Hi Sydney! Tell us a little more about you.
Hey! I’m an artist from Toronto who started with a sketchbook and I’ve been drawing ever since. I’ve worked in a lot of different positions internationally, and I consider myself pretty multifaceted. My degree’s in graphic design but I often find myself working on every kind of project, from editorial work to storyboarding to photography. I’ve worked with outlets such as Thump and Beatport, and am currently working with musicians like Ducky and Selfish Things. Most recently I’ve been doing a lot experimental storytelling, writing a few original ‘comics’ (for lack of a better term), and organizing a show of my work. My most recent personal work is my comic I’m Angry All The Time, which I’m continuing with a sequel in the near future.
As an artist and designer, what drew you to the music industry?
When I draw I always need the perfect song playing, the perfect playlist — sometimes my mood can turn on a dime and I have to capture the feeling of a song right there and then. It could be a sound or a lyric but I always advise those viewing my art to experience it both with and without the context of its soundtrack to get the whole experience of my work.
As an artist I’ve always been obsessed with multimedia experiences. Maybe it’s a result of playing so many video games growing up; to me, they’re one of the ultimate expressions of many art forms coming together to create unforgettable experiences for their players. As I got older and started going to electronic shows (in no small part influenced by listening to video game soundtracks endlessly as a teen), I found myself encountering similar experiences to those I’d only found in games: art working in perfect harmony to create new meanings. Album art is part of this, identity is part of this, show visuals are a part of this. I fell in love with that indescribable feeling. I knew that by working in music I could realize my talent for marrying art forms together, becoming something bigger than the sum of their parts.
You've produced work for a number of clients, including AT&T and an ongoing collaboration with Ducky. When starting a project, how do you begin the collaboration process, in order to find the root of what the client is hoping for?
A big part of this is simply cultivating good communications skills. A lot of times when I’m approached by a new client, they know that they need a brand or a cover and aren’t sure what they’d actually like to have visually representing their work. My favourite thing to do with new clients is have a chat with them over the phone about what their music means to them. I find this is where a lot of designers end up fumbling the tablet pen (so to speak). It is essential to anyone collaborating with each other to be on the same page, especially with aesthetics in something as emotionally charged as music. If you’re not intimately acquainted with your client, their look and their needs, your end result is always going to come out sub par.
After the initial conversation I like to have my clients write me an email with a larger selection of their music so that I can get a feel for their sound. I also get them to curate a selection of images that they personally like, not necessarily what they think their sound should look like. Oftentimes, this creates a more accurate window into their true aesthetic preferences than anything else. Lastly, I brainstorm with them to create a set of 1-5 ‘keywords’ that serve as touchstones for us both to refer to just incase anything gets muddled in translation.
In the end, the most important thing for me is keeping a dialogue open between yourself and your collaborator. It keeps you honest. Half of your job as a designer is parsing visual language for your client. If you can summarize your ideas in a way that everyone can understand and appreciate, then it’s far easier to create a zone of constructive criticism. You’re not going to get a better end result if you’re intimidated by your client. You have nothing to be scared of! If you conduct yourself professionally, your iterations on designs will be key to your success. Trust me, I’m the most externally chill, existentially anxious person around.
Do you have any sources of creative inspiration that might surprise people?
Of course! Any artist worth their salt carries their entire life experience in what they do. I’ve talked about my adoration of video games a multitude of times. To this day I still believe they are an under-appreciated storytelling format. Most recently I’m realizing so much of my art style/storytelling preferences are heavily influenced by Japanese RPGs, which is a trend you’re seeing more and more in electronic music as well. You’re getting the same thing with Japanese animation becoming slowly more legitimized in the art world
I personally have been an avid ballet dancer for 23 years. Whenever I’m feeling stuck in something I’m doing, going to a dance class helps clear my head. The expression of music through the physicality of movement reminds me of my own goals in art. Going to the ballet is one of my favourite things to do and any performances by the National Ballet of Canada (especially to Tchaikovsky! He’s so dramatic just like myself) hold a special place in my heart.
I think that’s a big problem in the art world; it’s really easy to get caught up in your own industry bubble. Just like the music world, the design and art world is a far smaller place than it appears to be. It can extremely quickly turn into an echo chamber of art being based off of other, derivative art; event after event of illustrators lamenting how hard art is (I mean, it’s true, but that’s not the point here). Art is at its most powerful when it carries the passion you have for everything else in your life into itself. Do you protest? Do you knit? Do you love going running, or travelling, or collecting silver dollars? Boom, there you go. I mean, look at it this way — the most popular anime of last season was based on an animator who just really, really, really loves professional figure skating. Bring your love into your art and the world will always benefit.
Walk me through your creative process.
The best starting point for me is twofold: experimentation, and research. I usually start by loosely sketching and compiling ideas and compositions as fast as possible. If I get stuck on the computer end of things, I go to physical mediums, and vice versa. If I’m struggling with concepts or compositions I like to reference back to folders I make full of inspiring images. I have it organized fairly neatly, full of everything from a landscape I like the lighting of to an interesting pose to use as a reference photo to some art I love the line quality of. If I don’t know enough about the topic I’m working on — research it! For example, I’m drawing a comic on figure skating right now, so I have folders and folders of video performances, still shots, and reference photos of everything from jumps to how skates are constructed.
After that point my process usually gets me a few sketches which I clean up on my computer, then ink and finally colour. If it’s a design such as a logo, I make a couple of options and try to iterate on past designs as much as I can. An idea is nothing unless it’s pushed as far as it can go, or else it’s all just unrealized potential.
Ideas can come to you all at once, it’s true, but anybody who says that an idea isn’t improved upon by editing is an awful liar. Every single good idea I’ve had has started as either a bad one, or after long awful strings of bad ones. Refinement and editing are the best tools an artist has in their arsenal, and being able to look critically at your own work is a learned skill.
What advice would you give to other freelance artists interested in working with musicians?
My best piece of advice to an artist trying to work in this industry is this: learn how to value yourself. You are a working professional, and any musician worth their salt will know that their image is one of the first points of contact between themselves and a potential listener. Just like an artist who sends away their music for mastering, or trusts a label to license their tracks, or has a PR agent for promotion, you provide a valuable service in the music industry. You have to respect your own time and theirs by making sure that you know not only the artistic process, but everything that surrounds it. Learn how to write your own contracts. Keep your paperwork in order. Make sure you have an email in place for explaining to clients how you work with them and exactly what they’re getting for their money. Read up on copyright laws and licensing for your own work. And if absolutely nothing else, charge a fee that matches the value of your work! There are a lot of people who will work for free out there, and the key difference is that you’re offering professionalism, responsiveness, and a high quality of service to your client. Respect is a two way street.
Other than that — know when you’re being taken advantage of. Set up boundaries around your work, when you can be contacted, and agree on reasonable deadlines. Just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean that you’re any less valuable as a part of a team. Work with others how you want to be worked with. Keep going! You’ve got this. Trust me.
Connect with Sydney on Twitter and Instagram.
Words: Staley Sharples