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Meet Sam Lacombe

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sam Lacombe.

Hi Sam, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
I have been a painter and professor of art for over 25 years, and I have drawn for as long as I can remember. As a child, I loved comics and science fiction movies and spent many hours drawing all of the characters and spaceships from my favorites. I marveled at illustrators like Ralph McQuarrie and the Brothers Hildebrandt and the entire staff of MAD magazine. I also loved advertisements of all kinds: television commercials, print ads, billboards, etc. I attended the School for the Arts at Boston University in the 80’s, determined to become a commercial artist. There I discovered a greater world of art than I had ever known and quickly fell under the spell of van Eyck, Ingres, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Valazquez. I knew immediately that I wanted to follow in their footsteps and quickly changed my focus to fine arts. I have been painting ever since.

I love being a guide and mentor to young artists. As a graduate student, I discovered that I had a knack for explaining complex drawing, painting, and design concepts to the underclassmen. I began my teaching career shortly thereafter and was fortunate to teach at some great art schools in Boston: The Art Institute of Boston (now Lesley University College of Art and Design) as well as Boston University. After getting married in 2006, my wife (illustrator Rebecca Bradley) and I began a new life in Baltimore, where we teach at Maryland Institute College of Art and share a modest studio in our home. Together we created a travel class, taking a group of Illustration students to London every summer to study great British illustrators of the past and present.

I share my time fairly equally these days between the studio and the classroom and take part in several galleries shows a year. My work today still reflects that mish-mash of inspiration from my early years; my paintings are decidedly commercial and slick, and I see in them my love of advertising and graphic design. I also see the influence of my old heroes Canaletto and Jan van Eyck in my attention to detail and precision. I strive for the powerful expressiveness of Van Gogh, and perhaps contradictorily, the cool poetic qualities of the early Photorealists. I am currently producing new work for my upcoming solo show at the Gormley Gallery at Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore, featuring twenty-five year’s worth of photo-based neon sign paintings.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
After a very successful graduate thesis show in which I sold a number of paintings, I had a brief run at a well-respected Boston gallery, which unfortunately did not pan out. Making it in the gallery scene required a lot of work, and my initial successes did not prepare me for the very important but time-consuming work of self-promotion. An opportunity arose to relocate in Los Angeles, and I took a chance there for a fresh start and to rekindle my passions for film and commercial art. Unfortunately, the recession of the early 1990’s and the advent of CGI made it difficult for a traditional artist like myself to find work. I ultimately returned to Boston, this time with a greater appreciation for the work necessary outside of the studio. There I began my teaching career and began a series of paintings that I continue to this day.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I am best known for a series of cityscapes and neon sign paintings I have been developing for well over two decades. I am inspired by light, pattern, geometry, and color, and I choose subject matter for that provides me with an excuse to explore these concepts and more. What I have found in this work is an abundance of bold colors, massive volumes, pattern, and shape, that allow me to work within my observationally realistic roots and at the same time give a nod to the Pop Art movement that I love dearly. I strive to avoid the pitfalls of nostalgia and sentiment often associated with these subjects and instead concentrate on transforming this public, shared, ubiquitous subjects in poetic ways.

Though I often work from photographs, I do not consider myself a strict Photorealist. My approach to representation owes as much to invention as it does to observation. It is never my goal to simply to emulate what is seen by the lens of the camera but to incorporate the interpretation of the human eye, the microscope, and the telescope. I attempt to give the viewer all of the information observed in my subjects without the presumption to edit or take shortcuts. When I paint an object, I feel I am building that object. I idealize, reinvent, and attempt to organize my paintings in a precise and highly formal matter to maximize their emotional and pictorial effect.

Much of my work over the past decade or so has been painted in gouache, an opaque watercolor not often seen in fine art. Gouache is most often used by illustrators and commercial artists and far less so by painters trying to create the level of detail I aspire to. I take a certain thrill in elevating this material and pushing the limits of its representational abilities.

We all have a different way of looking at and defining success. How do you define success?
I have had solo shows, received grants, shown internationally, taken part in great residencies, manage a profitable online print store, and have had my work purchased for collections. I think these are often the traditional gauges for success in my field, and I take great pride in having my hard work recognized, as anyone should. But I find that more importantly than all of that, I gauge success on my daily productivity in the studio. I strive for painting sessions in which every brushstroke seems to land home effortlessly and efficiently. A good day in the studio can right many wrongs!

As a teacher, there are clearer rubrics for success. I can see at the end of the day how much of what I intend to impart to my students has gotten through. I can see in real-time how a small suggestion or bit of advice I give can change the path of a day’s work. I can look at the breadth of work by a student at the end of a semester and see their starting and ending points and how much they have (or haven’t) learned. I tally my success on the trust that students and colleagues put in me.

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