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Interview with Daniel Swartz

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Daniel Swartz is a vector illustrator from Indiana, USA. He's a thoughtful creative professional with a passion for drawing and painting. He has a well established and thorough creative process, a good mix of formal focus and creative experimentation, and well-seasoned experience as an illustrator. He shares his hard-worked knowledge by teaching at the collegiate level, and gives us a great mix of creative and business advice in this interview!

1. Hello Daniel, please tell us a bit about yourself, where you're from, your training, and how you got started in the field? How long have you been illustrating and what do you enjoy most about it?

I am from Indiana, USA, the land of corn, beans, and basketball. I was fortunate to have parents who recognized my inclination for drawing as a kid and encouraged it every way they could. I earned my undergraduate in Illustration from Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) where I was initially blown away by how much I didn't know about art. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to study under a great illustrator, Ron Mazellan, who was very influential in my artistic development and the first person to introduce me to the idea that illustration could be a career! After graduation, I developed my portfolio while supporting myself by working at a coffee shop. Eventually things began to click and more work began coming my way – but not before I had put in my time.

I've been illustrating for six years and I've had to go through the same process that it seems most of us do. Maturation as an artist is something that you can't rush. Not only are you progressing artistically, but many times you have to personally grow until you get to the point where you are professional enough to earn and keep more work.

I'm now on my third degree (I also have an M.A. in Oil Painting) an M.F.A. in Illustration with the Hartford Art School in Connecticut. It's a phenomenal program with a very high caliber of both faculty and students, a great environment to grow and be challenged – I consider myself privileged to be a part of it.

The thing I enjoy most about illustration is the variety of projects and the challenge to find new and exciting ways to represent an idea that has most likely been illustrated or photographed thousands of times before. The exhilarating challenge is inventing unique and interesting imagery.

2. To what extent has teaching at the collegiate level impacted your work? What do you enjoy about interacting with students and assisting them with their growth?

It is incredible how much artistic growth I have experienced as a direct result of teaching. By explaining concepts in simple terms for a classroom with diverse backgrounds and expertise, I am continually relearning the foundation of art. All of the re-phrasing and battling to get ideas across to students helps to cement the concepts in my own mind. When you teach art you have to know your content so well that you can handle the most unexpected questions from students and still be able to logically defend the content.

My students always impress me with their intelligence. They introduce me to new things. Sometimes it is artists, or resources, or just a new outlook, and it helps keep me fresh. Teaching has also been a way to get involved outside of myself. It is too easy to get wrapped-up in a mindset of constant self-promotion as an illustrator. Working as a teacher has been perfect for helping me to focus on something and someone other than myself.

3. What is it about vector graphics that draws you to use them as your artistic medium of choice? And do you have a healthy relationship with Illustrator's tool set?

I enjoy vector graphics because of the flexibility. I used to work in Photoshop a lot but it never sufficed. Even when I plan a piece to the last detail, I always want to change something at the end, and many times it is the size of an object or space. Fortunately, Illustrator is forgiving and allows me to resize, flip, etc. as many times as I want, and I never loose those crisp edges.

Illustrator also became my tool of choice because of all the powerful tools that make illustration faster and easier so that I can spend more time enjoying the process. Learning the Blend Tool, all the brushes, Pathfinder, and Clipping and Opacity Masks (and more) have helped me streamline my production. Adobe has a lot of great features that are designed to help you get where you are going all the faster.

Illustrator is such a deep program that I'm still learning all the time. I intentionally spend time learning and challenging myself with new techniques in the software. Even if I don't end up using them all the time, they will still be in my toolbelt if I need them.

4. To what extent do design and formal principles impact your art? How much is guided by playful creativity, experimentation, and discovery?

My career really started to take off when I began paying strict attention to formal design. It is the only well-established and objective way for me to judge my art. As an illustrator I spend a lot of time working in solitude – away from an art community – so it is essential that I have a process established to cultivate my own growth. If I simply respond to my artwork emotionally, then it is difficult to grow. Emotions fluctuate based on how much sleep I get, what was for lunch, and other artistically-unrelated influences. Formalism gives me a concrete set of principles and elements to reference and evaluate my art.

This may sound constraining, but I temper that with a solid amount of risk and experimentation in my art. I love drawing, and whenever I am not actively engaged in a commission, I spend time playing with different ideas and concepts in illustration and design. Sometimes I work on a topic that I have never attempted. Sometimes I will play with a technique or design concept that catches my eye to experiment and see if it is something I want to integrate into my work. Other times I free-draw and fill pages with doodles. It is from these experiments that I build future illustrations; I test my ideas before I use them on clients.

5. Could you describe your workflow using the project One Man Band to demonstrate? How much sketching was involved in this project before going into Illustrator? How many revisions were there and how long did this project take to produce?

"One Man Band" is a perfect example of using formal principles and creativity. Although it has been one of my more successful pieces, it took me less than five hours. I sketched for about an hour and a half and then went directly to Illustrator. However, it was the culmination of several months of background work for unrelated personal development pieces where I was experimenting with different ideas for color use, line vs. form, and white as positive forms, etc. It was one of those "ah-ha!" moments when my research and development over several months came together.

