Sam Spratt is your favorite artists’ favorite painter.
Born in Eugene, Oregon and now based in Brooklyn, New York, Spratt has spent the past seven years working with artists (Childish Gambino, Janelle Monáe), publications (The Atlantic), video game companies, Broadway shows, and the list goes on.
In the hip-hop community, he may be known best for his work with GRAMMY-nominated rapper Logic, taking the lead on all of his album and mixtape artwork.
Having just turned 29, Spratt’s rap sheet is miles long, but his early ventures into the arts were confined to doodles in his notebooks. With a push from his high school girlfriend, Spratt applied and got accepted to the Savannah College of Art and Design.
“I found an odd sense of accomplishment getting grades for drawings of vases and faces versus math or whatever,” Spratt tells me over the phone. “I kinda dove in on that, became a little obsessed with it, and pretty much from the moment I started art school to the end, I was drawing or painting morning to night every single day.”
His obsessions led him to work with Gawker and Gizmodo, and though he envisioned working in editorial for a long time, his artwork took him into many different directions, one of which was, of course, working with Logic.
“After working on Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady, [Logic] had seen it and he became kind of intrigued with it, with this kinda super realistic, but painterly look,” he recalls. “I didn’t know the concept that he wanted to go for yet, but he had his manager Harrison reach out to me.”
Despite some early trepidations, their working relationship flourished following their first phone call. “I talked to him once on the phone and he just oozed goodness,” Spratt says. Four years and six commercial covers later, Spratt reveals the duo have fledging ideas for artwork well into the next two years.
“Ever since Under Pressure, we’ve been making all art,” Spratt says excitedly. “And as far as I know, we’ll be making all art into the future.”
DJBooth’s full interview with Sam Spratt has been lightly edited for content and clarity and follows below.
DJBooth: How did you get your start as an artist?
Spratt: I don’t wanna say I had no interest in art, I doodled robots in the margins of my notebooks and liked building houses in The Sims, but I’m one hundred percent confident I would never have been an artist if I hadn’t dated a girl in high school who wanted to become a fashion designer. I was a pretty shitty high school student, bad grades, no hobbies, didn’t have any grand aspirations for art, but took a required course my last semester senior year, applied to one art school and nothing else, miraculously got in, and ended up following her to Savannah College of Art and Design.
When I got to college that relationship had already ended, so I had a little fish-out-of-water moment and ended up in art school with no real good reason for being there. But that’s just kinda how life works. Fortunately, I found an odd sense of accomplishment getting grades for drawings of vases and faces versus math or whatever… I kinda dove in on that, became a little obsessed with it, and pretty much from the moment I started art school to the end, I was drawing or painting morning to night every single day. When I left school, I kept that going. Less sleep, more art.
When you got into SCAD, did you imagine anything of this magnitude?
Honestly, I didn’t really even know what you did with drawing. When I showed up to art school, my first day, we learned how to draw still lifes, which is when you have a bunch of objects in front of you and you draw them. I didn’t even know that was a thing that people did in art, I was going in with a pretty blank mind. I didn’t know what kind of jobs you could get. I didn’t know what path you could pursue.
Even when I graduated, my initial pull was editorial stuff, maybe caricatures for The New Yorker. That’s what I thought would be my path, but it just kind of branched in that natural, fun way that things tend to.
You and Bobby (Logic) have a long working history together. How did the two of you initially connect?
After working on Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady, Bob had seen it and he became kind of intrigued with it, with this kinda super realistic, but painterly look. I didn’t know the concept that he wanted to go for yet, but he had his manager Harrison reach out to me. I had never heard of Logic at the time, but I did a little research and was like, ‘Damn! This guy is talented.’ You know, I was a little apprehensive to be perfectly honest, initially. This like, scrawny little white guy and this is right when all the Macklemore backlash was starting to percolate and then having Donald [Glover] and Janelle, I was kinda like, ‘Is this the right move?’
I talked to him once on the phone and he just oozed goodness. Just a good human. It’s just one of those things where I made a snap judgment initially, like a lot of people would about him or anyone else, and fortunately, I had the opportunity to shed my own ignorance. The result is, he’s one of my closest friends now. Ever since Under Pressure, we’ve been making all art. And as far as I know, we’ll be making all art into the future.
That’s big of you to admit.
Honestly, I don’t think I have a wealth of advice to put out there, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I am wrong constantly. The only improvement I’ve ever made is through recognizing my own shittiness and trying again, and giving it another stab. That is your way of failing upwards.
How has your working relationship with Logic evolved over the years?
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Every [album] is a little different. The first album, Under Pressure, he wanted to recreate this scene in his friend Lenny’s basement where he got his start making music. He had these low-res camera photos, but there was no moment, there was no shot that had staged that perfect moment of him and 6ix producing together. It was kinda him walking me through that moment, but also all of his history, to contextualize it. Through that, playing me the music, and just trying to catch the vibe and the color palette, that one was more like trying to recreate a memory bigger than it actually existed.
The deluxe for Under Pressure, he gave no direction. He just said I could do whatever I want, so that was just the mural of his face up on the wall.
