Ami Plasse Captures Energy and Excitement in His Live-Drawn Illustrations

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Attending a music show in Austin, Texas, you might see more than just a band on stage. If you’re lucky, prolific illustrator Ami Plasse will be there too, positioned in the crowd’s first row with his iPad, rapidly sketching what’s in front of him. The New York City transplant is a mainstay in the Austin music scene, making a name for himself as a live illustrator. Corporate events and creative gatherings will also hire Plasse to capture the characters and atmosphere with his (digital) pen, a practice that’s also part performance art, in which he projects what he’s live illustrating during events. His illustration style is frenetic and loose while simultaneously controlled and considerate.

Plasse is fascinated by the energy and tone of a space and is hellbent on harnessing that in his imagery. He and I connected a few weeks back, where we chatted about his creative journey to a unique space within the art world, and his distinct signature style. Early in our Zoom call, I had a hunch Plasse was live-illustrating me as we talked. And I was correct! He followed up afterward with this fun (and flattering) interpretation of me in my messy home office:

Photo courtesy of Ami Plasse

I’ve conducted countless interviews with artists over the years, and this is a first! Our conversation, brought to life in his sketch, is below.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

What’s your origin story as an artist? 

I went to school for illustration at Parsons School of Design. After I graduated in 1995, it was the dawn of commercial digital art and the commercial use of the Internet. During the last year I spent in college, I got really into using interactive media, in addition to doing illustration work, and I learned how to use what was called Macromedia Director, which was a precursor to what was called Flash, and then eventually became what’s called CC Animate, which has become a little bit defunct. It used to be a big tool for creating websites, interactive games and CD ROMs as well. I liked it because I had done a little bit of animation in college, and I could animate in it, use sound, and create interactivity in it. That was exciting to me: taking my art and making it come to life so that people could interact with it.

Right after college, I took a five-hour HTML class and learned everything you needed to know to build websites in 1995. So, in this burgeoning era of interactive media, I started working for little multimedia and interactive firms. Big ad agencies didn’t know how to do any of that stuff, so they’d hire these little companies that worked out of lofts to do all of this exciting work. I found a niche in starting to do that type of work because I had a design and art background, but I also knew how to use some of these tools, which were pretty novel at the time.

I found my way into advertising through interactive digital media. Some ad agencies were starting to add that skill to their teams while everyone else was still doing traditional print, TV, direct mail, and out-of-home. I knew all these tools and built websites, but they liked that I could illustrate, too. Eventually, I went off on my own, and I decided to freelance. This was during the dot-com boom, so there were jobs a-plenty. I did that for six years, but then dot-com went bust, and all that work went away; it just disappeared. So, I started doing apparel design and eventually got into TV animation.

Eventually, I got another full-time job at an agency as an art director. We built a lot of websites—fun, interactive, engaging stuff. We pushed the envelope of what people were doing, which was exciting. My background in animation came in handy because I could use that technology to bring things to life in a cool way. 

Photo courtesy of Ami Plasse

At what point did you introduce sketching the people around you into your art practice? 

I started drawing people on the subway in the ’90s, and then, in the mid to late 2000s, it became an obsession of mine. I’d carry these little Moleskine sketchbooks around, and since I lived in Brooklyn but worked in Manhattan, I’d be on the train for 20 to 30 minutes every day. This is before your phone worked on the train, so while most people would be zoning out, sleeping, or reading, I thought, look at all these amazing people around me! So I started sketching. 

While most people would be zoning out or sleeping or reading, I thought, look at all of these amazing people around me! So I started sketching. 

It taught me a new approach to drawing. When you’re on the subway, the subway is moving; sometimes, you’re cramped, and people are moving on and off in front of you, so you have to draw quickly. I’d look around the car and say, Oh, this is interesting, and zone in on something. I’d quickly capture the essence of what I saw and then add other details instead of doing a slow, meticulous rendering, which didn’t work in that environment. I’d been an illustrator before, but this was when I started drawing from life in an expressive, capture-things-quickly kind of style. 

Were these subway sketches purely personal, or did you share them with the public in any way? 

I created a blog because I wanted people to see the subway in a different way. Nobody ever thought anything good or interesting about the subway, it was always this blight that we had to deal with. But here I was, highlighting all the interesting things and people that you can come across on the train, and the tapestry of cultures that all came together for 20 minutes in these little sardine cans under the ground.

Here I was, highlighting all the interesting things and people that you can come across on the train, and the tapestry of cultures that all came together for 20 minutes in these little sardine cans under the ground.

How did the public receive these sketches back then? I could see a modern-day Instagram account posting daily sketches of people on the NYC subway being a big hit.

