Sarah Coomer illustrations

Ghosts of 100 Days: An Interview with Artist Sarah Coomer

Ghosts of 100 Days

An interview with artist Sarah Coomer

words by Andrew Screen

During the recent countrywide Coronavirus lockdown the nation turned to broadcast and social media for solace and entertainment. One of my personal highlights of this period was discovering the work of illustrator Sarah Coomer via her Ghosts: 100 Days project on Twitter. 

Sarah set herself the task of producing one work of art per day and as a topic, she was inspired by British horror in all its mediums.

Sarah was born in Leeds and spent her childhood there and in Harrogate. After several dead-end jobs, she eventually found herself working in Theatre Arts administration. She moved to Devon with her young family and toiled as a smallholder for a few years before enrolling on an access course in art which was her first formal education in the area. Now based in Edinburgh, Sarah is largely self-taught but has the natural eye of an instinctive artist as any viewing of her work reveals. With much of her work based around British horror, it seems only right that we should interview her about her work and influences for Horrified.

Horrified: How did you come to work within the field of illustration and what are your aims?

Sarah: I lived in Devon for a few years where I had a short stint as a really bad smallholder, and producer of actually not bad salami, before enrolling on an access course in Art, with a view to maybe doing a fine art degree. That didn’t happen but it kick-started the art thing.

I haven’t really had much of a plan beyond wanting to somehow make a living out of drawing… which is still quite a long way off!! I am aiming towards book illustration, but before lockdown I also got a job as a heraldic artist and calligrapher at the Lyon Court, which is the official Granter of Arms in Scotland, which I love, and gives me a handy regular income whilst also giving me time to do my own projects. Or it hopefully will when the office opens again.

H:  From your looking at your work you evidently have an affinity with horror and the more dark and macabre side of things. When did you first discover this interest?

S: I could blame my big brother Michael, who is six years my senior and therefore was very much a role model when I was a youngster, but maybe we both just shared the spooky gene. He had all the Arthur C. Clarke mysterious world-type books, and read horror comics.

He is still a big horror fan now, much more so than me, and has been known to go to the pub in a coffin on Hallowe’en. His house is full of skulls, and we had a tug of love over a human skeleton in a box my Dad had acquired a few years ago (he’s a dealer in vintage and veteran car parts, but comes across all sorts on his travels, and his house is like Steptoe’s yard –  probably also a massive influence now I come to think of it). He won. I remember spending many a happy hour on his bedroom floor poring over his horror Top Trumps and so on, though I realise now I was probably a total pain in the arse – what teenager wants their nine-year-old sister hanging out with them all the time?

Gormenghast-inspired illustration by Sarah Coomer

I loved spooky telly, The Children of Green Knowe, Moondial, Dramarama and of course the spooky primer that is Scooby-Doo, and was in real life terrified of ghosts. Our house was reputedly haunted by the last owner, the mysterious Miss Abbey, who shut doors and made books fall off shelves, which as a ghost fan was a bit of a poisoned chalice. Living in a haunted house is great until you’re trying to get to sleep!

H: What are your favourite films and TV programmes?

S: I LOVE The Wicker Man, though the first time I saw it, about 25 years ago I thought it was rubbish. They used to play it now again late at night on TV, and so I caught it again another time and it grew on me until it became a bit of an obsession throughout my twenties. I discovered, entirely by coincidence that one of my dad’s friends ran a caravan site in the area where it was filmed and his girlfriend was an extra in the film and her fortified house was used as a location!? The soundtrack is one of my favourite albums and I bought the piano music a while back. I’m aiming to learn the Tinker of Rye before 1st May next year, though my baritone is not that impressive.

I do like a vampire movie, and always loved a Hammer Horror film, especially The Devil Rides Out and the Dracula / castle based ones. More recently I have developed a liking for the more zeitgeisty 1970s horrors like Psychomania, which I have a massive soft spot for. Dance of the Vampires / The Fearless Vampire Killers is another old favourite – the mirrored ballroom scene is just stunning. Other notable mentions are The Company of Wolves, which is probably my joint-favourite film, and Local Hero which is like the good twin to The Wicker Man‘s evil.

As far as TV is concerned, it’s largely quite predictable… I love anything by any of The League of Gentlemen. I really enjoyed the series Requiem and The Living and the Dead. For comfort viewing, I love all the historical re-enactment series with Ruth Goodman etc., Tales from the Green Valley, Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm. I watch Detectorists and Ghosts with the kids. I also love Alan Partridge in any format.

Generally, as a rule, I probably listen to more radio than watch TV, mainly 4Extra. Obviously, lots of the 7th Dimension stuff, and the series Pilgrim and Curious Under the Stars bear repeated listening, as well as lots of comedy – Gloomsbury, Plum House, Ed Reardon’s Week, In and Out of the Kitchen, Robin and Wendy’s Wet Weekends. The three-hour weekend specials can be a bit of a treasure trove for random documentaries – Diane Morgan’s Halloween one was a hoot, and will probably be repeated this year.

Psychomania illustration by Sarah Coomer

H:  Do you have a favourite author?

S: I don’t know if I have a favourite author, though I do love to read. I don’t get enough time to read these days and fall asleep after a few pages but I try and make time. I have just finished the Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall trilogy which was fantastic, though the last book inevitably is pretty grim. The TV series was ace too. Maria McCann’s books all evoke the era she’s describing so well but her book set in the English civil war, As Meat Loves Salt, is astounding. Completely gobsmacking.

There are a couple of Nicola Barker books that I have loved; Darkmans and Burley Cross Postbox Theft. Very singular, funny, dark, and sort of bonkers. I read Dracula every few years and I’ve obviously been reading and rereading a lot of ghost stories recently too – Robert Aickman is probably my favourite new discovery.

