What is your name and your current occupation?
Daniel Swartz, Assistant Professor & Freelance Illustrator.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into illustration?
Most of my earlier jobs have been crazy! I worked in a popcorn factory for awhile to pay for undergrad. I was constantly covered in oil and grease. It was a great incentive to finish school! I also worked at state and county fairs for a couple summers. 14 weeks of fair food is not as fun as it sounds.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
A few years ago I did the illustration for Virginia’s summer reading program for tweens. I enjoyed knowing that my illustration was helping promote reading. I read a fair amount, and think it is imperative we pass on the joy of reading to the next generations. My first children’s book is coming out soon as well. (Duckville, Wesleyan Publishing House) It is executed entirely in natural-media and I just love the tactile, accidental feel of the illustrations. My big dream is to do a Little Golden Book, and I think this project moves me closer to that goal.
How did you become interested in illustration?
I really didn’t even understand what illustration was before college. Fortunately, one specific faculty member, Ron Mazellan, really opened my eyes as to the potential in the field and helped me catch the bug for illustration! He was inspiring both as an illustrator and as an example of integrity. We always looked forward to his classes and getting those glimpses into how his current projects were going. It seemed like an exciting career!
Where are you from and how did you get into the illustration business?
I’m originally from Indiana, which is where I got my start at. Definitely not a hot-bed for commercial art! I wish I could say that I had some great path that was all planned out and went perfectly…but it was a lot of struggle and just taking whatever work I could wrangle up. One of my first “big” gigs was for a large game company. I remember I got that job based on presentation more than on the work itself. I had spent the entire day and night before making prints, mounting them, assembling vellum cover-sheets, making labels, etc. In the portfolio review the AD said to me “If you care that much about your own work, you’ll care that much about this project”, and I was hired on the spot to do four projects for them. I don’t think he even looked at all the pieces I brought. I was a good learning experience and encourages me to emphasize professional presentation to my students. After that, it has been a lot of riding the coattails of previous success and never giving up. Always looking for new opportunities.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
It seems like every week is different. But that is part of the joy of being a freelancer, something is always changing! Most days I teach a few classes during the day, and then spend my late afternoons and evenings working on illustration for clients. When deadlines are an issue I will squeeze some time in before teaching in that 5am-9am window. It can get pretty hectic and busy between teaching and illustrating, but it has taught me to make good use of my time, to be intentional. Learning to use those 10 minutes between meetings or classes. Keep something with you to draw with and constantly review your work to see if it is going in the right direction.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I love the creative freedom in illustration! As an illustrator, you’re brought onto a project because of something unique you are doing that the client wants to tap into. So (for the better clients) you’re really being paid to be yourself and make something that you love that communicates their idea. Don’t ever take the work where clients want you to draw like someone else. It isn’t worth it. It rips off the original artist, and puts you in the position to be less than you should be. Be the best version of yourself, right?
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Marketing myself. I don’t have an agent, so I do all my own promotion and networking…which gets kinda old. There’s lots of times I would rather be painting than writing emails or making phone calls. I get tired of the selling aspect, and really like it when I develop a relationship with a client that I can just keep working for over time. But every job has aspects that aren’t your favorite. So you just do it, get it out of the way, and then focus on the aspects you enjoy.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
You name it, I’m using it. I worked digitally for several years before I did my MFA with the University of Hartford. That was a big turning point for me when I realized the illustration I was doing in design was true to myself, but the media wasn’t. So I spent a lot of that MFA experimenting with natural media and trying to figure out how to stay visually consistent but with media that allowed for happy accidents. I do all my thumbnails and sketches on paper and then do transfers, use light-tables, scan and manipulate, color comps in markers or Photoshops, I use illustrator sometimes to design certain elements which then I transfer to board for paint. At times I’ll work in Illustrator to design spaces and then print them off to make masks. My Wacom tablet is my best friend and makes working digitally very natural. It’s really just whatever feels right and fastest for the process.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Getting the attention of Art Directors when there isn’t a previous relationship or network. They have such a difficult job, sifting through tons and tons of submissions, and a lot of their job is to weed out, so it should be hard to get their attention! But that is always a slight frustration, trying to rise above the noise. The other thing is the voice of negativity I hear from so many illustrators. Yes, the field has changed drastically in the last 25 years and we all know that rates have dropped. But when it comes down to it, we still get the privilege of getting paid to create our art and influencing younger generations. That is priceless and a rare opportunity that I am thankful for.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with illustration greatness?
I’ve already mentioned the MFA from University of Hartford, but it was such a terrific experience for me. We had both faculty and guest speakers that were phenomenal: Chris Payne, Gary Kelly, Alice Carter, Bill Thomson, Murray Tinkleman, Dennis Nolan, Ted & Betsy Lewin, Daniel Pelavin, Zina Saunders, Nancy Stahl and lots more. It was inspiring being able to work with the faculty of that program, even in the short amounts of time we had together. I can’t possibly list here everyone, there was lots of great instruction in that program.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Ha! The first 3 or so years after college I couldn’t get any significant work. So I worked 2nd shift at a coffee shop & bookstore. It was a good job, just tough looking at the degree I had and how poor my portfolio was and how much energy was being sucked out of my life by working a job I didn’t love. It was good though in that it taught me about customer service, how to keep my cool, and of course I had lots of free coffee 🙂 It was also inspiring to keep me producing art. As difficult as it may have been, I think it was a season when God was preparing me to be a better artist and teacher.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
I wrote a children’s book that I am looking for a publisher for. It’s a story about how to run a small business – profit, loss, investment, etc…but on a manageable, easy to understand scale. I also just started the working on a second children’s book concept, which is still rough and at the thumbnail stage but I’m excited about the idea.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I make a mean burger on the grill. I’ve been working on the recipe for several years…top secret though, so don’t even ask!
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
The best advice I’ve ever heard or applied: stand in the short lines. Work for the clients no one else wants to! Realize that the low competition also means low budgets but sometimes great amounts of creative freedom. In my opinion it is better to be published and have work out there, even for crummy clients, then to have no work out there whatsoever as you wait for that perfect match. First, the perfect match will never happen – learn to wisely compromise. Second, publishing begets publishing. Your record of successfully completing work will convince bigger, better clients to hire you. Secondly, do the work you love. Don’t just follow trends because you think that’s what is selling. If you do the work that is true to you, and are wise about only marketing yourself to those who might be interested in your work, eventually your passion and tenacity will pay off.