Interviewed by Jasmine Snow
Josie Sommer is an illustrator based in London, whose work draws from literature, music and art history, to create quirky, awkward and yet endearing characters.
How did you become an illustrator?
I started illustrating in the final year of my undergraduate degree. I’d previously studied art at college and was a bit frustrated that I wasn’t making anything anymore, so I just started doing it in my free time (when I probably should have been studying for my exams!). After a while, I started sending my work off to magazines and I’m very grateful that a few took me on and gave me some great editorial slots and opportunities. At first, illustration seemed a good way to make things with the limits of being in a flat with no real space – later I learned through meeting other illustrators that illustration can be sculpture, animation, tapestries and can be as big or as small as a project demands. It’s so exciting when you see what other people are doing and how you can push the boundaries and challenge what people might think of as illustration.
What was your first commissioned piece?
My first commission was an editorial illustration for Scottish magazine called The Skinny. It was for their Clubbing Highlights page and at first, I wasn’t sure that my style of illustration really suited clubbing as a theme, but I painted two women dancing around their handbags, looking slightly uneasy (much like I would be), and I became really pleased with it. As my first job, it really stretched me in thinking about subjects that I wouldn’t normally have considered, which was really fun.
What inspired your style?
My style is inspired by the things I love – music (Bo Diddley, Shangri-Las, and Link Wray), art (modernist sculpture, expressionism and mid-century design) and literature (Carson McCullers, J.D Salinger, stuff that sparkles or quietly observes); but then there are also places, people and films that inspire me too.
Which is the piece you’re most proud of?
The piece I am most proud of is a large painting called ‘Who Do You Love?’, that I made with ceramicist Alex Sickling, for an exhibition I curated called Love (it’s love-themed) showcasing the work of ten contemporary female illustrators, which has been shown in Newcastle, Leeds, and London. Who Do You Love?’ is an illustration of Bo Diddley’s song of the same name. I love Bo Diddley and my greatest ambition in life is to create a work of art that looks like his music sounds. The lyric ‘I rode a lion to town’ was the initial inspiration. I turned Bo into a 50’s looking woman, riding on a lion with a rattlesnake whip and then added in other elements to the song such as an ice wagon, Bo’s true love Arlene and of course Bo himself (I couldn’t miss him out!).
What are your favourite materials to illustrate with?
My go-to is always gouache. It’s a tricky material that foxes you sometimes but it’s got a lovely texture and you can layer it up really well to make little details stand out. But having said that, I love trying new materials. I recently made a mini graphic-novel style book with just colored pencils and some ceramic pieces and I loved both. It depends what suits the story you’re trying to tell. And if you get in a funk with what you typically use, it can be really refreshing to get your hands stuck into something else for a bit.
What’s your most personal piece to date?
My most personal piece to date would probably be a ceramic seated woman with her arm’s folded called Girl on a Stool. She looks like she’s a little bit uncomfortable, so much so that when I first made her I wasn’t all too keen on her, but there’s something about her that I’ve really warmed to. I think she looks very shy, awkward and unsure.
Do you have any advice for those aspiring to be an illustrator?
I would advise anyone wanting to do anything to just start. It doesn’t matter what your background is or whether you’re trained, if you want to do it, just do it. And do what you want to do. There’s obviously always a tension between doing what you love, and making things that someone will want to invest in. But for me, it’s important stick to your guns and do what you want to do. If you see something in it, someone else will too. Also, check out what other people are doing – it’s a good way to find inspiration and to try to find out where your own work might sit.