What do after-school snacks, paying bills and a much-needed glass of wine have in common? These ordinary daily tasks and rituals are all things documented in artist Samantha Dion Baker’s sketchjournal. The New York graphic-designer-turned-illustrator began recording the things she sees in her sketchbook and sharing them on Instagram about four years ago, and her career has pivoted and accelerated from there. Her attempt to get back to the basics and feed her creativity eventually led her to publishing her own book, Draw Your Day, an instructional guide to creating an illustrated journal. Her storytelling through realistic and playful art and unique typography has attracted a huge following on social media, and her supporters are all eager to see what comes next for this talented woman. While sharing her life publicly was an adjustment for the mother of two, Samantha found that drawing in a journal form personalized her path. She also found it help rid her of negativity and self-doubt and prevented her from comparing herself to established illustrators. Finding her passion in her 40s all started with learning to draw again and keeping a visual documentation of daily moments that’ll serve as sweet memories for her family in the years to come. She’s hopeful that her new book will inspire others to pick up a pen and sketch daily, because for her drawing is a meditative, youthful and purposeful practice – and she’d love to encourage those feelings in others.
Change of environments
The three male humans that I share my life with
My essential art-making kit (my portable studio)
Comme Des Garcons
New York City’s grit and imperfections
I started drawing everyday and sharing my work on Instagram
The Principles of Uncertainty
Growing up in a family of female artists
The marriage between handwriting and typography
Trying something new forces you to grow
Tell me about your profession.
I’m an illustrator, but I’m also a designer and an artist – it’s sort of a combination of all three at this point in my career.
How long have you worked in arts?
I’ve been a graphic designer for over 20 years. I started pretty much right out of school and I’m 44 now. I’ve only been illustrating for four years though. In a way, I feel like I’m young again and starting over. It was a little bit easier for me to establish my career as an illustrator because I had contacts and I’ve sort of been in the design world – which is somewhat related – for so many years. A lot of my existing clients sort of re-imagined how I’d work with them once I started drawing. It’s been great – everyone has been really supportive.
Tell me about how you jumped from graphic design to illustrating?
My kids were growing and becoming more independent – they were in school for a full day. I always worked their whole childhood. I was bouncing my first baby on my knee while I was working, but it was pretty part time for many years when they were young. I wanted to stay in the industry and not lose touch with the technology and what was going on in the design world, so I kept my clients and for the most part did graphic design work. But then I got a little bit tired of the screen and in my down time I was frustrated and finding that I wasn’t feeling creative, so my husband suggested I start drawing again like I did when I was younger. So I did. I committed to drawing every day just to in a way reteach myself.
When I’d started school I kind of stopped drawing in the traditional sense; I did printmaking and design and I was very creative, but I didn’t draw. I started drawing every day in my journal, and then I would share it here and there, and I built a following on Instagram, and Instagram featured me and then one thing led to another, and an agency contacted me. Now I have a big book and companion sketchbook coming out to teach people how to keep a journal like mine. Through that, a lot of people saw my work and hired me to draw for them.
Did you have any doubts about changing your career path?
The only doubts I had were about sharing so much of my personal life with so many people – that’s been a little weird. I mean, I keep it pretty basic, and only touch on the big things and try to keep it pretty light; that’s where my brain is anyway. When the news is tough, I turn it off, because I don’t like to dwell on the bad stuff. I’ve always been that way. I like to think about what vocabulary words my son is learning in school as opposed to whatever ridiculous thing Trump said on Twitter. I have to protect my own personal life and space and kids so that’s the only tough thing, figuring out where the line is and if I’m crossing it at any point and making sure it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. Other than that, it all felt right because people hired me to do what I do, which is draw in my own style. I find that it’s more natural than it ever was with design because with design you can kind of tell that I did the work but not really – I mean, I’m using type spaces. When you’re drawing it’s a part of you.
How would you describe your illustration style?