I have to admit though "One Man Band" is an extreme example for my process. Most of my color pieces take around 25-40 hours each, depending on complexity. That is divided up by 15% on thumbnails, 50% on sketches, and 35% on final artwork and revisions. Usually I'm not faced with a lot of revisions because I work very hard to communicate with the client from the beginning so that they are updated throughout and can nudge me if my vision moves off-course from theirs. It is better to fix problems with the trajectory of the art early in the process when the ideas are looser, and don't cost as much to generate.

6. How has your workflow changed over time? Have you become quicker at creating illustrations or more thorough? What's one thing that has drastically improved your workflow?

I tell my students to "front load your projects." By this, I mean the more work you put into the conceptual stage, then the more headaches you can avoid later. You have to build a strong foundation before you start your finishing touches. Great technical skills go far, but they cannot compensate for crummy ideas or poor design.

I have found that if I really invest in my thumbnails and my full-size sketch, I can complete an illustration rather quickly, because I only have to focus on finishing something that I have thought out thoroughly. Plus, it is not as taxing on my time to make revisions at the thumbnail and sketch stages, as those can be drawn out quickly, and I am not yet emotionally attached.

7. What artists have influenced your work strongly? Is there something that pulls you toward retro cartoons and other sources of inspiration? Are there any sources online or elsewhere that consistently capture your imagination?

I think that I am partially drawn to the images I was exposed to as a child – I remember illustrations from books and other products that share some fundamental components of that retro style. What may be more relevant is how I have fallen in love with design, and so much work from the mid-century uses design in great ways.

I am heavily influenced by the works of UPA (Gerald McBoing Boing, Mr. Magoo), Hanna-Barbera (Quick Draw McGraw, Huckleberry Hound), John Sutherland Productions (It's Everybody's Business, Working Dollars), TerryToons (Underdog), and more. The style has it's roots in cubism as well as invented creative solutions to technical and financial limitations in the television animation studios when sponsorships were slowing. Sometimes unlimited resources can lead to cheap and easy solutions because there are no restrictions to make you think hard about the best use of resources. I can definitely say that I create better and more creative art when the environment is restrictive.

8. How have you grown your illustration business successfully? Have there been any key connections or changes that you've made to how you gather clients, approach projects, network, or handle the business side of illustration that have propelled you forward?

I look back and see a lot of time that was frustrating and seemed a waste. I can see now that I was being prepared to succeed. When I was younger I would not have been able to handle the bigger clients and projects. I needed time to develop. In many ways we are entrusted with small, low-risk things to prove ourselves for bigger things. I was fortunate enough to be taught early on that the little things matter, and I was committed to doing the best work I could with the time available, regardless of the size of the client. Over time this earned me a better client list and gave bigger clients reason to trust me.

My marketing is a buckshot approach. I spend time identifying and contacting anyone who could benefit from my work. It ends in a lot of rejection but the working relationships that come out of it can be very rewarding. Some of the best marketing advice I have gotten is "stand in the short lines." In other words, it is easier to get work from the small guys than the big ones. When you are young, having a quantity of professional work in your portfolio is the primary goal, not necessary who you worked for, but how you solved problems and provided solutions for clients.

9. What's been your most challenging project so far in your career? What was challenging about it? And how did you overcome those challenges?

Without a doubt the most challenging projects were very early in my career when I was first cutting my teeth in the industry. There are a lot of lessons that you have to learn the hard way. I am very grateful to those first clients who took chances on me and were patient through the process.

At this point I've learned to relax when working with clients. Some of my early mistakes were caused by this immense, and false, sense that whatever job I was on was my last chance and if I messed it up I would never work again. Which is not true, but at least I was taking my work seriously.

As far as the work-load, my most challenging project was a set of four small children's curriculum books I illustrated for the Wesleyan Church. The great part was I had a heavy creative hand and was able to strongly direct the artistic portion of the project. The challenge was that most of the artwork was created over two months, which was a total of four covers, 12 interior pieces, and about 50 spots – which wouldn't be that bad except during that time I was also finishing my thesis project of six large scale representational paintings for my M.A. It was a very stressful time but I got it done well, and the publisher tells me the response to the books has been overwhelming.

It is not the first time that my schedule has been that full - but life will always be busy. I have had to learn how to handle that amount of work over time. Basically it comes down to intentionality – you make time for the things that are important to you. Great art never happens by accident. Great art occurs as a result of intentional acts. For me, this means using all of my time wisely, drawing whenever and wherever I can. It also means knowing when my best creative time is and protecting that space to use for creative activities, while saving my poor times for administrative tasks and organizing.

10. Thanks for chatting with us Daniel, any parting tips for aspiring creatives hungry to grow professionally?

If you want to succeed in this business, go for it! Realize that you are competing in a world-wide market – a good thing. It sifts the less finely-tuned artists to the bottom of the bucket and allows the cream to rise. It makes everyone better and gives a clear picture to anyone wanting to improve of where and how you fall short of the mark. Do not be frustrated with failure, it is part of the game. Your time will come if you simply stick with it, remain focused, and draw more than everyone you know.

Daniel Swartz on the Web

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