Gradwatch 2021: Illustrator Sam Wagstaff, Manchester School of Art

Wagstaff says he’d initially considered doing graphic design and photography, but while he was killing time at a Manchester School of Art open day he wandered into the illustration show and was hooked on the idea. According to him, illustration felt like a more natural fit as well, avoiding some of the aspects of graphic design, such as typography, that Wagstaff says he’d found quite difficult.
His plan for the next few years is to continue to develop his skills, focusing on the parts of his work he finds most challenging – for example, drawing hands. Wagstaff is keen to eventually create graphic novels as part of a creative team, but says he’s also considering work as a tattoo artist, which could potentially give him more financial stability in order to pursue his ambitions as an illustrator.; Sam Wagstaff was one of five graduates from MMU to receive the 2021 Weavers Factory Print Prize. Prints of his work are available at In one of Wagstaff’s illustrations, the passengers of an impossibly packed tram stretch off into what seems like the far distance, each one apparently with their own story to tell. Even the shops, pedestrians and buildings in the image look like they’re hiding a good yarn.
Wagstaff says that Covid made his final year more challenging, but that the time he saved on commuting into uni meant he could focus more on developing his style, and “get into the groove and churn out work every day”.
“I think I found when I was doing it in college, we focused on digital processes a lot,” he adds. “Whereas I quite enjoy doing stuff by hand, and then doing a little bit of editing digitally. I like the freedom to just use my own mark-making tools, and properly get my own visual language that can’t really be replicated digitally.” “I quite like focusing on the narrative, and trying to get as much into the image that enhances the narrative as I can,” he tells CR. “So small things in the background that might add to the scene, and the mood of the scene. I get quite a lot of inspiration from Where’s Wally books.
“What I always liked about them when I was younger is that you could look at any point in the scene, and there was something unique going on. In my images, I try and create a protagonist and a set of people. I like having different people doing actual things in the background and trying to convey them. I feel like it builds. When I see the world, it’s not just me walking around – I see everyone going about their daily lives and doing separate odd things themselves, and I try to include that.” “I quite like cramming as much detail as I can into it,” says Sam Wagstaff, a Manchester School of Art graduate who works in a distinctive graphic novel style of illustration. It’s an approach that particularly suits city scenes, or imagery of boats, trains or clusters of buildings – all of which allow Wagstaff to incorporate minute hints of narrative.
He’s particularly interested in how graphic novels can be used to re-tell existing texts, and make literature more diverse in terms of how it’s presented.
Although, says Wagstaff, the first year was challenging – because students were encouraged to experiment with a lot of different materials and processes – he found himself naturally gravitating to fine line work, and pen and ink, because it allowed him to incorporate a lot of detail. This also sat well with Wagstaff’s love of graphic novels and comics.

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