Collective Arts Brewing’s Taste for Art-Labeled Craft Beer

By James Ambroff-Tahan

The concept behind Collective Arts Brewing, a brewery based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, began fermenting after sales and marketing executive Matt Johnston brought his employer’s beer company business to Bob Russell’s consulting firm. The two, who both specialized in marketing for breweries, got along very well, and this relationship ultimately led to the shared idea of launching their own craft brewery—one where “creativity fosters creativity” and “creativity yields delicious pints.” The pair developed their idea over a period of four months, but they acted upon it only after a fateful phone call in November 2011.

“He [Johnston] knew that he didn’t want to be at Moosehead forever, and I had been basically unemployed in my own consulting practice. We started working on ideas, and I think that it all came back to a visual I showed him of six bottles in a row with different pieces of art on them,” Russell now says about the concept he initially shared with Johnston. “And then about four years ago last November, Matt called me and said, ‘How serious are you about doing this idea?’ I replied that I was very serious, and he said, ‘Good, because I quit my job today.’”

Every four months, Collective Arts Brewing invites artists to submit work to grace the company's beer cans and bottles. The most recent competition produced 68 winners out of more than 2,000 entrants from around the world.  

After overcoming key operational obstacles and raising money from investors, the partners officially launched Collective Arts Brewing—whose beer bottles and cans feature labels based on limited-edition works of art—in September 2013. Every four months, the company announces competitions and collects submissions; then a panel of experts chooses which images will grace the company’s beer bottles and cans. Once the winning artists are announced, the company pays each a fee; then the chosen artworks for each label series are assembled in Adobe InDesign CC templates and sent to the printer.

There were 600 entrants in the first competition, Series 1, and the recent Series 6 competition produced 68 winners out of more than 2,000 entrants from around the world—with subjects and styles across the artistic spectrum.


Michael Wrycraft’s digital collage Bluebirds, which was chosen as a Series 6 winner and landed on a beer bottle, was originally meant for a different type of packaging altogether.

Wrycraft, who lives in Toronto and is renowned for his work as a designer of album covers, explains: “Every label design that I have ever sent in to Collective Arts, of which two have won [Wrycraft’s Snakeheart was a Series 2 winner], come from my ‘reject pile,’” Wrycraft says. “They were ideas for albums that got rejected, or a variation on an idea that was used for an album. Bluebirds was a completely different color variation of a cover that I designed for the minimalist composer John Cage, for a recording called Bird Cage.

Michael Wrycraft’s winning submission, Bluebirds, came out of his “reject pile.”

Both images—Bluebirds and the cover for Bird Cage, were collages created in Adobe Photoshop. “Many years ago, I became friends with a gentleman who had a bird sanctuary at his home on his property,” Wrycraft says. “And he had photos of finches, many of which he shot in a big cage that was in his living room. I asked if I could use these photos, which I scanned, and I just did a Photoshop collage.”

Wrycraft submitted several color variations to Cage, who chose a muted green color palette for Bird Cage. Bluebirds is bright royal blue against crimson.

“There is no such thing as a bad color,” Wrycraft says. “People may say that they hate brown or lime green, but there is not a color that I hate, because there’s always some use for that color.”


Toronto-based graphic designer, editorial art director, and illustrator Louis Fishauf has produced numerous digital collages, including his Series 6–winning entry Flora, that are distinguishable as much by their multi-chromatic appearance as they are by the incorporation of imagery based on an eclectic mix of sources.

“Renaissance paintings, comic books, vintage tattoo flash, botanical prints, nostalgic advertising, pulp, and sci-fi art all figure into my artwork,” Fishauf says. “I find material in books and online, and I have a large personal archive of images I’ve collected over the years. My collages are an amalgam of all my personal interests and passions.”

Louis Fishauf used botanical plates, scans from a vintage children’s book, and a circle created with a custom Illustrator brush in his winning digital collage.

Fishauf explains that Flora was inspired by the 19th-century botanical prints of German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel; however, unlike Haeckel’s informational work, Fishauf’s collage is purely decorative. But that’s not to say that Fishauf’s method for creating the work is anything less than an elaborate, painstaking process

“Hi-res botanical plates were downloaded from Flickr,” Fishauf says. “Then it was pretty much cut and paste in Photoshop. The most time-consuming part was isolating the individual elements from the background and cleaning up the edges. The ‘rainbow’ circle was created with a custom brush in Illustrator and imported into Photoshop as a smart object. The tigers were scanned from a vintage Greek kid’s book.”


A subliminal message, as well as rich, evocative imagery, was very much behind what inspired Montreal-based graphic designer and editorial illustrator Isabelle Cardinal to create her Series 6–winning digital collage Mr. Buffalo. The work is typical of Cardinal’s interest in telling a story, often with hints of a Victorian look or feeling.

“It takes time to discover one’s style, and it evolves, but to work in this business you also have to find new ways to tell stories,” Cardinal says. “For Mr. Buffalo, it started as a personal project; each week I was challenging myself to do an illustration with only one word. That week, the word was disguise, and I wanted to illustrate someone who was showing his ‘true colors’—he looks like a big, tough buffalo, but when he sits at home, he has a very tender side, holding his pet. It had to be a very unusual pet, so I chose an armadillo. And Mr. Buffalo showing his true colors goes well with the animal he is holding that has this very thick, armor-like shell. It was also fun to have him be in the pattern of the background wallpaper.”

Isabelle Cardinal’s winning submission, Mr. Buffalo, was the result of a weekly personal artistic challenge Cardinal had set herself.

She continues, “For the illustration, I didn’t have to sketch anything because it was pretty clear in my mind. I looked at my own collection of old pictures and found a perfect pic from my grandma’s box of old photography—a man sitting on a couch, facing the "viewer’—and I scanned it at a very large resolution. I imagined the wall, the floor, and so on. And I searched in one of my books for a buffalo head, scanned it, colored it all in Photoshop, drew some more hair on his face so it would look more interesting, and voilà!”


These labels with designs by artists like Wrycraft, Fishauf, and Cardinal have helped spur a public desire for collecting the bottles and cans, as well as awareness and interest in the artists and their work.

“I think people appreciate that they are not looking at the same old beer label, and every time they enjoy a beer, it’s a different label and experience,” Russell says. “And there’s a general appreciation that we are helping artists get their work out there. It’s not just about sending in work for a competition; it’s really about the artists’ community and being recognized that your work is great, and to have your work in public in such an immediate, tactile manner in someone’s hand. Artists are really taken by the whole notion.”

July 14, 2016

Images: courtesy of Collective Arts Brewing