The next one [The Incredible True Story] was this fun, future, sci-fi panorama of him and his crew.
The Bobby Tarantino album art we’ve done, he has a vague idea of just like, he wants it to be fun and not take himself too seriously, and just have a slick, pulpy, vintage inspiration. Then he lets me fly from there. Bob is a massive movie buff and wanted some nice call back to Tarantino for the first one, we gave a nod to the pulp aesthetic with the color of the typography.
For Bobby Tarantino II, he always loved the scenes in Pulp [Fiction] he always loved the of Butch bandaging himself up after the fight as they resonated with where his head was at and wondered if there's a way to give another nod to that. We knew just recreating one of those scenes with him instead of them would be snooze-y, but deconstructing the key components: wounded dude plus car, and then creating something wholly new, lets it be its own thing. Tip the hat, but leave it there. Bob will tell you that everyone is special at something, you've just gotta follow through. For him it's music, for you it's writing, for my grandma it's knitting, and I do this.
Everybody was the doozy. At the very beginning of it, I kinda had a mental breakdown. I got a call at three in the morning, Bob had just gotten back from the Louvre and saw The Wedding at Cana, which inspired the whole thing. He was like, ‘I want you to paint 80 people.’ I was like, ‘Fuck, well, I’ve never done anything like that. I don’t think I can do anything like that.’ And he was like, ‘I know you can, and I will literally do anything to make it happen.’ And so, we did. It was this insane venture of trying to get 80 or so his closest friends and inspirations all into this one sci-fi, Renaissance-y clusterfuck. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
How do you execute such a realistic style with no photos of the specific scenes for the covers?
Well, I do use photos. The entire act of realism is reference. I’m never gonna be able to get 10 people in a spaceship and be able to paint them there, but I can find 10 people in 10 different situations and get dozens of photos of them and try to understand their likeness remotely. In a weird way, it’s one of those conspiracy theory pinboards where you’re drawing strings from one pin to another. You’re collecting all of this imagery and piecing it together in a way. You’re studying the face of one, but maybe you’re studying the lighting of something else. The idea is to make something realistic, but that can’t be done with photography, that can’t be done by just splicing some pictures together. The idea is to use and study realism, but then make something that’s new.
The number of different directions creative minds can go in is amazing.
Absolutely! It was last year while Bobby was starting to put together pieces for Bobby Tarantino II, up in a studio in New York, I came in and just kinda watched him and 6ix lay things together. It was interesting, we drew a lot of weird parallels of putting together a song versus making a painting. I would assume someone started with lyrics, and they had the song in their head, and they just made it. Apparently, that’s not how it works! He has some ideas and concepts, but it’s all about starting with a beat, and he’ll fill it in with mumbles. That’s basically his sketch, like how I would start before I dive into the detail. I guess writing would be an outline?
There is always a period of self-loathing, for sure.
That’s it! That right there, the self-loathing, I think that fuels it all. I hate everything I do constantly—while I’m making it, when I’m done with it, when I look back on it—and that just drives the next thing.
Is that part of being a successful creative?
I don’t know if I have the healthiest approach, necessarily, because I’m hypercritical all the time. Usually, when I let things go, it’s because I’m forced to. When I started out, it was this idealistic notion that you work on something until it’s literally perfect and then put it out there. Perfection is nonsense. Nothing will ever be perfect. You'll always be able to be better and better.
How do you adapt to the gritty mindset of Bobby Tarantino versus an homage piece like Everybody?
Part of why I love what I do is I get to work with a lot of different people. The idea is not to do something that makes me comfortable, but it’s to flex in new areas and explore new colors and new subject areas, new styles, and tones. Since I’m the one making it, it’s all going to feel like it’s mine. That’s all style is, how one person creatively problem-solves. The times I get depressed in art is when I’m being redundant and doing the same thing over and over again. It parallels so much to what Bobby Tarantino is, it’s just Bob letting off shit, it’s just fun shit.
All of Logic’s covers, including Bobby Tarantino II, include Easter eggs. How do you balance dropping hints while not giving too much away?
It’s a combination where some of it is super subtle and some of it is really blatant, to hit different people. Bob and I have our next two years, minimum, of art planned out in loose form. When I say that, it’s not necessarily music, just any art into the future, we at least have the ideas.
When we made Everybody, we already knew what Ultra 85 was going to be. A lot of what is in there, people literally won’t understand until they listen to Ultra 85. That’s cool to have things where he is thinking far enough ahead, and I get to work with him to figure out how to visually drop those things. So in the album cover itself, we have things people haven’t found yet, but also in the packaging.
What would you tell all the kids who are drawing in their bedrooms right now?
It's always tempting to be loud, to feel a need to be perpetually visible and on people's minds, to assert what you know whether you know it or not. Been there many times. But the most artistic and personal growth, success, and happiness I have is always when I'm quiet: listening, learning, and remedying my own fuck ups. Not silent, just quiet. For me, I just think being a good person is the most important thing. You gotta couple that will the technical know-how and dedication, but at the end of it all, in my opinion, all of that is pointless if you don’t try to be a better person in the process.