Illustrator Profile - Sarah Jacoby: "I consider landscapes as spaces for imaginations to inhabit"

By Robert Newman   Thursday July 2, 2015

Sarah Jacoby creates gentle, powerful watercolor illustrations and artwork, oftentimes filled with imagery of nature and the outdoors. “The natural world is still a realm that’s a bit sacred, full of possibility,” she says. “It inspires me because nothing is written on it yet.” Her illustrations are rich and elegant, with a great sense of beauty and a smart sense of visual storytelling.

Jacoby is relatively new “on the job” compared to some of the illustrators that have been interviewed for this series—she’s been living and working in New York for the past year. But in that time her work has appeared in The New York Times and a number of other publications, and gathered some outstanding awards, including a gold medal last year from the Society of Illustrators. Although Jacoby has illustrated for books in the past, she recently began work on her first picture book. She also works as a designer for Tinybop, a children’s app creation company based in Brooklyn.

Hi, I’m Sarah Jacoby. I’m a freelance illustrator. I also work at Tinybop, a creative studio and children’s app company in Brooklyn. I’ve lived in New York for almost a year. Prior to moving here I attended an MFA program down in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Before that I was living out of my van and camping at national parks, trying to figure out what the world is about and how to live life well.

I live and work in Brooklyn—Crown Heights specifically. Technically I’ve been doing freelance work for about five years, but things have picked up a lot since grad school. It’s been a year.

I like to think that my parents are artistic people, but they do not work in creative fields. I like that; I enjoy seeing how creativity persists despite circumstances. My mother is an administrative assistant at a college, but she makes these incredible needlepoint tapestries. My father should have been a poet or professor, despite owning a small business—a telecommunications company. Both parents believe strongly in ingenuity and imagination. My artistic sensibilities and the way I work stem from their influence.

I’ve had a lot of jobs. Growing up, I worked in movies theaters. I wanted to be a film archivist or professor when I was in college so I worked in a sound archive for a bit. Along the way, I’ve done a great deal of service industry stuff—coffee shops, restaurants. For a while I was a lifeguard, a teacher, an Americorps member, a digital media consultant. Once I raked blueberries in Maine for a day—that was probably the hardest work I’ve ever done. I think all of the jobs I’ve ever had, even the menial ones and the ones I had in high school, contribute to who I am and the art I create. It’s all been good fodder for storytelling.

I have a twin sister. People like to hear about that. It’s helpful to have a twin; it makes you want to define yourself perhaps a bit more than usual. I also have a brother with special needs. He’s been a major influence on how I see the world and what “normal” is or isn’t.

I was self-taught until I went to grad school. “Self-taught” is a phrase that’s a little silly to me—I believe that humans have an innate sense of creativity. Perhaps “self-directed” is a little better, but that just means I made choices, right? Anyhow, I didn’t go to an art college or know from the beginning of time that I wanted to be an artist. Like many illustrators, drawing has been a constant presence in my life. When I got older I lot of my art-y friends were doing the  Fine Arts thing. I felt like a fraud there, so I did not follow. I went to a fairly traditional liberal arts college without much of an art department, so I chose to study American literature and cinema studies when I was there. After college I worked in a variety of places, but had trouble defining what I wanted to spend my days doing. Fortunately, at one of my jobs I met several illustrators that had just graduated from MICA and, once they explained their work to me, a light went on.

It took me a couple years to get a portfolio together. At that point I was working in a digital media lab at a university—I would stay after shifts and work on personal projects. It was technology boot camp for me and was an invaluable experience.

Then I took a year off to travel with my husband. We sold most of our things, bought a van and camped, living in parks around the country. It wasn’t a Thoreau thing; it was more us trying to figure out what kind of life we wanted to live. We’re experiential learners, so there wasn’t any other way to figure that out. It was a throw-everything-at-the-wall moment, during which I applied to grad school. Actually, I submitted a portfolio review to MICA, but didn’t officially apply. Later, Whitney Sherman, the program director, kindly reached out to me and encouraged me to apply. I did and later went on to MICA. It was a fateful year.

I work in my apartment. I’d like to eventually have a small studio with a couple folks, but I’m still figuring out how to do that. Light is important to me. A good sturdy table is also important. I have a table next to a window in my apartment. The light is warm and bright in the morning and I look down at everyone waking up and walking their dogs. I live on the top floor of a big house, so I get to be above things. I like that.

I paint with tiny brushes and Schmincke watercolors on hot press paper or Canson Mixed Media paper, then scan the work. I’ll usually digitally edit and collage the final image, doing line work with Kyle Webster’s brushes. I use a Wacom tablet and have a Mac desktop. I’ll usually go through several iterations of printing and creating edits with a lightbox. Ultimately I end up with a digital file that I will occasionally paint. I love the idea of original art, but my process doesn’t really allow for that, so I try to figure out ways to personalize a print.  

It was about October of my thesis year in grad school and I was scrambling to get my thesis project together. I was, frankly, doing not great. I took a break to make something, anything other than my project at hand, and ended up creating a couple pieces that I would submit to the Society of Illustrators annual a week later. A couple weeks after that I got a call telling me I won a Gold Medal for uncommissioned work. That did it.

Above all it allowed me to stop worrying about whether I was good enough to make it professionally. The award answered those questions. It afforded me to confidence to move on and create what I wanted to make.

