Rachel Wolf is beyond excited to share this interview with this year's Kate Greenaway Medal winner Sydney Smith, who has generously given an insight into his studio and process. 

A glimpse of Sydney's studio

Can you describe your current studio space?

My studio is a bit of a mess. It is a building on the same property as our house. It's partly a storage space, an exercise gym, and a workspace. I have books stacked on books. I have paint and paper piles and stacks of records. I wish that I was a more organized person but when my mind is busy, and I am in the middle of a creative streak, I surround myself with open books and my surrounding space becomes a tiny bit of chaos.

Illustrations hanging up in Sydney's studio 

What are your favourite art materials?

Currently I use ink, watercolour, gouache and pigment. With each book I try to explore different approaches to illustration. Sometimes that means playing with perspective, and other times it means experimenting with mark-making. I find I place upon myself many rules that are unnecessary. I think many artists and creators assume that their audience expects the same thing, the same style, the same feeling behind all the work. This makes sense. If something works why change it? But I have found that within my own practice I need to change with each project. Sometimes it is noticeable and sometimes it is in microscopic changes that only I can see.

What is your process from initial sketches to final artwork?

My process with creating illustrations is, I think, standard.  Starting with sketches and building up from there.  I have at times thought that I was able to skip the sketching stage and go straight to finals to keep the spontaneous energy to the work, but that just means that there are more stacks of paintings lying around the studio. I tend to devote at least two sketchbooks to a project, filling the first couple of pages with the handwritten text. I will take those sketchbooks with me everywhere. I will break down the text and note any immediate impressions I have. Then it will be a long period of building up reference material. Photos, films, quilts, anything that speaks to the story. I’ve taken pictures of a toilet brush at a restaurant before because I found its pattern inspiring. This stage is the most exciting for me. It’s the wild idea stage.

Who is your favourite children’s book illustrator from your childhood?

My first favourite book was The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide, and illustrated by Edward Gorey. Gorey’s odd compositions and understated gloominess was something that appealed to me. I was a gloomy kid and I guess I still am. 

Your books all have a strong sense of place, what part does going out and observational drawing play in the process?

It has been very important to my process to make sure that I understand the environment in which the story takes place. With enough research and preparatory drawing, the character of the place comes easy to the illustrations. When it is specific to a real location, I have travelled across the country just to know what it feels like to be there. I did this for Town is by the Sea (Ed's note: winner of the 2018 Kate Greenaway Medal).

Town is by the Sea, written by Joanne Schwartz
illustrated by Sydney Smith,
published by Walker Books, 2017

I had finished most of my sketches, and even my editor questioned whether it was necessary, but after I flew to Cape Breton and drove hours through an ice storm, the second I arrived in Glace Bay I knew I had done the right thing. And I knew I had done everything I could for the book. I couldn’t live with myself if I had an impulse to go the distance for a project and then talked myself out of it. There’s nothing more self-empowering than allowing yourself to get carried away and possessed by a project.

I Talk Like A River, written by Jordan Scott,
illustrated by Sydney Smith,
 published by Neal Porter Books, Holiday House, 2020

How much do story boards and dummy books feature in your process?

Story boards and dummies are important to the process but sometimes I wonder if I can get too carried away with the sketches as a way of prolonging the process and avoiding the stress and intensity of creating a final image. Final images can be so intimidating because of their finality. At the beginning everything is so full of potential. You can see everything in so many limitless hues and styles and there is so much freedom. Once the final touches are in place there is a sadness to its limitations.

I have recently been making sketches in a way that if they work well enough, I can use them in the final. It happens sometimes that an image is so honest and raw that the more I work on it the worse it feels. Musicians say the same about recording a song. The more takes the worse it sounds.  

What do you do when you are struggling on a project?

What do I do when I struggle on a project? Or what should I do? Normally when I struggle on a project I dig in deeper. I refuse to surrender and I think that working harder, longer hours will somehow break down whatever it is that is in my way. 

That rarely works and I end up exhausted and defeated. 

What I should do is stop. Walk away. Read a book, listen to music, go for a run, enjoy myself and try and get my head in a better place. When my mind is calm, content and rested I can return to the work and have a renewed excitement. Sometimes just lying down and closing my eyes will help.

What is biggest thing you’ve learnt since your first book?

There have been a few things I have learned from my experience. Many of them I must learn repeatedly. Trusting my instincts and finding time for experimenting are a few. I feel like a major moment for me was when I saw myself as part of greater movement as opposed to an autonomous agent. For many years I measured my success and progress against the work of others. It never felt right, and I knew I wanted to think differently. I knew I wanted to celebrate the work that I saw and not see it as a personal attack. Now I try to think of it like we are on a ship and we all have oars. Together we propel the artform into the future. 

What tips would you give new illustrators?

It is important for new illustrators to use whatever they can to build a reputation for good, reliable work and pleasant working relationships. Talent is useless if you can’t deliver work on time and word spreads fast in the tiny community when someone is extremely unpleasant to work with. There has been work that I thought would bring a lot more attention to my career and there have been books that would be of little interest to anyone that have launched me higher than I could have dreamed. The only reliable constant is that when I work for myself and from my heart the results are always honest and sincere. 

What is next for you, anything exciting you’d like to share?

I have been working on a book for the past year and a half. It is not an easy book to write as it started in a very personal place. It deals with memory and family. It is always in such a state of flux that I couldn’t describe it in a way that would be true tomorrow. 

It is my second book I have written and illustrated, following Small in the City (Ed's note: winner of the 2021 Kate Greenaway Medal), and I have been nervous about following up something that has done well. But after struggling so long with the book I now feel ready to just finish it, be content with it, and move on.

Small in the City, by Sydney Smith,
published by Neal Porter Books, Holiday House 2019


Header image, Sydney Smith at home in his studio


To find out more do check out Sydney's website at and Instagram account @sydneydraws 

Rachel Tilda Wolf is an illustrator who lives and works by the sea in Kent.  She is currently a studying the MA in Children’s Book Illustration in Cambridge. Find her on Instagram @racheltildawolf 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for such a wonderful interview! Fascinating to see how important observational drawing and experimentation are to Sidney Smith's process.


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.