Four Things Artists Can Learn From Pamela Colman Smith

A sketch of Pamela Colman Smith [loosely-based on an old photo from circa 1912 (photographer unknown)]

A sketch of Pamela Colman Smith [loosely-based on an old photo from circa 1912 (photographer unknown)]

Although she is most famous as the artist who illustrated the 1911 Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck, Pamela Colman Smith is an absolutely fascinating and inspirational artist in her own right. Apart from a biography on Wikipedia and similar information on a few other websites (such as this one, this article also contains a collection of links to some of her rarer illustrations too), there seems to be relatively little information about Smith online when compared to other famous artists from this period of history. But, what I have read is absolutely fascinating.

Born in London in 1878 to an American father and a Jamaican mother, Pamela Coleman Smith seems to have travelled a lot in her early life. She also studied art for four years at the Pratt Institute in New York when she was fifteen and spent several years working with a travelling theatre company afterwards. Apparently, one of her cousins was the actor William Gillette (who was the first person to portray Sherlock Holmes on the stage) too.

Between about 1899 and 1918 (before she retired to Cornwall), Smith seems to have led an extremely fascinating, creative and bohemian life in London where she met (and occasionally did illustration work for) a whole host of writers and poets such as Bram Stoker and W.B. Yeats.

In addition to this, she was also involved with the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn – an occult group which Aleister Crowley also joined for a few years (although I haven’t been able to find out whether they ever met each other or not). I also read somewhere on the internet that she apparently spent a while living in an apartment where she painted the walls black and hung orange curtains over the windows – now that sounds like a cool place to live!

Smith mostly tended to work with ink and watercolours and she has her own very distinctive drawing style which is both minimalist and fantastical in a vaguely otherworldly way at the same time (such as in this amazing painting titled “Sea Creatures“). Smith’s art also has a certain timeless quality about it too and it somehow manages to look both very old-fashioned and yet strangely modern at the same time.

So, what can we learn from Pamela Colman Smith?

1) Simplicity and distinctiveness: Many of the Pamela Coleman Smith drawings and paintings I’ve seen tend to use fairly simple lines to create stunning landscapes and people. Whilst some of Smith’s art for the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck contains some fairly intricate patterns, many of the drawings in it are both complicated and fairly minimalist at the same time. As I said in my article about drawing simple lines , this type of style allows the audience’s imaginations to “fill in the gaps” whilst still giving a general impression of what is happening in the picture.

Not only that, using a more simple style allows your drawings to “stand out” a lot more and have a lot more dramatic impact than more complex and “realistic” drawings do.

In addition to this, Pamela Coleman Smith also developed her own fairly unique drawing style, which is something that I believe all artists should try to do throughout the course of their creative careers. Her style is easily recognisable at a glance and it stands out very well.

2) Music and Creativity: According to a few articles I’ve read (such as this excellent article), one of Smith’s major sources of creative inspiration was music. Apparently, she used to listen to classical music whilst she was painting or drawing and she allowed the music to influence what she painted.

Whilst some artists prefer to create in silence and some, like myself, just tend to listen to music as “background noise” whilst drawing (or as something to evoke particular emotions). The idea of actually using music as a source of inspiration in and of itself is certainly an interesting one which may be worth exploring or experimenting with if you are ever short of inspiration.

3) Creative Honesty: Like all great artists and writers, Smith followed her own interests and fascinations when she created things. Although quite a lot of her work seems to have been commissioned illustrations for writers and poets, they still give the audience a clear view into the vivid and fantastical world of her imagination.

In addition to this, she wrote and illustrated a book of Jamaican folk tales called “Annancy Tales” which are about an African spider-god called Anansi (he also makes an appearance in Neil Gaiman’s excellent “American Gods” too – although I haven’t really read “Anansi Boys” yet). Apparently, Smith learnt these tales from her mother when she was young and they were obviously fascinating enough for Smith to want to write about them many years later.

In addition to this, Smith’s most famous work – the illustrations for the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck – came about due to her membership in the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn and, by extension, her fascination with the occult.

In other words, when it came to art and writing, Smith focused on the things which really meant something to her. She drew and painted the most fascinating parts of her imagination and she wrote the stories which both fascinated her and meant enough to her to linger in her imagination for many years.

So, when it comes to creating things, be sure to focus on the things which either fascinate you or which really mean something to you.

4) A Creative Life: If there’s one thing which can be said about Pamela Colman Smith, it is that most of her life was focused on creativity in some way or another and it’s clear that this was one of the central passions in her life. In other words, she didn’t just dabble in painting or drawing once in a blue moon. Likewise, for Smith, art seems to have been a major interest for most of her life (especially given that she started studying art when she was fifteen).

If you’re an artist, then I guess that you’ve probably been interested in making art for most of your life (even if your other interests were more compelling) and you probably already know the fascinating and almost spiritual quality which comes with creating things and you probably know that creativity is more of a vocation than anything else. But, even if you’re new to art, then it’s important to practice regularly and take your own creative career as an artist seriously.

Whilst we might not all be lucky enough to hang out with lots of famous writers and poets (and, yes, I am slightly jealous), the fact is that Smith was often surrounded by interesting people and creativity. And, if this is possible for you, then I can’t recommend it enough.

But, if this isn’t possible, then you can still surround yourself with creativity by looking at art regularly, creating art regularly (practice makes perfect, as the old saying goes) and reading a lot about any artists who interest you.


Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂

2 comments on “Four Things Artists Can Learn From Pamela Colman Smith

  1. […] Find Your Inspiration“ – “Five Tips For Writing A Good Zombie Story“ – “Four Things Artists Can Learn From Pamela Colman Smith“ – “Some Random Thoughts On Self-Censorship And Creative Blocks“ – “Using […]

  2. […] This is a little sketch of the late 19th century/early-mid 20th century artist Pamela Colman Smith (she illustrated the most famous type of Tarot deck) which accompanies an article I wrote last year. […]

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