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  • Annette Dawm

Sketches from Hidden Places with Sam Gillett


Sam Gillett is a pen and ink illustrator, writer, and full-time journalist. Known for his Lord of the Rings inspired artwork on Instagram, Sam is seeking out a new adventure in 2023 with his latest project, “Sketches from Hidden Places”. Each month, subscribers will receive a 5x7 illustration in the mail, which is part of a larger story that Sam is carefully piecing together:


“I’ve had an idea for such a long time of what it might look like to sketch out a person’s voyage. It was actually inspired by my sister who prompted me to start thinking about it.” Sam explained. “I have the first few months sketched out and then a little bit of what might come after that. Basically, the concept, without giving too much of the story away is this person comes from a society really far removed from a civilization that seems to have left behind a lot of remnants and ruins in their midst. So this person is travelling to find out what happened to them and where they went. I’m not exactly sure how it ends! I’ve been trying to write more and work on the sketches. The more I work on it, the more excited I get!” He added that he hoped to add some “surprises along the away”, in addition to releasing prints from the project every six months.


“Through the ‘Sketches from Hidden Places’ project, I’ll be developing a story, a world, very lightly each month. I’m adding some text, but it will also be the kind of story where people will be able to fill in the blanks a little bit. It won’t be paragraphs like a novel. It’ll be more visual. We’ll be uncovering a little more of this world month by month…. People can subscribe month by month or buy a package of three or six months. The first run is only going to go for six months and then you can also get a digital subscription, which is really cheap! I didn’t want to make it a really big price-point for anybody…. I realized after I started that people might have different expectations of what a story month by month means, but I found the most rewarding way for me to do it.”


Currently, Sam has over 40 000 followers on Instagram, but he hopes to use “Sketches from Hidden Places” as a way to build an offline community as well:


“I have 50 or 60 people that I know by name that I message. I’ve followed their work for four or five years now, which is pretty cool. I posted a few reels and photos of The Lord of the Rings work and other stuff that really gained a lot of traction—especially some of the reels in the past year or so. One went pretty viral and I got a whole bunch of followers from that, which was a big surprise. But it’s kind of petered off, maybe with how the algorithm is changing along with my desire to not post as much as I used to…. I think the ‘Sketches from Hidden Places’ project will hopefully keep that going in a different medium…. This time next year, everything that I have for sale and what I’ll be known for may be quite different, as I am developing a whole new body of work for the first time ever! So I’m really excited about that! I hope people can continue to look at my work and if so, that would be pretty fantastic!”


Sam has always been very open about the artists who have inspired his work from Caravaggio to J.R.R. Tolkien and beyond:


“I think I would want people to know what inspires my work and the reverence I have for fantasy stories and imagined worlds. I find for me, art is a way to escape from reality a little bit and process the day and the things that I’m doing. I really enjoy doing that through imagining different worlds or interpreting worlds that other people have created through my art as well. I think that’s such a big part of what I want to do with my art. I want people to have that background information as they look at the stuff that I’ve created. That’s kind of the goal with everything that I do. I think drawing ‘Hobbit Holes’ sparked a lot of it. I’m so in love with Middle Earth, you know? I love Tolkien and the idea that a Hobbit Hole is like a home with comfort and peace. I think there are other people like me who would want to live in it. For me, it was like creating a tribute to such a comforting world that I spent a lot of time in, in my imagination.”


“….When I was a kid I remember seeing paintings from Caravaggio, a Baroque painter—seeing the way he used light and the concept of Chiaroscuro with really harsh shadows and strong highlights. I remember being so in love with that when I saw that... and wanting to emulate that style. He does it a lot with people but then I saw it replicated a little bit more with a painter called J.W.M. Turner. He lived in the 1800s in England. He was turning up the light in landscape scenes and turning up the drama in ‘everyday’ scenes. I love that aspect of telling a story in a landscape, even if what’s happening in the landscape doesn’t seem that exceptional.”


Gillett also gave credit to Alan Lee and John Howe, “…the artists for The Lord of the Rings. They’re kind of responsible for how the movies look and basically did all of the concept art for the movies….” More recently, Alan Lee also provided illustrations for Tolkien’s book, The Fall of Númenor. Sam said that the size of each drawing and “the ability to tell so much with just a few pencil lines” has directly inspired most of his work.


Although Sam can often be found creating new worlds, he usually turns to his own environment for inspiration. Whether it’s outdoors or “in a café with really good music on”, he claimed that a setting can make a “big difference” in the art that he makes.


He added, “I’ve really been into watercolour travel sketching. So I’m on a trip right now and I’m doing a lot of painting as I go. It’s so different than pen! It’s so much quicker and it can be such a good way to absorb your surroundings—all of the sights and smells and noises of what’s around you. I’m looking forward to including that into my practice a little bit more. It’s kind of hard to do in this day and age when it feels like you’re supposed to have just one medium that you focus on, but it’s been a really fun way to complement the other art I do.”


Colour is still something that Gillett is exploring and he admitted that he doesn’t always know when to use it: “I think often, it depends on my mood. I find pen and ink drawing really meditative. I can kind of sink myself into a drawing for a long time…. Whereas with colour, the painting usually moves a lot quicker and I have to make many more decisions in quick succession about the colours that I’m using—where they’re going to go or about the layers. So, while I enjoy painting digitally or adding colour to ink and pen, I find it to be a little bit more mental work. My favourite thing to do is to complete a pen drawing that can stand on its own and then add colour underneath with Procreate. I almost view it as two separate drawings.”


Over the years, Sam has used Procreate to enhance his sketchbook drawings, which started out as a way to post illustrations on Instagram or to make prints of his work. He thought this “might be a cool thing to introduce other people to”. After he saw that his dad (who is also an artist) was unaware of Procreate’s potential, he realized there might be others who were wondering how to use the program more effectively. Gillett then began teaching on Skillshare, a platform for online learning.


“Basically, my whole goal on Skillshare is hopefully to make pen and ink art and imaginative art more accessible to people. So I do that through these classes on Skillshare. I have six now, and each one is structured into a whole bunch of bite-sized lessons that tackle a different part of a technique each time. In each one, I’ve thought about an aspect of my work or my technique and break that down as small as I can. The most recent class I did was, ‘Draw from the Imagination’, which really ties into the ‘Sketches from Hidden Places’ project. My goal is to eliminate barriers that anybody might have as far as art. The best time to start practicing and to start doing it is right now….”


As he explained, “It’s so easy to do and it’s much cheaper than Photoshop or other photo editing programs…. So many people make digital art on Procreate but they might not link that to other art that they already have in their sketchbooks. Maybe it will even give it new life or at least new options for what to do with the stuff that they’ve created and spent so much time with.” He also hoped that people would realize how analog and digital art are more “interwoven” than they might think.


Finally, when asked about his advice for other aspiring artists, Sam Gillett replied:

One thing I hear a lot from artists—especially people who want to draw fantasy scenes or drawing from their imagination—is that they want to know how to develop their own style. I think now there are a limitless amount of artists, designers and concept artists that you can look to. A lot of people might get so caught up in looking for inspiration that they forget to just draw… or create stuff. It can be good to do a lot of research. Look through art books or watch fantastically designed movies, but then put that aside. Your subconscious brain does a lot of work when you’re in those ‘in between’ moments. Then when you open your sketchbook, or pick up the paints without all of those distractions in front of you, some pretty cool magic can happen. I think that’s what I would say to people. Take time to create without distractions. Trust yourself. It’s okay to make mistakes and make art that you think looks really bad. Practice is a pretty integral part of it.”


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Photo courtesy of Sam Gillett.

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