May 9, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #24: Sydney Smith

It's safe to say Canadian illustrator Sydney Smith knows what he's doing. He has earned multiple awards and accolades for his work, many of which he received recently for his 2015 picture book Sidewalk Flowers, written by JonArno Lawson, and his 2016 book The White Cat and the Monk, written by Jo Ellen Bogart. Given that The White Cat and the Monk is one of my favorite picture books, I was filled with awe when I read his newest picture book Town Is by the Sea, written by Joanne Schwartz. Let's not waste another minute.


About the book:
A young boy wakes up to the sound of the sea, visits his grandfather's grave after lunch and comes home to a simple family dinner, but all the while his mind strays to his father digging for coal deep down under the sea.

Let's talk Sydney Smith!


LTPB: In your newest picture book Town Is by the Sea, you illustrate a pretty difficult topic: life in the mining towns of Cape Breton during the late 1800s and early 1900s. How did you work to keep your illustrations accessible for children but true to the haunting nature of the text?

SS: Within reason, I try to forget that I am writing for kids. I have found that labelling an audience automatically limits the reaches of the work. I don’t suggest that you forget to be responsible and considerate, but by saying, “This is for kids” it comes with limiting and potentially patronizing tones. I get mixed up, confused and put the cart before the horse sometimes when I start thinking about who the audience is. Instead I try to write for myself, present day and past.

Original cover sketch




I was/am a sensitive kid that could get lost and distracted in subtleties and details. I grew up on the East coast not far from Cape Breton so the task of capturing an honest portrayal of growing up in a small working town was exciting for me. I wanted to succeed in a few things: I wanted to capture the beauty of the area, and I also wanted to respect the character of the boy as being complicated and unique, as well as being universal enough for readers to relate to the story despite its regional nature.



LTPB: You’ve worked on almost ten books since your 2010 debut Mable Murple. How has your process changed in the last seven years? How do you approach new projects? What have you learned?

SS: Mabel Murple remains one of my more popular books, but that is because of Sheree Fitch’s playful text. I was very lucky to have been invited to work with her. In the past ten years I have discovered a lot about myself and my process. I realized that I needed to educate myself more on the very thing I was attempting to do. So, I set to work gathering outstanding books from everywhere and anytime. I’m nowhere close to being caught up but at least now I know I have favorites and where to find my inspiration.


I suppose I take the text seriously these days. I allow myself to get carried away and invest all my time. I understand more about the dynamics between the images and text, visual literacy, pacing, and the role illustrations have in telling a story. I have learned that there are ways of storytelling that I gravitate toward, and that only comes with the experience of taking on different stories and approaching them all differently.

Draft 1

Final illustrations

Final spread

To various degrees I tend to treat each project depending on the tone of the text, and where my interest lies at the time. I need excitement to fuel the work, and that only comes if I’m trying some new or taking some sort of risk.

LTPB: What media do you use to create your illustrations, and why?

SS: I use a brush pen and water colour for most of my illustrations these days. Sometimes the art will require a hint of colour here or there that I will add in photoshop but I try to do that without it being obvious.



I find the brush the most rewarding. It's portable and expressive, but I’m a nervous person, and the brush doesn’t come naturally to me. The only way I can use the brush properly is to be relaxed and confident otherwise the lines are too controlled, they don’t flow properly and it looks like garbage. The brush teaches me to be more calm and trust in my myself.




LTPB: What can we look forward to next from you? Any chance you'll write a book soon?

SS: I just finished a book for Dial Books for Young Readers written by Michelle Cuevas, called Smoot. It’s about a boy and his rebellious shadow. It was very fun to work on. Last year my wife and I took a trip to Italy for the Bologna book fair while I was in the beginning stages of Smoot. I was so inspired I knew I had to work it into the story. So, the book features many tile roof houses and cobblestone streets. I was also watching a lot of older European films at the time and was captured by the clash of the classic versus the modern.


I’ve started working on some stories of my own, but they are in such early stages that anything I show you would not make sense. I’m not sure if I have made any sense of them yet. 

LTPB: Last question! If you choose someone to illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why?

SS: I’ve been on a Felix Hoffmann kick lately. It was tradition in my family that on every Christmas Eve my father or mother would read us kids The Story of Christmas by Hoffmann. The story always gave me weird feelings, like most things from childhood, and recently I’ve found a lot more from him. The Sleeping Beauty and Tom Thumb are the most beautiful, and I’m fascinated by the pre-separated colours, an approach to printing that isn’t as popular anymore. Edward Gorey illustrated The Shrinking of Treehorn, my favorite book from when I was younger, but I think he would be too obvious an answer. I have my jacket on and my boots laced up, ready to visit the Osbourne Collection, the picture book archive here in Toronto, to explore their collection of Gorey’s books. I have a good feeling about it. Wish me luck!

I can't imagine he needs it, but good luck to Sydney on his visit to the Osbourne Collection! A huge thank you to him for stopping by to talk about Town Is by the Sea, which published in April from Groundwood Books. 

Special thanks to Sydney Smith and Groundwood Books for use of these images, and for a peek underneath the dust jacket, click here!