H: Do you have a preferred medium to work in and why?

S: Currently I’m doing pretty much everything digitally, on an iPad Pro with a drawing app called Procreate. This was initially because during the lockdown, when I started the 100 Ghosts project I couldn’t disappear for hours on end into the studio and make a lovely mess, as the kids were home from school and needed some degree of supervision, and occasional meals!

I am rather craving going back in there and making a mess with ink, but I’m also enjoying stretching my knowledge of what I can do on a tablet. It’s obviously a very forgiving media, which is good and bad in equal measures I think. Risk-taking has its place definitely. I love drawing in ink, partly because of the indelibility of it, you just have to take a leap of faith whenever you put a nib in a bottle of ink.

However, for my current lifestyle, the flexibility of the tablet is very handy. I love printmaking too but it can be very gubbins heavy and time-consuming, so it’s kind of out of bounds at the moment. I would love to do more etching one day.

H: How did the Ghosts: 100 Days project come about?

S: The 100 Days project Scotland challenge was set up by Isla Munro as a way to encourage and support creativity on Instagram. The idea was to do a small piece of the same kind of creative work every day for 100 days. I started off with the intention of drawing a two-inch square ink illustration of a ghost story each day but it immediately spiralled out of control. I can’t resist tweaking things. In the end, they were taking between 3 and 7 hours in total – I think I managed 58 days in a row before throwing in the towel, and now I’m managing one a week if I’m lucky but I will get there in the end!

The Woman In Black illustration by Sarah Coomer

H: Have any artists influenced you over the years?

S: I love Norman Ackroyd’s etchings – big usually wild bleak landscapes of remote places like St Kilda and other far-flung islands. The illustrator Jim Kay is a big influence – he is working through illustrated versions of the Harry Potter books which is a Herculean task but he is so versatile. He started off as a botanical artist but his natural inclination is to the dark things of life – his illustrations for A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness are stunning, and very ‘printerly’, if that’s a word.

I also love Posy Simmonds, I was brought up on her cartoons which reflected a slightly (okay, much) posher version of my own upbringing, and she’s also a fantastic draughtswoman and storyteller. I think my main influence nowadays comes from the artists and illustrators I follow on Instagram and Twitter – I love to see how others approach their subjects, and they are both generally very supportive places for artists, I think.

H: Some of your work and prints have the feel and look of early photographic processes such as daguerreotypes (an early form of photographic process popular in the 19th Century). Is something you are conscious of or have developed as part of your style?

S: I was working on a children’s picture book a while back, and I consciously tried to take myself away from the very traditional drawing style I then had (which is deeply unfashionable in children’s publishing).

I was using a combination of traditional media and digital techniques and I struck upon the use of a digital spray paintbrush, and started using it to create a sort of grimy aesthetic and developed a kind of stencilling technique, which has evolved, not entirely by design, into that old photographic style. My dad taught me how to develop photos when I was a kid and sometimes they went a bit weird if I left them in certain chemicals too long and I kind of liked that! I wasn’t very fastidious and the photos were often a bit shonky.

I do love old photos and really loved the design of the 4AD album covers by Vaughan Oliver, especially the Pixies’ artwork, which features that sort of sepia, grimy photography that’s a bit frayed at the edges. I bought a set of posters of the Doolittle artwork and had them on my wall as a teenager, and maybe they went further in than I realised.

H:  Which is the bigger inspiration on your work – the written word or the moving image?

S: I don’t know. I suppose ultimately the written word because the images I create come initially from that source material, even if there’s a film or TV adaptation. It can be a bit too easy if you are given a visual version of a story, or too hard to stray from it – what you’ve seen can’t be unseen and it inevitably has some sort of influence even if you’re not using it as direct source material. But I’m not too precious about it. If I’m drawing an original piece of film or TV I do try and make it more than a simple copy of a still… I suppose the nearest I’ve come to doing that is the Dead Line picture which was… a copy of a still. But I was interested to see what my chosen techniques would lend to the image, and I actually really like that one.

Dead Line illustration by Sarah Coomer

H: What would be your dream project?

S: I suppose I’d love to illustrate a whole book, either a children’s novel or one for grown-ups. Someone recently mentioned The Dark is Rising, which would be a great book to illustrate and the Gormenghast trilogy is one I’d like to have a bash at though it would probably take about 400 years. I’d love to find an agent who can put something like that my way, but I’m not an easy fit for most agents, it’s especially hard to find agents who deal in dark and gloomy not necessarily for children illustrations (though children tend to LOVE dark and gloomy things). So if anyone has any ideas who I could approach I would be very grateful.

H:  Have you ever exhibited any of your work?

S: A few years ago I was part of an exhibition in a gallery space on a friend’s farm. I was one of six artists, and along with a few other lino prints I made a six-layered cutaway tunnel book lino thing especially for the exhibition, based on Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor. It didn’t sell and it’s now in my hallway, which I’m actually quite glad about because I would never have got round to making another one. At that point, I was doing a lot of printmaking.

H: Where is the best place online for people to view your work and perhaps purchase prints?

S: I’m on Instagram and Twitter, and have a website which also links to my Etsy shop, currently my chosen mode of commerce.

All illustrations (including the background image) reproduced by kind permission of Sarah Coomer. Click the links above to find her on social media or visit her website and online shop to see more of her artwork.

Picture of Andrew Screen

Andrew Screen

Writer on things film & TV by night, author of The Book of Beasts, an official guide to the Nigel Kneale series, (coming soon). SEN practitioner by day.

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