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How Sam Spratt is finding a niche for illustrations in the text-heavy world of digital journalism

Sam Spratt is a freelance artist, but thanks to journalists, not a starving one. Since graduating from college in July, the illustrator has done hundreds pieces for Gawker Media, three print covers for Game Informer, and a gigantic tour bus for two renowned photographers. He makes commissioned web-res portraits and sells limited-edition posters, too, showing that, even in an online journalism world that seems oriented to text, “artist” doesn’t have to mean “poor.”

Spratt is 22, a newborn cub in journalism years, but runs his own business from a second-floor office in a residential building near San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. It’s corporate-looking: no TV, Wii, foosball, Angry Birds, or beanbag chairs. Only a pair of windows and a couple of desks: One houses Spratt’s 21-inch Wacom Cintiq tablet (the digital canvas he calls his “soul”) and a monitor. The second is filled with scattered sketches and a growing stack of invoices.

Spratt has a few strong sells. The first is that he’s an artistic powerhouse, and can provide clients with more visual creativity than they can provide themselves. Consider the tour bus, which features a Spratt mural commissioned by Strobist’s David Hobby and fellow photog Joe McNally. Hobby spent two decades as a newspaper photographer, including one at The Baltimore Sun, and McNally has been everywhere — Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Life, Chevy ads — over the past 20 years. Hobby’s nearly five-year-old tutorial blog attracts more than a quarter-million readers, and the Manhattan-based McNally recently pulled a 700-person audience in Singapore as part of a speaking tour. Both are expert visual creators, but turned to Spratt for visual promotion. (They paid Spratt a lump sum — he’s mum on the specifics — and expect his work to get a million views while they’re on the road.)

“Ten years from now, we’ll be able to say, ‘Sam Spratt did that illustration before many people had ever heard of him,’” Hobby says.

Enthralled by the way artists use light, and inspired by painters like Rembrandt, Rubens, and Caravaggio, Spratt’s subjects feel as if they’re being captured from a natural scene. For Game Informer‘s December issue, Spratt painted a triptych depicting 30 of what you could call the baddest video game characters of the decade. They’re hanging out under the dim light of a saloon, which makes the scene resonate with a life-like glow. The scene was split into thirds and wrapped around Game Informer’s last issue of 2010. Then, this week, Spratt sold 30 limited-edition prints for $300 a piece.

Journalism’s taste for impressionism

Spratt is surprised to find such a comfortable home with the gadget crowd, but he shouldn’t be. Modern video games and digital technology are increasingly beautiful, complex, and reminiscent of real life or real-life mythologies. What was Andy McNamara, Game Informer’s editor-in-chief, supposed to do for the issue: Hire costumed actors to pose for a picture? As Walt Disney said, “Animation can explain whatever the mind can conceive.” The entire digital world is conception, and Spratt’s ability to make that world lifelike — check out the cracks in the canvas — would mean steady income even if Spratt hadn’t landed a plumb job with Gawker Media.

Spratt is a contributing illustrator for Gizmodo (we wrote about the site’s use of illustrators earlier this month) — a retainer position that puts him on call during the days and leaves him open to pursue projects on the side. Virtually every visual on Gizmodo is manipulated in some way, and the more original, the more interesting. (When Jesus Diaz, the site’s art director, wrote about Apple’s as-yet-unreleased tablet in 2009, he made up for the lack of photos of the device by simply whipping up what turned out to be a very realistic depiction of what he imagined the tool would look like.) In that environment, Spratt’s work fits right in. When Gizmodo reporter Sam Biddle wrote a post this summer entitled “The Long Unglamorous History of the Toilet,” Spratt created a wonderful cartoon showing a cavewoman scolding a caveman for leaving the seat up despite a wall filled with cave-drawn instructions.

Spratt is “in high demand” with Gizmodo staff, Biddle says. Over Thanksgiving, Spratt tweaked Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” painting to fit Biddle’s piece about how odd it is that his whole family is suddenly fluent in Apple products. Spratt re-imagined the painting again for Gawker’s Thanksgiving Horror Stories contest. “He’s everyone’s best friend because his work is something that really makes an article — regardless of length — stand out,” Biddle says. Last month, Biddle was writing an obit on the reclusive inventor of the neutron bomb and needed art. There wasn’t a lot out there, and The New York Times ran only a simple photo. So Spratt used the photo for inspiration, drawing Sam Cohen’s face disappearing into the ether much like a neutron bomb allegedly would have done to its victims. A Biddle puts it: “He captured the whole feel of what I was going for.”

Gizmodo pays Spratt per illustration. And although Spratt declines to give specifics, there’s clearly a payoff for him — and for Gizmodo. “I’ve had plenty of stories without original art at the beginning,” Diaz notes. “They were going flat, and after changing to custom art with an editorial message, they skyrocket. Using a generic image will just not give us any edge.”

The value of speed

Outside of contests, Spratt collaborates on every piece. Diaz will send him a concept or sketch an idea, or a writer will directly request art. When Spratt’s done, he sends it out; if Diaz doesn’t like it, he sends it back. It took some time to adjust to teamwork and, especially, rejection, Spratt notes; he’s an artist used to working solo and within the comfortable confines of the Savannah College of Art and Design. “I felt like I was at the top of my game, I could do no wrong,” he says. “The moment I left college and got to Gizmodo, I realized how absurd that is.”

After the first few rejections ate him up, Spratt loosened his ego when he started to realize that Diaz and Gizmodo readers (through their comments) had essentially the same taste in illustrations. Then he started working on what mattered: complementing site text and doing it quickly. As guest artist Wendy MacNaughton says, “In Gizmodo Land, there’s no sitting around thinking, ‘Hmm, I’m going to do 12 different directions and then discuss with the editor.’”

During his first week at Gizmodo, the staff hazed Spratt by sending him an assignment, giving him half an hour, and saying “Go!” He bumped off a drawing of Adrian Lamo in 50 minutes, but when he painted a woman’s mouth with an iTunes LSD tab in 20 minutes, he felt like it was his right of passage. “More so than any other skill in the world, being able to do [work] quickly is the most important factor,” he says. Diaz agrees, saying he’s worked with many illustrators who are undependable and slow.

A booming community and parallel market

David Hobby says Spratt’s relationship with Gizmodo reminds him of the one between Annie Leibovitz and Rolling Stone in the 1970s. Leibovitz was still in college when Jan Wenner discovered her in San Francisco and gave the young photographer distribution, exposure, marketing, and a conduit to bigger, more lucrative projects. Gizmodo gives Spratt a similar platform, and along with his steady work, promotes his Facebook page and website. In turn, his 4,500 fans alert him to new jobs, purchase limited-edition prints, commission web-res portraits, and act as ombudsmen for his work. When Spratt created his Lady Gaga painting at CES 2011, her eyes were imbalanced. Someone in his community let him know — and he fixed it.

With an ever-present public eye, Spratt feels more compelled to put extra time into his work. He works on weaknesses by asking the community whom they’d like to see depicted in his illustrations. Zach Galifianakis? Sure. Adriana Lima? Why not? “I don’t really care about the hippy-dippy concepts that come along with art,” Spratt says. “That’s not what I love about what I do. It’s about being able to create what works with writing and with the clients’ needs.”

                                   
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