— Illostribute

Interview with Sara Tyson

Our second interview here at illostribute features the talented Canadian illustrator Sara Tyson. Ms. Tyson began her career more than 25 years ago after completing her studies at the Ontario College of Art. Sara’s work has been recognized by Applied Arts Magazine, the Canadian Business Press, Society of Illustrators and 3×3 Magazine.

Tell us something about your background and how has this influenced you as an illustrator?

I grew up in Oshawa, Ontario. I had a natural talent for drawing. My high school art teacher encouraged me to prepare a portfolio for the Ontario College of Art (OCAD) in Toronto.

Did you draw as a child?

With great diligence. I remember my first serious charcoal drawing that I did when I was about ten years old. It was a landscape.

You studied at the Ontario College of Art. What were your areas of concentration? Was your school experience a positive one?

Illustration was my main focus with some design, photography and fine art courses thrown into the mix. All I really knew was that I loved to draw. Technique was taught, but very little about the business of illustration. That was thirty years ago. I am sure it has changed enormously since then.

At what point did you decide to pursue illustration as a career?

I have had a tumultuous relationship with my illustration career. I worked as a freelance paste-up artist in the 80’s while I was still young and learning about illustration. In the 90’s, I worked full time as a magazine designer and was introduced to the computer. This pulled me away from illustrating, but in the long run I learned a lot about the business that has enhanced my illustration.

Do you consider yourself an illustrator or graphic designer? Do these labels even matter?

Both. Yes. They are two distinctive lines of work for me.

Describe your work. How has your experience working in graphic design influenced the way you construct your images?

Working as a designer has increased my understanding of the function of illustration in communication arts. It has been a great asset. My composition has improved since. My figures occupy a highly organized space. I am always looking at my illustrations as if they were an abstract piece of art, always balancing color, tone, contrast, weight and shape.

You’re inspired by early Christian and Byzantine art, what is the attraction for you?

The figures possess very rigid facial expressions, which evoke a sense of tension. There is a great power and immediacy. To me, every gesture speaks loudly. Compositions are flat and hieratic with no systematic use of perspective, which creates odd scales and frames of reference. I find that this environment lends itself to storytelling.

Has Cubism influence you in any way?

Studying Cubist paintings and drawings encourages me to simplify my work, even though I do not achieve any fragmented viewpoints. I recently found the opportunity in an illustration to emulate the Cubist style in this still life.

Describe your creative process. Do you work digitally?

My concept is usually thought out first. Although there are times when the concept evolves through the sketching phase. It is important to me that my drawing is fully resolved before I begin to paint. I abstract, simplify and relate lines as much as possible. The juxtaposition of shapes and imagery is essential. Proportions (e.g. size of a face compared to a body or other elements) also tell a story. My approach to color is very intuitive. I usually start with a monochromatic base and start layering. I prefer to let the painting guide me from there. I paint using acrylic on illustration board. I would love to take the time to find a digital solution to my work in the near future.

How long did it take you to develop your method?

A few decades.

What are your feelings concerning the evolution of style? Do you feel there is one distinct aspect of your work that will remain constant?

I feel that I am always evolving. Constants? An angular drawing style. Perhaps.

Do you have a favorite part of the image-making process? And if so, why?

I always look forward to the next job and the promise of progress, of being able to push my work in many different ways. I love the beginning…and the end…the pleasure of putting the icing on the cake. I often meet with arduousness somewhere in-between.

Do you keep a sketchbook? If so, do you draw from life or is it more of an escape, with no set boundaries or concept?

No I don’t. I am not sure why. I doodle in abstract forms.

If you could have complete artistic and editorial control, what would be your ultimate illustration project?

A children’s book. Full of characters. Full of costume. Opera.

What is a typical day like for you? Is there a specific time during the day when you feel you do your best work?

I like to be at my computer by 8 a.m. I do a lot of juggling with my regular design clients and the illustration. I am not sure whether I am fitting an illustration into my graphic design schedule or vice versa. An attempt at some yoga or a short run always helps my state of mind.

Do you keep a tidy studio?

Yes. I live in a small house. Everything has a place.

Are you an early-morning riser or do you stay up late?

I now try to keep a 9-5 schedule unless a deadline dictates. I used to burn the midnight oil when I was younger. The early hours of the morning held some promise of magic for me. I like to sleep now.

Do you have a favorite artist or illustrator (or several)? How have they specifically influenced your work?

20th century…Pablo Picasso, Lyonel Feninger, Henry Moore, Diego Rivera, Ben Shahn, Georgia O’Keefe, Francis Bacon…just to name a few. Illustrators that I admire…Blair Drawson, Joe Salina, Anita Kunz, Pol Turgeon, Sue Coe, Douglas Fraser, Philippe Lardy, Olaf Hajek, Janet Woolley, Rick Sealock, Joe Morse, Andrea Ventura, Henrik Drescher, Jody Hewgill, Sandra Dionisi, Brad Yeo…and so many more. There may not be a common thread to follow, but each of them shine for me in various ways. Draftsmanship, conceptual style, use of color, humor, etc…

What are you interested in outside of illustration? Do these interests inform your work in any direct way?

I love architecture, film, fine art. I appreciate great design in the objects and buildings that surround us. I also love to cook, to swim and canoe. I love cities. I see the world around me as an abstract composition.

Do you listen to music when you work? What’s your favorite genre? What are you listening to now?

Jazz or classical. But silence works for me as well. Rock. I can’t get enough of Hawksley Workman. Right now I am listening to Jian Ghomeshi on Q, a daily talk show on CBC Radio One.

What is your impression of the illustration industry today?

The prices paid to illustrators have not increased in 30 years. That is unfortunate. There is so much talent out there. I hope there is room for all of us. I am still looking to find a place.

The line that once separated graphic design, illustration and fine art continue to disappear. What is your opinion concerning this (relatively) current development?

I like clarity. Illustration is an applied art. It’s primary function is to elucidate a story or idea. Although, the lines can get blurry. There are many illustrations that can rise above their practical application.

Do you have any new or recent projects you’d like to tell us about?

I was commissioned to illustrate Wilfred Laurier as part of the Extraordinary Canadian series published by Penguin Group Canada. Twenty of Canada’s most influential historical figures written by eighteen of Canada’s most brilliant contemporary writers. A different illustrator illustrated each book cover. I painted the portrait back in 2009, but the book was just recently published. I am honored to have participated in this project. To find out more, please visit the project’s website at www.extraordinarycanadians.com.

Thank you for taking the time to do this interview and participating in illostribute. I appreciate your contribution and support so very much, as well as the inspiration your work provides.

To view more of Sara’s work, visit her website at www.saratyson.com or ispot.com for stock images. All images © Sara Tyson.

Toby Thane Neighbors for illostribute.com

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