things are interesting.

Illustration-wise, lately I’ve been enjoying the work of Tomer Hanuka ( Not that our styles are that similar by any means (he’s far better!), but I’ve always loved figurative work. I think that a lot of the time, the artists you are drawn to are the people you can see some of yourself in. But I think in the end it’s just exciting to see how people are wired differently.

You also do a lot of writing, particularly for design portal Pixelsurgeon. How important is it to you to be able to do this, on top of all of your design work?

Hugely important. When I left University, I really missed the creative output that writing offered, and Pixelsurgeon has been a great way to keep that going. Not that I’d ever want to write an essay again (!), but it’s just something I’ve always done. And for me, writing and illustration go hand in hand anyway. As a kid I wrote endless amounts of pirate and sci-fi stories. This was partly so I could get to the next page and draw the picture. Again I’ve just always wanted to make stuff, and whether it’s writing or drawing or designing, they’re all different sides of the same thing to me.

Net Magazine

Illustration for .net magazine

Is it difficult to balance your time between design and writing?

Yeah there are times when I’ve not been able to review an album I really wanted to for Pixelsurgeon simply because I’ve been too busy with work, but you just have to balance it carefully. Pixelsurgeon is a labour of love, and myself and Jason (Arber) wish we could work on it more often. We work on it when we can, but the rest of our lives come first. Our list of contributors has grown a lot recently, and that takes the pressure off a little. But it’s not really pressure, because we love doing it! How else would I have got to talk to Nitin Sawhney, Roots Manuva, or Edgar Wright? All the hard work is totally worth it!

One of the main things you write about is music. What music would be on a Sam Gilbey mix tape?

That’s funny because at Christmas I put together a compilation CD for some of my clients. I think I’ve got a copy left- hold on. Bearing in mind it had a relaxed wintry vibe to it; it included Husky Rescue, The Delays, Mark Rae, De La Soul, The Lemonheads, Kid Koala, Neil Young. And of course The Girl Who Fell through the Ice by Aim- you just can’t have a winter compilation without that! Who knows what the recipients were thinking when they got it though, it’s quite a broad range of styles!

What music, films and games are you most looking forward to in 2005?

Music-wise, there’s always so much. Aimee Mann has a new album out that I’ve not heard yet, then the White Stripes new one is on the way. But it’s been such a great year for music already- to wish for more would be greedy. Movies-wise, I can’t wait for New Police Story and Infernal Affairs III to get a release over here. Plus all the things that I missed at the cinema but are on my Amazon rental list, like Napoleon Dynamite and A Very Long Engagement. Games-wise, I’ll be surprised if there’ll be anything more gripping and better-produced than Resident Evil 4 this year, but the PSP has to be the highlight, along with the expected PS3 announcement at E3. Man, so much stuff!

Finally, what’s the one thing everybody should do today?

Listen to ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke, which I just noticed, came 12th in Rolling Stone’s top 500 songs of all time. It was released soon after he died in 1964, tragically shot at a Los Angeles motel, and was his farewell hit. Listen to that incredible song, and go and produce the best damn piece you ever have, in whatever it is you do.

Find more of Sam’s illustrations by visiting and you can read his Pixelsurgeon contributions by visiting


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