It had a decent following. I wouldn’t say I blew up, but I got some people’s attention and write-ups. This guy made a short documentary about me, and then in 2012, I published a little book of 80 of my thousands of drawings. That was fun! I didn’t get famous from it, but I made some inroads and some people saw it and appreciated it. 

At what point did you move to Austin, and how did that affect your art practice? 

Around 2011, I was getting sick of what was happening in New York, and it was a difficult place to live with three little kids. My ex-wife was also ready to leave (she worked in technology, too). So, I managed to get a job in Austin. There’s a train there (sort of), but I wouldn’t take it; I drove everywhere. But I was kind of addicted to drawing things like that now, so I started going to see a lot of music; the music scene here is very accessible. I thought, well, this is where I’m going to start drawing because this is where the energy is here.

I started going to see a lot of music; the music scene here is very accessible. I was like, well, this is where I’m going to start drawing, because that’s where the energy was here.

I started going to festivals and discovering bands. What was cool about drawing in Austin, unlike New York, was that I could access that community. When I drew people in New York on a train, I drew them, and then they were gone, and I never saw them again. Here, I draw people, I tag them, they see me drawing, and I get to know a community and interface with them.

When drawing someone, what features or details do you typically focus on to characterize them visually?

Whatever calls to me when I look at them. A lot of times, it’s a gesture. Starting with a gesture, an expression it’s the energy and movement of things as opposed to more static details. Whatever a person’s energy is, that’s what I pick up on.

When sketching a band, I’ll try to figure out what’s drawing me in and start there. I call it “gonzo drawing”— the idea of being immersed in the subject matter. There’s a lot of motion in the crowd and many things happening, and I try to reflect that in the drawing. So, the drawing isn’t a perfectly still representation or an aloof observer. It’s from the point of view of where I am, which is generally surrounded by people.

This style is about not trying to overly intellectualize the composition, it’s more about what you feel.

I’ll hone in on a particular point, which sometimes differs from what you’d expect. Sometimes, there’s someone who’s really interesting on stage, the most dynamic in some way. There are just certain things that compel me. I like to focus on little details, like how the bass player holds their hands or the way the singer holds the microphone. This style is not about trying to overly intellectualize the composition; it’s more about what you feel. Outside of it being instinctual, it’s an expression of what I see and feel at the moment.

Photo courtesy of Ami Plasse

You often illustrate on your iPad. How is that drawing experience different from using paper?

When I draw on the iPad, I create more compositions. When I draw on paper, even though instinctually I’ll draw a composition, I’m completely flying by the seat of my pants. When I use the iPad, I’ll throw a lot of things down, but then I’ll move them around and almost create a composition out of them. 

The iPad is also much faster. I can immediately get things down. Obviously, I can’t carry around big tubes of gouache in the middle of a crowd. With the iPad, I have all the tools. When I have a little more time or space, I like to bring watercolor, markers, or sometimes gouache so that I can paint what’s going on.

Photo by Jaime Guerrero

Another element of your practice is a sort of performance art: projecting your iPad screen as you live draw at concerts, shows, and events. How did this come about? 

Austin Design Week invited me to be part of the projection show in 2017, and I created a reel of all the animations I did to live music. They had it run on the wall; I loved that vibe and having something come to life. I love bringing my stuff to life in real space, and that was an amazing way to do that. When I got the iPad, I could hook it up to a projector or any type of display. I started by drawing some conferences and meetings that way, and people were excited about it. People like the drawings on their own, but when they see them come to life in real-time, it really excites them. 

Photo by Elizabeth Silva 

Then, a couple of years ago, I was invited to a jazz dance performance, and they wanted me to paint on stage. I told them I thought it’d be really cool if I drew with my iPad and projected it. The dance performance had a bunch of different vignettes, so I drew them when they were performing. Then, in between, for the segways, I’d re-project what I just did and run the time-lapse so it became part of the performance.

Photo courtesy of Ami Plasse
Photo courtesy of Ami Plasse

Are most of your subjects appreciative and flattered that you’ve drawn them?

People really like it, bands especially. I get a lot of good feedback; it’s something different. I’m not the only person who live sketches, but there are not many of us, so it’s novel, especially when it happens in real time. That’s what I love about it; there’s a place and time and being out in the world, I feel really connected to the bands.

I hate going to arena shows; I find them super uninteresting because I like to be as close as possible to draw. That’s why I like going to small clubs, where I can be five or ten feet away. It’s harder to connect with the artist when you’re far away. A lot of times you see a side of someone when they’re on stage performing that’s really genuine, that’s harder to capture when you’re just talking to them; it’s inspiring to me.