Here are some of the moments/things/people that helped me develop as an artist. They are people who helped me understand the power of imagination, empathy and wit: Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes and Gary Larson and Farside comics, Madeleine L’Engle (both the writing and her book covers), Alice Neel, Cy Twombly, Roy Andersson, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Nick Cave (the textile and performance artist), Kathleen Hanna, Lynda Barry, Tomi Ungerer, Lydia Davis, Dorothea Lasky.

Carrie Brownstein—not an illustrator. I admire her intelligence, her wit and her ability to perform—and her ability to survive and adapt in a field that’s so trend/youth reliant. She knows her craft and can articulate her thoughts about music, a hard thing to describe well, adeptly and with grace. Her humor is amazing. I also like that she’s real and not impossible, too abstract to admire.

Rabbit holes, for sure. I’m often very absorbed in my work and am detail-oriented. I can lose an afternoon painting tiny leaves when it’s not necessary.

Honestly? People on the bus. Details inspire me. I’ll go on a walk and look at what’s in the window of all the houses on my block. I read a lot, so I look at books, both adult and children’s. Usually a good children’s book will get me unstuck. Their simplicity is usually helpful.

I’m working on my first picture book. I’m slowly coming to terms with wanting to focus on the book industry, so I am very excited about this. It was just acquired so I’m giddy.

Making an animation for a music video. But of a song I would never get sick of listening to.

Alex Spiro of Nobrow Press has been incredibly kind to me. He was able to give me thorough and helpful feedback despite having just met me and just seen my work. He was empathetic, but had strong advice-the best combination of things. He helped me through my MFA thesis project and through making a piece for Nobrow 9 “Oh So quiet” issue.

Josh Cochran has also been very gracious with me—he has asked me to do work for The New York Times on several occasions. He’s very good at being hands off and letting me sprint with an assignment, but also quickly redirecting me if my concepts are too weird. For an article about Climate Engineering, for example, I was trying to get an abstract texture thing going, but it was really unclear. He helped redirect me towards this apocalyptic surfing scene, which I thought came out really nicely. I received a lot of fan mail about it.

Because I’ve been in picture book mode lately, I’ve been looking at a lot of illustrators who are in the book world. I obviously look at Carson Ellis and Laura Carlin a good deal—I love the expressiveness in their ink work and the way they capture characters. I love the off-kilter paintings of Giselle Potter. I’m excited by Christian Robinson and his ability to get at that sophisticated/naivete thing so well. This question is difficult, because I really do admire everyone for different reasons. David Plunkert’s brain is infinitely wonderful. I love his use of design and his the materials he chooses. I admire Vivienne Flesher’s sensibility and expressiveness. Esther Pearl Watson’s visions. Keith Negley’s textures and colors are sumptuous. Roman Muradov doodles are magical.

I’m still getting used to the marathon pace rather than the editorial sprinty-type pace. My production style is suited for this so I’m really enjoying it. Maintaining spontaneity and freshness in the art is difficult, especially with several rounds of revisions and feedback from several people rather than just one. Children’s books really need magic, so it’s tricky when it starts to dull after discussing it a lot.

A professor of mine once told me that my images can be a bit alienating—I think “removed” was the word—since there’s not a lot of people in them. I can understand that. There’s no one to look at and identify with. No characters telling a story. I actually consider landscapes as open invitations, spaces for imaginations to inhabit. I think the blankness is friendly, not isolationist, but then again I relish any chance I get to be alone and in the quiet (possibly a product of being a twin). I grew up in the suburbs and have always lived cities as an adult—except for that ephemeral camping year. I idealize nature a lot and dream about living in a quieter place, but know that if I actually settled somewhere out in the country it would destroy the fantasy, become boring or lonely or something. I think that’s part of it—the natural world is still a realm that’s a bit sacred, full of possibility. It inspires me because nothing is written on it yet. As I see it there’s no buildings, no advertisements, no commutes. It’s freeing to think about, so I’m happy when I can spend time painting it.

Working at Tinybop offers me the opportunity to broaden my perspective about how I make art and what I create. It’s an idea factory there. We’re constantly talking about concept for the next project, design, and are always looking at illustration/illustrators to create the art for apps. It’s a stimulating place. Today I talked to someone about depicting the concept of how craters grow on the moon. And now I have a story idea. I’m inspired every day by the things I learn. And the people there are so talented. It helps motivate me in my own work. Practically speaking, it allows me to conserve my energy for projects that I am truly inspired to do; I can be picky about freelance work while living in an incredible city. It’s a luxurious position to be in.

My work at Tinybop solves this challenge for me. My freelance and personal illustration work is very different than the work at I do at Tinybop, but helping to produce and develop apps enables me to consider possibilities for my own art that I could never have thought of if I didn’t have this job. It helps me reimagine where my art can go—both literally and figuratively. I now think a lot about interactivity and play, and how people, especially children think. It’s very inspiring and is instrumental in how I think and pitch to new clients.

I really like meeting people at Society of Illustrators  events, drawing events or openings. There’s nothing like speaking to a real human. But when that can’t happen, I like to make short runs of nice(r) prints with considered packaging and send them out to specific people. I don’t postcard blast. Yet. If I need that sort of coverage, I’ll first attempt an email/digital thing.

Draw what you want and do it the best. Become a professional at the thing you do. Get weird with it. Work a lot, but also come out to gatherings if you can, be friendly and open to meeting people beyond your immediate purview.  

See more Sarah Jacoby illustrations, new work, and updates:
Sarah Jacoby website