Illustrator Profile - Daniel Zender: "It is important for me to keep pushing myself"

By Robert Newman   Thursday March 2, 2017

Daniel Zender is a Brooklyn-based illustrator, artist, comics creator, and art director. His illustration work has appeared on a wide range of publications, most notably last year's #oscarssowhite cover of Variety magazine. In addition to his illustration work, Zender creates zines and comics, art directs for the sports website Bleacher Report, and teaches at Queens College.

I went to Missouri State University for five years, interned for Mirko Ilic for a summer, and went to SVA to get my MFA in Illustration. For about five years I designed and hand printed gigposters in Springfield, Missouri, which still plays pretty heavily into my work. I took two years off after MSU to travel and sort of figure out when I wanted to do with my life, and then moved to NYC for grad school. My first illustration assignment was for Philadelphia Weekly, almost 6 years ago.

In 2015 I got the ADC Young Guns Award. My work has been recognized by American Illustration, the Society of Illustrators, Comm Arts, 3x3, HOW, Creative Quarterly and others.

I worked at a coffee shop for the first two years of my illustration career. I am currently doing freelance illustration as well as teaching at Queens College as an adjunct professor as well as art directing for the sports website Bleacher Report.

I currently have two studios. One I share with my partner Laura Berglund; it is the second bedroom of our apartment. Most of the editorial work I do is done there. In January of this year I also started leasing a painting studio in an old warehouse down the street from our apartment. I share it with some painters and experimental artists...I am the only illustrator. This has been really good for me because it offers a different environment than working with a bunch of people who are doing the same thing as me. I am currently using that space to explore paintings and other experiments that I wouldn’t be able to do in our house.

This is always sort of changing. Recently a lot of my work has been 100% digital, the product of getting my first Wacom tablet a couple years ago. However, I am always trying to mix things up so I will often incorporate acrylic paint, monoprint textures, spray paint, sharpie markers, brush pens, pencils, etc. It is extremely important for me to keep pushing myself aesthetically, so I may be working in a different way in a six months. I still do entire illustrations with acrylic paint if I have the time to do it, but for me it is important to not become dependent on one particular thing. I make comics with Sharpie marker and pencils. For sketching I use Palomino pencils, a Moleskine notebook, Tombow Brush Pens, colored pencils and Sharpie markers, depending on what I am doing.


When I first started I was really lost and had no idea what I was doing. I took a flight to NYC for a week and met with as many art directors that I could...sometimes unannounced. I am forever grateful that Aviva Michealov and Nicholas Blechman agreed to meet me at The New York Times to talk about my would have been so easy to ignore me but they took a chance on me. A couple months later I did my first illustration for the Op-Ed page, back in 2011. To date I have done 50 pieces for The Times, so they are by far the client that I have worked with the most.  

This is a tough question and any time I answer it I know I leave something crucial out. Bone by Jeff Smith and Calvin and Hobbes were comics that I loved as a kid. Caravaggio made a major impression on my young mind when I first saw his work in Drawing 1. In design school I looked to Stefan Sagmeister, James Victore, and Barbara Kruger for inspiration. Milton Glaser made a lasting impression on me as well. The films of David Lynch, Terrance Malick, Kubrick, Jim Jarmusch and Fellini informed my visual language as well as The Blair Witch Project and Italian Horror—I watch a lot of horror movies for inspiration. Gregory Crewdson’s photography, Sally Mann and Diane Arbus. Kara Walker and James Turrell are two fine artists that I love. Musically, Grimes and Panda Bear are two inspiring artists to me because they both seem to have complete artistic control of everything that they produce. I listen to a lot of abrasive noisy music that definitely informs my work. I love Italian art deco, German Expressionism, and poster design especially Polish movie posters as well as contemporary graphic design. I have been very lucky to see a lot of the world, and I think traveling and experiencing new and different things can be extremely beneficial.


James Turrell. I can’t think of another artist who affects me in such a profound, emotionally visceral way.

Used bookstores are a big source of inspiration for me…I love mining shelves for new artists. Recently I discovered the work of Tamara de Lempicka while digging through a box of books in a store upstate and was blown away. Lately I have been looking outside of the illustration world for visual inspiration. I mentioned horror movies earlier, but also street art, graffiti, folk art, and “bad” design.

I am not sure if procrastination is a huge problem necessarily; sometimes it is really good for me. But in terms of working alone in my studio, I get easily distracted and it can be really hard to concentrate or focus. There is the also the issue of loneliness, which gets kind of depressing sometimes.


Getting to do the cover of Variety magazine was a huge thrill for me. They asked me to illustrate the #oscarssowhite controversy, with the title “Shame on Us.” It was an important issue to me and I felt humbled that they trusted me with such sensitive subject matter. I got to illustrate something important and also made something that I was really proud of.

