A shot from the upcoming documentary film “Ami Underground,” directed by D.W. Young. See more stills from the film with Ami sketching commuters here.
If there were Oscars for urban sketching, drawing in public transportation would be a category of its own. And Ami Plasse, flickr nickname amirocks, would be one of the contenders to beat. Born and raised in Manhattan, Ami works as an art and animation director and sketches nonstop during his commute, capturing with energetic strokes the universe of faces that populate New York's subway system. Fellow New York resident and subway sketcher Sharon Frost asked him a few questions.
Could you describe the attraction of drawing in transit (on the subway) and how you became involved with it?
I started drawing from life in public places when I was in college. My sophomore year I had a drawing teacher named Warren Linn and part of the coursework was drawing what he called a “4-minute burn” every day — drawing a square on a page and filling it with a quick composition from wherever you were. I started off with still lives but quickly became bored with that and started taking my sketchbook along with me to public places and occasionally on the train.
In 1997 I had a freelance job in Queens for a few months. The ride was long and it inspired me to spend a little more time drawing on the train. The richness of the subject matter was unparalleled. On any given day you could find people of a multitude of race and nationality. Rich investment bankers and lawyers, homeless people, teenagers, college students, old folks, whacked-out bible screamers, street performers, little kids, and some regular old scary misfits, all forced to quietly (well, usually) coexist in very cramped quarters for the 15 minutes to an hour they spent on their commute. As someone who loves to draw characters, there was no greater source of inspiration than the New York City subway system — frequented by just about every character you can imagine.
Over the next few years I continued sporadic train drawing, depending on my commute. In early 2007, the company where I was working started buying Moleskine sketchbooks in bulk. After reading the Moleskine manifesto, I started to mock the books for being very pretentious, but soon found myself addicted to them. I used them for notes, doodling, ideas sketching and found them to be ideal for subway sketching. They were much smaller and less bulky than the other books I was used to and they fit perfectly in a back pocket. When I wanted to draw I could easily whip it out whether I was sitting or standing against a door or pole and start sketching away, without the need for space that my old sketchbooks required.
Around the same time my wife gave birth to our 2nd and 3rd kids (yes, twins), I was working full time in digital advertising and free time for doing what I love - drawing - was becoming increasingly scarce. The only time that I had that wasn’t dedicated to work, kids, and life’s other assorted responsibilities was the 20-40 minutes that I spent commuting each way to work and sometime miscellaneous weekend time on the train. These circumstances, along with my fascination with the people and situations that existed in the subway system, really inspired me to focus on my subway drawing until I got to the point where I would document just about every ride. It became even more of an obsession when in January 2008 I began nearly daily postings of my drawings online on my blog. In 2008 I probably posted between 700-800 drawings.
How did you develop as an artist? Were you one as a child? Was there someone in your life who encouraged you or inspired you?
I was always a doodler ever since I can remember. I grew up with some artistic people in my life. My grandmother painted and did a lot of crafts stuff with us when we were little. I had an uncle who had dabbled drawing cartoons and was also into comic books. My grandfather’s cousin also drew a strip for Mad Magazine for like 300 years. His name was Dave Berg, and he drew “The Lighter Side of…” When I was a kid he let my brother and me come into the Mad Magazine office (I was already a fan of Mad at the time). We made off with a stack of magazines and books, and got autographs from a bunch of the artists who were actually in house — it was very old school.
Growing up I was also into different things that inspired me. Star Wars trilogy/Battlestar Galactica as a small child. When I was in 4th grade I started listening to Iron Maiden and was obsessed with their album artwork, drawing their ghoulish Eddie character all over my schoolbooks. I was into comic books, too — mostly Marvel super hero stuff, Hanna Barbera cartoons (loved Thundarr the Barbarian), Looney Tunes, and I really liked the original Underdog cartoon (not to be confused with the recent live action remake).
As I got a little older I got into punk rock/hardcore music and loved some of the rawer artwork that I saw on album covers, inserts, t-shirts and flyers for bands like Black Flag, Agnostic Front, the Subhumans, Underdog, and Breakdown to name a few. I also got into graffiti and was inspired by both the legends and some of the really talented writers I hung out with.
I’ve also been inspired by many popular artists over the years: Picasso, Daumier, Egon Schiele, James Ensor, Goya, Stuart Davis, De Kooning, Keith Haring. I love 18th-19th century Japanese printmaking, West African Dogon sculptures and masks, Pre Columbian art from Central and South America and Northwest Indian Art. I think my favorite of all time is British illustrator Ralph Steadman.
What would you say to someone who is having trouble with making that jump from drawing in their head to drawing through their head and onto paper?
Just keep drawing all the time. You need to get to a point where the connection between observation, your mind filter, and your hand becomes effortless and automatic — or at least begins to approach it. Also, stop worrying about every drawing being a masterpiece. Accept the fact that sometimes a drawing comes out like shit, but that’s just part of the game and that you learn a lot from making mistakes. And if you can get rid of the fear of mistakes and creating a bad drawing, then you can get loose enough to start doing really honest, expressive work. I’m not sure that one’s evolution as an artist/draughtsman ever really ends, you never really get “there,” but I think that this is good way to ride that road.
• Ami's blog.
• Ami's art on Flickr.
• Ami's website.