Sydney Smith – Illustrator Interview

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I am reviewing Town by the Sea on Friday, and I think the illustrations are some of the most breathtaking I have seen this year in a picture book. I have been a fan of Sydney’s since I saw his art work in Sidewalk Flowers, so I thought I’d friend him on FB and reach out for an interview. Illustrators are super friendly, and he of course said, yes! So enjoy.

It also made me realize how remiss I have been in interviewing Canadians. Syd is only my third Canadian interviewee, so I need to work on that!


[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator?  If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?       

[SS]  I have recently started writing more seriously. Part of me feels like I haven’t earned the right to call myself a writer, but I also believe that for it to become a reality, I must own it. So, author/illustrator it is.

I have found that starting with images works better for me. I am easily excited by sketches and have practice in seeing the worth of rough visual ideas but with words I am a bit lost. Hopefully that changes when I get more comfortable with writing.

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?  

[SS] I am from the south shore of Nova Scotia. That has directly influenced my work with Town is by the Sea. It’s hard to say how the places influence my work. I would say the people influenced my work. I moved around a lot when I was a kid and there have been so many people who have been supportive and encouraging that pushed me deeper into being creative. There have also been times in places where I had no friends and being creative was my escape. The lonely moments are when painted and drew the most but it was from the happy times that I drew.

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

[SS] I started drawing a lot in the fourth grade. My friends and I would draw super heroes and monsters. I was encouraged by a few adult artists I knew to try painting and they loaned me their paints. As I grew older it became the thing I did to pass the time or escape. I always thought I would be a fine artist but when I was in University I realized that children’s illustration suited me better. There are less restrictions and it can deal with things that anyone can relate to. Not just children.

I sent a portfolio to Nimbus Publishing (a publisher in Halifax, Nova Scotia), illustrated six books for them including picture books for Sheree Fitch and then moved to Toronto because my wife was doing her masters in early childhood education. It was then that I started working with Groundwood.

Over the years I have tried different styles of illustration. I’ve found that each project demands a different approach. If I repeat myself too much I get bored. I need to take a risk and work in a way that is new to me.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two for us, maybe from a work in progress, and the process of creating them?

[SS] Here is a sample of an illustration from Smoot, a book written by Michelle Cuevas, published by Dial Books and released in the fall of 2017. I start with the ink drawing. The Pentel pocket brush pen works for me most of the time. I’ve even modified it a little by cutting it in half to get a finer line. After the ink dries I can apply a wash over top of that to act as an undercoat for the paint the comes next. I will just build it up slowly, adding details here and there. The buildings I used in Smoot were directly inspired buy our trip to Italy last year.

[JM] Oh, I can feel the Italian influence here. Which book do you remember buying with your own money as a kid?

[SS] I bought as many Calvin and Hobbes books I could. Also, John Bellairs books were popular among my friends. I’m not sure if I would’ve liked them as much as if Edward Gorey weren’t the illustrator. Edward Gorey also illustrated The Shrinking of Treehorn, my favourite picture book from when I was little. Comic books were where most of my allowance went. Spider-man, Batman, Fantastic Four.

[JM] I’m a huge C and H fan! What does your work space look like? 

[SS] I just moved my work space to my home. It’s a little disorganized right now but at least it has natural light. The last space was in a basement.

[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your home? 

 [SS] I actually don’t have much artwork hanging my home right now. We are in the process of moving. But I’m trying to be more proactive about trading with other artists so I can have more art on my walls. I can’t stand having my own work up. It’s like hearing myself on an answering machine.


[JM] Tell us about the process of collaborating as the illustrator on the wonderful wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson?

[SS] First, I received a manuscript from Sheila Barry at Groundwood for a wordless story. I didn’t meet JonArno until later, when the illustrations were almost complete.

I think I was having the best year of my life when I was working on that book. I had only just moved to Toronto and it was my first book with Groundwood. Everytime I went to visit them in their office on Spadina it was unreal. They were incredibly supportive and encouraging. If I visited them in the morning I couldn’t get anything done for the rest of the day. I felt like I had already accomplished so much.

Everything worked out perfectly for that book. I was in the right place mentally and in my career, and by chance I had moved to Toronto at the beginning stages of the book. And it allowed me a chance to explore and take in all that was interesting and beautiful in the big city.

JonArno’s story was beautifully crafted so I tried my hardest to bring my best to him and Groundwood. 

[JM] In Town Is By The Sea, you have a poignant wordless four-panel spread that shows the afternoon light moving across the boards of the kitchen floor as the family waits for the father to return. How often do you include wordless spreads when you are illustrating someone else’s text?

[SS] That spread was a last-minute addition but as the visual story emerged we saw that the tension needed a moment. Through the images you see that the tunnel the father was mining in has fallen in. There is a risk that the father is hurt or worse. The next page originally went directly into the father returning home for supper. Since the visuals built up this alternative narrative and conflict, they needed to wait a moment to sit in that nervousness. A pause in the story can highlight an emotion or allow the reader a chance to absorb the significance of the moment.

It is something I like to do if it’s necessary.  The awesome Sheila Barry and Michael Solomon from Groundwood both agreed that it was appropriate for the pacing of the story.

Similarly, in the White Cat and the Monk the story starts wordlessly and there are moments of quiet pictures that expand on the themes of the text.

Five Fun Ones to Finish?
[JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world? 

[SS] That’s tough. Joshua Tree. The photo is of me at a look out, with the Mojave desert behind me.

[JM] Cats or dogs? 

[SS] Cats. Our cat Peanut Butter is found in the background of almost all my books.

Fact that most people don’t know about you?

[SS] I did capoeira for seven years. Capoeira is an acrobatic martial art form from Brazil.

[JM] I did it once. It is an amazing workout! What was your first paid job out of high school?

[SS] I worked in a Michelin Tire plant for a few summers. Loved it and hated it.

[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

[SS] Coffee and blueberry muffins. But a good muffin. I can’t stand a muffin with only three berries in it. I just shake my head at that thought.

Find out more about Syndey’s work here:

@Sydneydraws, instagram:

@sydneydraws and tumblr:



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3 Responses to Sydney Smith – Illustrator Interview

  1. I love this interview: fellow Canadian, traditional (ink) art, pets named “Peanut Butter” (I had a hamster named Peanut Butter…and another named Vanilla Twinkie)! Plus, I absolutely adored the book The White Cat and the Monk. Thanks for this fun interview!

  2. Joanna says:

    Thanks, Teresa, I loved getting to know Sydney and his work a little more through this chat.

    His Peanut Butter looks a total sweetie!

  3. What a great interview with Sydney. I was really intrigued about his discussion of pacing and building tension in the story through illustrations. I look forward to your review of his book on Friday!

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