Illustrator Profile - Sarah Mazzetti: "Explore the infinite possibilities of drawing"

By Robert Newman   Thursday October 1, 2015

Sarah Mazzetti is a Milan-based illustrator who creates striking graphic images with bright colors and bold lines. Her editorial illustration work has appeared in The New York Times, IL, Plansponsor, and more. She has created energetic work for book covers, comics, children's books, posters, festival branding, and art installations.

It’s no surprise that Mazzetti points to mid-century graphic design (and designers) as a strong influence. “I learned everything I know about color and balance from watching those things compulsively,” she says. Mazzetti’s work is initially drawn by hand, “using thick pencils,”  and its often poster-like nature reflects her passion for mid-century design and screenprinting.

I was born in Bologna, Italy, in 1985 and live in Milan.

I didn’t grow in an artistic or highly educated environment, although though my dad has always read a lot, so books have always been part of my environment. He has a passion for photography, but strangely enough he doesn’t care much about the output, the image. We had no photography books at home; what he’s interested in are the mechanical aspects of the machines. He collects old cameras, each one with its specific mechanisms that reflect the time in which it was produced and what kind of performance you can expect. My dad also used to fly as a sport when he was younger, until some law changed and flying became a sport that only the rich could afford.

He also has a great respect and profound admiration for classic art—Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Giotto, etc.—which I find very sweet and beautiful. I was very much in love with him as a child—I considered him the greatest person in the world and wanted to do everything like him.

My art and design education started pretty late. I enrolled at Istituto Europeo di Design (IED) in Milan to study illustration in 2007, when I was 22 and already had a degree in a quite different subject. But of course I’ve always had an inclination and innate interest in art and drawing. Drawing has always been part of my daily routine—my favorite way to spend the time—but I just didn’t consider it a potential profession.

When I was younger and studying at the University in Bologna I worked as a shopping assistant in a couple of toy shops for quite awhile, and I’ve worked for shorter periods doing really pointless things, like selling truffles in a county fair. I was also a babysitter in London for some months. After school I worked within the organization of BilBOlBul comic festival in Bologna (and still collaborate with them if there’s the occasion), which was a great as well as exhausting experience, and I’ve worked as an executive graphic designer for Mondadori publishing house. I also currently work at IED—I curate the project part of the screenprinting class, and will start teaching illustration this year.

I work from home, in Milan, usually in the living room/studio or in my room—even in my bed sometimes (bad freelancer habits). It’s a nice situation and it does reflect my taste.

I don’t have much of a strong connection to the place where I work. I’m not obsessed with creating my perfect space at all. I like to travel when I have the chance—not so much with the aim of sightseeing, but to experience living and working in different contexts. So I’m used to changing the place where I physically get my illustrations done without much stress. What I really need is peace and space; that’s it. And recently I’ve realized that I need more space then what I usually have to feel really good.

Most of the time I draw by hand using thick pencils, then scan and color in Photoshop. I usually prefer flat colors, maybe with just a few shadows made with brushes I created myself. I recently illustrated quite a few articles about new technologies and genetics, which got me started into using more Photoshop effects in order to give the piece the digital touch it required. The boldness of the color composition and the shape of the elements are my main visual concerns when creating an image.

The posters I did for Locomotiv Club are the first artworks of mine that got quite a lot of web attention. I still look at them when I need to be reminded of how to be fresh and powerful. But the first big commission that made me grow a lot professionally was the Green Man Festival. London-based YCN Studio redesigned the identity of the festival three years ago, and they got in touch with me to work with them on a fully illustrated identity. I got to illustrate everything from the website to the poster and other printed material, while working with a top-level studio. It was an amazing experience and I’m very grateful for it.

Aesthetically I was highly influenced by graphic design and illustrations from the 50s and 60s—designers like Lora Lamm and Alex Steinweiss, but also the anonymous art on East European matchboxes, propaganda posters, etc. I learned everything I know about color and balance from watching those things compulsively (which I still do). From a conceptual or narrative point of view, I’m more influenced by writers and artists, including Roland Topor, Mark Twain and Milan Kundera. Their wit and irony, and their being so openly honest and not always “correct,” (be it in a defiant and surreal way such as in Topor’s body of work, or on the opposite side with Kundera’s formally gentle but caustic manner) completely charms and engages me. When I think about more personal projects, short comics, or even just a quick drawing, those are the voices that resound in my head.