I would say it’s whimsical, but it’s pretty realistic as well. I don’t draw much fantasy; I draw what I see. But I have a friendly, casual style and it all happens through my journal. I started illustrating my day: so it’s what I do and what I see, and little bits of conversations that I have with my kids, so it’s actually real life. I’ve been interested in possibly illustrating children’s books, but I don’t make up characters – I’m not that kind of illustrator.
Who are you currently working with?
I work with all sorts of people, from private commissions to a perfume company to museums. For one destination museum I drew some of the buildings on their property to highlight how visitors interact with their whole site. I draw patterns for a clothing line and I illustrated a cookbook for a pretty well known chef. I also illustrate for an independent bookstore, the Highline Hotel – I made a colouring book for them. There’s more but it all basically came from my journal, which is pretty amazing because I didn’t plan it and I’m happier drawing than I ever was designing.
When you started drawing it was just for you and then it took off professionally. Did that take you by surprise?
Yes! I think it’s one of those really great stories where I stuck with something I loved and it became something. It’s something that’s fulfilling in not just a personal way but in sort of a whole way – financially and career-wise included. I would never have thought that I’d make money drawing in a journal. I mean, that isn’t my bread and butter – I do need to make money doing other things, obviously, and I don’t make money posting on Instagram. But to have the book deal has made it all worthwhile.
Tell me about the book deal.
The main book I wrote is called Draw Your Day and it talks about my approach and how I got started, and about how others can keep a similar practice. I tried to keep it friendly and not intimidating because I really believe anybody can keep a beautiful journal even if they aren’t comfortable drawing like I am. Then there’s the companion sketchbook, which is mostly blank but it has little prompts and some small spot illustrations as inspiration. It’s not out yet, but is coming out in August 2018.
What age group is it designed for?
It’s really all ages. I have people who follow me who are as young as my sons – kids – to 85-year-old women or men who want to keep track of their days and be creative in a private, safe space.
What was it like going from the screen back to something basic like drawing?
I really felt like I was going back in time and it felt very innocent and pure – I felt young again in a significant way. The great thing about coming to it when I was 40 is that I didn’t care as much. I mean, it’s not that I don’t care about what I’m putting out there, especially with social media putting it in front of so many eyes – I do care. But I wasn’t taught illustration in school, and I wasn’t looking at other peoples’ work, so there was a kind of purity to just literally practicing drawing hands, drawing buildings, or drawing a cat I just saw. I was drawing whatever I could and also keeping track of our time; I was recording memories in a place where we could come back to. I have a pretty bad memory for names of restaurants and certain things, so it was like a gift too. I didn’t have to worry about clients or getting the job or passing the class or comparing myself to other illustrators – it was just my journal, from my perspective. I think the whole career shift was a happy surprise that came so naturally and organically that there was a lot less stress.
Are you still doing journal entries every day?
No, I try but I’ve gotten too busy to do it every day; I’m probably doing more like 3-5 days a week now.
So it was 2014 when you started drawing in your journal every day; can you tell me about the progression from there?
At first I was drawing letters and patterns, just kind of getting myself accustomed to using a pen again. I was slowly getting little jobs, like a job doing some lettering for an issue of Lucky Peach, which is a great food magazine that’s unfortunately not around anymore. At that point, I was doing it for nothing – I just wanted to start getting some work out there, and people started to notice. I do lettering in my own style, which I’ve always played with; I’ve used handwriting in my work ever since college. I actually started my design career in Toronto, where I lived for three years. I did handwriting for ACE Bakery and I worked with a small agency; that was one of the first jobs where I really used my handwriting, back in 1995 and ever since then I use it as much as I can. My point is that working with typography and lettering was very safe and that’s why I went back to that when I started illustrating in 2014. Next I started introducing birds, just playing around and trying to draw again, but I think people got sick of my birds. It was really once I started drawing my day that everything kind of jelled and became something. It became something Instagram featured, and something that I’m now publishing a book on. The fact that other work has come from that has been amazing, but the journal itself is my passion.
Sounds like social media played a major role in helping your illustration career.
It’s been huge, and I don’t know where I’d be without it – it’s hard to say. Again, when I picked this up four or five years ago, Instagram was pretty new. I wasn’t one of the first by far, but I was definitely on board pretty early, and you know I credit a lot of the transition and success to Instagram.