If Criterion Collection ever needed a set of Dario Argento covers designed and illustrated, I would retire after taking that on. If Panda Bear ever needs me to do album art, I would gladly do that for free.

Alexandra Zsigmond at The New York Times has been a great person to work with over the past five years, and I really appreciate the projects that she has given me, as well as the feedback and critiques she has given that have improved my work. In fact, pretty much every person I have worked with at The New York Times has fostered my growth as both an artist and a conceptual thinker. That includes Alexandra, Aviva Michealov, Nicholas Blechman, Matt Dorfman, Sarah Williamson and many other people who have trusted me with really tough content. It really means a lot when someone like Matt Dorfman tells me that my new work is scary or weird and actually hires me to do the same sort of thing.  

I also love working with Jordan Awan. He gave me my first job for The New Yorker, which was really meaningful for me. He also has been super encouraging when I experiment with new techniques or approaches to my work.

All of those people have also just been nice to me and generous with their time—that is a really rare trait which I will always be grateful for. I would also be remiss to not mention Roberta Lancia, who I worked with for three years on the magazine Donna Moderna, an Italian publication. She trusted me with an illustration (sometimes two!) a week, and doing these pieces on a regular basis accelerated my growth as an illustrator for sure.

I really like these contemporary people: Dadu Shin, Rebekka Dunlap, Tallulah Fontaine, Jing Wei, Jordan Awan, Sarah Mazzetti, Anna Deflorian, Ed Kinsella, Keith Negley, Aidan Koch, Santtu Mustonen, Rachel Levit, Micheal Deforge, Charles Burns, Lily Padula, Jensine Eckwall, Rutu Modan, Parra, John F. Malta, C.F., Morgan Elliot, Joohee Yoon, Jun Cen, Lisk Feng, Olimpia Zagnoli, Andrea Dezso, Josh Cochran, Cleon Petterson,….I could go on and on.  A.M. Cassandre has also been a huge source of inspiration for me.  


I think a lot of my success (whatever that means) can be attributed to trying different things. Currently I am teaching as an adjunct professor at Queens College. I am art directing part time for the sports website Bleacher Report. When I started I was doing lots of silkcreened posters for bands in Missouri. I make merchandise of my work, which includes enamel pins, shirts, stickers and other ephemera. I make paintings and paper mache sculptures, and every year I make paper mache ornaments for my friends. A couple years ago I started exploring zines and comics, and this has been really exciting for me. This started with making little collections of sketches and ideas in black and white zine form. I started turning small ideas that I had into mini 16-page comics that were mostly for my own amusement. Then I made a bigger riso comic called NOPE that was awarded the MoCCA medal in 2014. I also made larger limited editions of my mono prints, paintings, and paintings, and would release them in limited amounts. Zines and self publishing are really important to me because they allow me to produce work that anyone can afford, and collect my work in little pieces of ephemera that I can look back at later. I love when artists make objects or publications that are accessible to everyone. Some of these different explorations have been more successful than others, but I think all have been equally important to my growth as an artist.

Again, I think being curious is really important, and trying new things to make money can be financially smart, but can also change your career completely! I got to do a beach towel design for Tictail, for example, which led to a show of my work at the Tictail store and ended up getting me back into painting and making more personal work. I started making more animated gifs, and ended up getting a bunch of web work for Super Deluxe, which was an awesome project to work on. The main thing I have realized is that there are many paths for an illustrator outside of editorial work, and it has been exciting to get to explore some of those different directions.


I think all things big and small can be useful for getting work, and I am strong proponent of self-promotion. I have been lucky to have work stacking up recently so I took a break from self-promotion, but I usually send out at least two or three postcards a year. I also send out silkscreened prints and zines that I have made, and other printed promos. I made my first enamel pins back in 2013 and at the time they were a pretty unique object to give to art directors and friends. Recently I started to get fancier with three or four color screenprints that are editioned and signed.

Entering competitions has been crucial to my success, and I feel very lucky to have my work represented in the same annuals and magazines that I obsessed over when I was younger. Instagram and Facebook have been really beneficial for me because I am constantly posting things that are outside of the general style represented on my website, and I think sharing your experiments and ideas is a great way to get new work.

Probably the best way to self promote is just be a nice person and don’t be a total weirdo when you are talking to people who you could potentially work for or collaborate with in the future.

Don’t compare your career to the careers of people you admire, this is toxic and pointless. Don’t worry if work doesn’t come immediately. Make what you love and don’t let people tell you that what you do isn’t valuable. Use your youthful energy to your you get older it becomes harder and harder to pull all-nighters, so do it while you can. Don’t be a jerk. Godard said “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.” I apply that philosophy to my own work as well.

See more Daniel Zender illustrations, new work, and updates:
Daniel Zender website
Instagram: @danielzender
Twitter: @danielzender


No comments yet.