If I had to name one I’d say Milton Glaser. He’s obviously a great graphic designer, but I think he is an even greater thinker—reading or listening to the interviews and lectures he has given is always an amazing lesson.

I never actively search for inspiration. I guess it's just a matter of absorbing the things you're passionate about and making them emerge in your practice. Something you’ve seen months ago can help you out from a block—it's an unconscious process though. I think we’re all overwhelmed with self-styled creative inspiration these days; the real problem is how to avoid being sucked in by such a continuous and confusing flow.

The isolation and forced egocentrism. There’s almost no border for me between what I am and what I do, because I do the thing I’m most passionate about. That’s great, but it’s also hard to sustain. I’m always thinking about myself somehow—everything that I do is my own creation, something I’ve done from nothing. It’s part of me whether it’s good or bad, commercial or more personal. Getting distance can be hard, and the consequence is that my own judgments, choices, weaknesses as a professional affect me a lot as a person as well. This constant dealing with myself makes me feel a bit trapped sometimes, but I know that it’s part of the game.

I created an installation of a giant for Casa Testori. There were 20 illustrators involved in that project, each interpreting a passage from an ancient book about the city of Milan and creating a site-specific installation. Mine was a wooden giant holding the city (and the ceiling) on his shoulders. I loved working on that, and it made me think about other installation possibilities. Another recent commission I consider very important is the poster I did for It’s Nice That x Mubi in which I had to combine four very different movies in one image. It was very challenging and unique from a thinking point of view; I loved that assignment.

I’d love to have the chance to do more installation work, something like what I did for the TICTIG exhibition at Casa Testori, but on a way wider scale.

I’ve had the pleasure to work with quite a few art directors I admire, and I think that good art direction teaches you a lot and can make your work take directions you wouldn’t expect yourself. I particularly enjoy working with SooJin Buzelli. She’s really great, very clear about the assignment and very open about the aesthetic of the image. Also Tommaso Garner, the art director of Rivista Studio, who I work with in a completely different way. He pushes me to explore more abstract compositions and imaginaries; it’s very different from doing an editorial piece.

There are many colleagues I admire greatly, and I often get “work crushes.” I’d say Blexbolex is the contemporary artist I admire the most in my field.

I’ve done more or less any sort of thing, and this variety is what I enjoy the most about my job.

I co-curate Teiera, a self-publishing label, with Giulia Sagramola and Cristina Spanò). We mainly do collective books featuring stories by comic artists we admire and illustrators willing to engage themselves in a more narrative kind of work. We also work in more experimental ways, from workshops to short residencies, always exploring comics as a mean of expression. One of our books, Ten Steps in the City, won a Society of Illustrators Gold Medal.

I also illustrate childrens and young adult books, and some animations for the BilBOlbul comic festival and Fuochi Fatui festival. I write and draw comics, illustrated book covers…there are still many things I haven’t done yet and look forward to!

I think that working hard and staying true to what you do always pays more than trying to fit somebody else’s taste, and for me that involves a constant search for development and the will to explore the infinite possibilities of drawing.

I’m not so good at self-promotion, I’m very inconsistent; I postpone updating my website for ages and my social network pages are a mix of work and not-at-all work-related posts. I’m not a good example, but I do realize that promotion is part of my job, so I do my best to keep in touch with the art directors I’ve worked with. I enter some competitions, and I enjoy Instagram a lot, so that’s always updated. Working from Italy, this network becomes especially important for me, and I do regret being a bit lazy about it. I also print a Posterino every year—a cat-themed risograph poster that folds  and becomes my business-card/postcard—and give it to clients and fellow illustrators when I meet them in person.

Try stuff, be curious, work a lot and enjoy it.

See more Sarah Mazzetti illustrations, new work, and updates here:
Sarah Mazzetti website


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