Was using Instagram for publicity intentional for you?
Not entirely; it’s just been so nice to be able to inspire people – I love that. I connect with everybody who reaches out to me, and I hope to continue to be able do that. It takes time, and sometimes I feel like I’m crazy writing back to everyone, but I feel like if somebody takes the time to reach out to me, I want to be real and human and connect with everyone because we’re all similar, we’re all doing our thing.
You have over 70,000 people following your work on social media. Why do you think people relate to your work?
I draw basic things that we all do every day – no matter where we live, or how much money we have; we all do laundry, we all have a sandwich for lunch and we all might see a cute dog in the park. Those are the things that I draw, and I think it’s nice to take in and appreciate the ordinary that so many people overlook.
Do you have an example of ordinary beauty brought to life in your journal?
I took a really long walk one day – it was a stressful day where I had to consider if my son’s school was the right school for him, and I walked for miles. To sort of remember that day I drew a crack in the sidewalk, which is a thing you wouldn’t normally think of. But when I drew it it was beautiful on the page, and looking at it later brought me back. Also, because I’m sharing my pages with so many people I like to stay positive, so if something is stressful or upsetting I try to only hint at it. With certain things happening in my life I keep it subtle because it’s shared in a public forum – so only I will kind of completely know.
I’ve heard some people describe drawing or art as therapeutic. Does that resonate with you?
Oh yeah, definitely. It’s like meditation for me. It’s my happy time. It’s what I want to be doing.
What materials do you use for your work?
It’s really basic. I usually sketch in pencil, and then go over it in ink. Sometimes I draw straight with ink – I use this one favourite pen (a Copic Multiliner with a .1 nib), and then I watercolour. I almost always mix media or collage. I like to play with different paper and things that I find. If I have a chocolate bar, for example, sometimes I’ll tear the wrapper and incorporate that in the page. I also use some water soluble pastels and sometimes marker, but 90 per cent of the time it’s watercolour.
How do you incorporate your graphic arts background into your illustrations?
I would say composition – arranging things on the page and having a focal point. Filling up a page with all different things so that it becomes one piece of art – I think that that is a big part of it. Like I said, I’m drawing what’s really happening in front of me, but organizing completely unrelated objects on the page in an interesting way so they suddenly have a relationship is fun for me and is definitely a skill that comes from my design background.
Working with all different types of lettering and typography and my handwriting is another way I combine the two. I just love letter forms; I love drawing letters, I love the act of writing – I always have – and I think that’s evident in the work I do for clients. I almost always incorporate some sort of caption or lettering or typography whenever possible. It’s all by hand, and it’s not perfect, but it’s not meant to be.
Did you journal as a youth or young adult? If so, what did it look like and was it similar to the one you keep today?
I really started keeping a sketchbook/diary or journal when I was in college. I remember I had diaries in high school, but I didn’t really draw in them and I’d only keep them sporadically, not religiously – and I was afraid that somebody would read them. It was more in college that I’d draw things for an assignment and take notes and little bits and pieces of what was going on, so it was this combination of sketchbook/journal and class notebook, which I loved. It’s always been the most precious thing in my bag.
Let’s jump back to the beginning of your career: what inspired you to pursue graphic design?
I grew up in a family of artists, and I found that especially with my sister – who was so unbelievably talented and she kind of came out that way, like it was just so natural for her – I just felt that she could draw, so I’m going to design. It’s hard when you’re around so much talent, and I think that’s another reason why I was able to pick it up later in life because I didn’t have to compare myself as much to people in my family. I mean, they were amazing influences and I’m so thankful, but it was definitely hard for me to draw when I was young. I could see how effortlessly my sister could do it, and so it was hard for me by comparison.
Was it just your sister who you’d compare yourself to?
I wouldn’t say it was only my sister. I mean there was my grandmother, my mother. . .I grew up in art studios, so it wasn’t only her, but my sister was the one I was closest to. I just felt like design was safe so I’d do that.
So that’s what you went to school for?
