Finding Her Voice: Illustrator Samatha Mash

Samantha Mash’s healthy client list includes DC Comics, Outsidemagazine, and Slack. But the line from art school to a thriving freelance career was not a straight one—in fact, soon after leaving school five years ago, she stopped drawing entirely for two years. We sat down with Mash to talk about how she fell away from her artistic practice, and how she found a path back to it.

Mash works primarily in Adobe Photoshop CC; her current drawing style is marked by shape-based elements with small hints of intricate digital painting.

When she was a kid, art was Mash’s solace. “I had a really hard time making friends, and I felt ostracized,” she says. “I needed an outlet.” Online worlds like Neopets gave her a space for visual exploration. In college, she realized that illustration could also be a career.

Mash attended the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), in Portland, Oregon. All students start with a foundational year as an exploratory stepping stone, and then they choose a major in the second year. “What I clearly wanted to do was illustration,” she says. “The school gave me a path of actualization of this career.”

But like many young artists, Mash struggled to maintain a momentum with her practice after school ended. “I was pretty burnt out; I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says. “I immediately jumped into the food industry, and I got kind of lost. I knew I had talent—you have to believe it at some point…. But you get out of art school, and you don’t really do stuff with what you have.” She fell out of drawing for nearly two years.

DEVELOPING A STYLE

In the midst of depression and stifled creativity, she decided she needed to make a change. “No one’s going to hand you an illustration career,” she says. “I decided, ‘I’m going to finish one illustration a month, and that’s what I can manage’—and I started feeling a ton better with this progression.”

Over time, her visual voice developed at a quicker pace, and she made intentional choices to create a body of work that got her the jobs she really wanted.

Mash says, “When I got out of college and I was trying to shop my portfolio, I met with a lot of people who said, ‘This is great; you could be a fantasy artist.’ But I didn’t want to be what they thought I should be.”

Mash’s style has progressed from the very painterly work she did as a student to more shape-based elements with small hints of intricate digital painting that recall her earlier work. She primarily works in Adobe Photoshop CC, starting with a traditional sketch in red pencil. “I scan that in, flip the canvas, and make sure everything is relatively proportional to what I like,” she says. “Then I make a new layer and do new lines on top of it that can act as a blueprint.”

After that, she blocks out the image with colors. “I fill in those lines on different layers and check that contrast is good and that colors close together aren’t too similar,” she explains. She then sharpens shapes and makes sure everything looks clean. After that, she starts putting in shadows. To finish, she brings in smaller lines for texture, as well as adding larger swaths of texture with custom brushes she makes.

DIVERSITY MATTERS

Mash is mindful of creating an inclusive space in her images. “My consciousness around minority groups and disability and diversity in body types started when I was young, specifically because people are so vocal about their racism, about their sexism, about their weight-ism, about their clear anti-disability-ism…I never really considered it in my art until late high school and early college,” she says. “It’s mostly coming from a place when I felt isolated as a child and a teen; I felt body-conscious. I didn’t feel good enough in my own skin, and I can see that other people feel that in similar ways.”

Mash believes that artists should be working to show diversity in their illustrations of people. “Our world is so diverse—why are we not reflecting that in what we do? You don’t just get to turn a blind eye to all different kinds of people.”

She continues, “There are people who haven’t seen their body type represented, and when you start seeing media that reflects who you are, you feel better about it.”

DEVELOPING AS A TEACHER

Mash was recently invited back to PNCA to teach figure drawing to second-year students. “The class is about figure drawing and finding your voice in illustration,” she says, “When you’re a freshman, you’re just kind of launched into illustration, and you have to find your style…the class is meant to act as that exploration time. You’re not going to have a concrete style in this class, and you’re not going to have one at the end of your senior year—it’s going to constantly evolve, and that’s OK.”

She notes that students have progressed since her time in college. “I’m so happy with how much social knowledge they have that I didn’t see while I was going to school. They are much more political, inclusive, and receptive towards learning new things…. Art can change your life; it can change how you think.”

Teaching has also influenced her own work. “Sometimes I’ll sit down and have a particular student in mind and think, ‘You know what, I actually haven’t drawn that,’” she says. “If they’re not seeing themselves in art, then I’m going to take that step.”

When asked about what advice she might give to this upcoming group of artists, she talked about finding pleasure in the creation process. “You’re going to have these expectations put on you of what your work should be, what it should do, and what style you need to communicate…. You should be drawing things that entertain you. If you’re forcing yourself to paint for 60 hours, and at the end of the day you’re like, ‘Well this sucked and it became a labor,’ then it’s going to make doing this career awful.”

You can find more of Samantha Mash’s work on her portfolio siteBehance, and Instagram.

This article was previously published in Adobe Create Magazine.

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