Yes, I went to Cooper Union School of Art and did printmaking and design, which is very big there. I spent a lot of time there drawing patterns, which still shows up in my work today. I also draw on leaves now, which is a whole other thing. They’re like little mini-canvases and I paint on them, which sort of touches on some of the abstract things that I did in college.
We’ve talked a lot about your current career as an illustrator, but can you tell me more about your start? It was mostly graphic design and fine arts, right?
Yes and I still do that work. The more craft artwork that I might have been inclined to do wasn’t really celebrated at Cooper Union as much as design – there’s no glass blowing or pottery for example. I wasn’t as entrenched in the fine arts and design program as much as my friends were, and I didn’t take all of the courses that were offered because I wanted to do other things too. The great thing – or maybe the bad thing about Cooper Union, depending on how you look at it – is that you don’t have to pick a major; you can do whatever you want for the four years that you’re there. So I did photography, I did printmaking, I did calligraphy, and I did design. I also did drawing and painting – I did everything – but then when I left I knew that I was just going to focus on design.
What came next?
I got a job at the design firm Dinnick & Howells in Toronto with two designers, who really taught me a lot. I mean, I didn’t know Illustrator, and they taught me that program. I guess they liked that I didn’t have the traditional design background, and that I had a little bit more hand-drawn work in my portfolio too. From that point on I stayed in design; I returned to New York and worked as an art director at Gerngross & Co. before starting and running a design firm – Celandine Inc. – with a business partner for nine years. We eventually went our separate ways to concentrate on our families but I kept on designing while raising my two boys.
You’ve had a very successful career in design, working for many iconic institutions including The Whitney Museum of American Art, St. Regis Hotels & Resorts and Christian Dior. Is there one particular job that you’re most proud of?
I always talk about the work I’ve done for art galleries and museums, and I think that’s because I’ve always loved the arts. It’s just a part of what I did then and still to this day do – I’m working on an invitation now for a gallery – and there’s not just one specific gallery or museum that stands out. I take my kids to museums and I like to be aware of who artists are and what shows are happening, so I sort of combine it all and it’s really meaningful for me. But it’s actually not that creative; I mean, it’s polar opposite. For example, designing a catalogue for a body of work for a painter there’s minimum design; you’re just sort of showing the work. Now I’m drawing everything, it’s very very different and more creative. I guess I’m a true Gemini in that way, personality wise, in that I enjoy both.
You have two children and a busy career; is there a secret to finding balance?
That’s the hardest question to answer. I think it’s because I just do it. It’s a question everybody asks working moms – I mean, why don’t they ask the dads? I don’t know. I have a great husband; he’s very involved, we do it together, and if I didn’t have him my career would be very different and so would his. He travels a lot and works a lot longer hours than I do, but we support each other. I really don’t know how to answer that. I had a line of stationary for a few years with a business partner and we did stationary shows at the Javits Centre. My older son was a baby at the time and I was nursing, so I’d go to the bathroom, pump, and have our babysitter bring him so I could nurse him and then she’d take him home again. You know, you just do it, you make it work. If my husband could’ve supplied the milk, he would have. You’ve got to have help, whether its parents, friends, a babysitter or partner – you take all the help you can get.
What lesson have you learned along the way?
I’m fortunate at this point in my career and again with the support of my husband to be able to say no to things. He’s really empowered me to be able to do that. For a long time I said yes to everything – even if it didn’t feel right. Now I just want to take work that feels right. I still say yes too often – I think it’s a combination of just being nice and that it’s hard to be a freelancer because you never know when the next thing is going to come, and so it’s scary to say no, but it’s gotten easier. Now I can decide that some things aren’t worth my time and stress. Now I consider everyone involved – all four of us – when I say yes.
Where do you see your career going next?
Well I have the books coming out in the late summer – which is super exciting – and I hope to continue working with the clients that I have. I also hope to do some more colouring books and continue with the journal. I have a few personal projects too, including the leaves, and I’m excited to have a space now that I can work in. I’m busy and I have an intern coming this summer, so I just want to keep going and see what comes my way.