Illustrator Profile - Dan Bejar: "Believe in your work and trust what your voice is trying to say"

By Robert Newman   Thursday July 6, 2017

Dan Bejar is a Brooklyn-based illustrator and artist. His illustrations are primarily monotypes on paper, and his smart, conceptual editorial work appears consistently in numerous publications. Bejar says that “illustration is about communication with images,” and to that end he has also created vibrant artwork in a variety of mediums, whose purpose is “to critique and question the roles that history, place and identity play in the construction of systemic power.” This work has been included in a wide array of group and solo exhibits.

I currently live and work in Brooklyn, NY, and have been illustrating for almost 17 years.

Originally I was born in the Bronx, NY to Puerto Rican and Spanish parents, and then moved to the Gulf Coast of Florida at a young age.

As far back as I can remember I’ve always been interested in making and communicating with images.

My BFA in illustration was from Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, FL, and I have an MFA in sculpture from the State University of New York at New Paltz, NY.

I’ve had a few odd jobs along the way. I worked in a frame shop and waited tables at a few restaurants to support myself while completing my undergraduate studies and until there was a steady stream of illustration assignments coming in.

I currently work from a studio at my home in Brooklyn. The studio at home is great as it has a backyard, which makes it easy to step out, take a break, or grill up some hotdogs, and across the street there’s a park where I can go for a quick jog and get some fresh air.

The majority of my illustrations are monotypes on paper, but I also combine some guerrilla printing making methods, and some digital work for the final pieces. Aside from the aesthetics of the work, the concepts of the illustration have always been the most important ingredient for me. I will usually start researching material for an assignment and will then move into the concept phase with countless sketches. I like to think of this phase similar to the way a sculptor would carve out a sculpture from a solid piece of marble. The goal is to chisel down a concept until you find a diamond; it doesn't always happen, but that’s the goal.

One moment that sticks out: after working for about year my work was accepted into an illustration annual called Step By Step Graphics. It was a unique opportunity in that it was a smaller illustration annual that focused on having each selected artist talk about the assignment the work was created for and how the work was technically produced. It was a good introduction to the community, and after that the ball started to roll.

My illustration work has been directly influenced by the work of Degas—particularly his monotypes. These monotypes influenced my early work in terms of process and palette. Other influences have been the bold color and designs of the propaganda and revolutionary poster art that came out of WWII, the Cuban revolution, the Russian revolution, the Chinese Cultural revolution, and the Black Panthers. Their use of bold images as a means to illuminate issues of social justice is something I try to instill in my illustration work.

My biggest influence would be the work and theories of Marcel Duchamp. Among his many contributions, his theories about “anti-retinal art” and making work that was “in the service of the mind” really made an impact and stuck with me. As a young artist it was very liberating to learn you didn’t have be so concerned about how things looked, but rather what they conveyed.

There are two artists: Pierre Huygh, a conceptual artist whose body of work— ranging from sculpture, film, and installation—is very inspiring and transformative in a kind of fantastical and magical way. And Mel Chin, another conceptual artist who makes work in the public sphere that challenges the social and political systems that govern our realities, and enacts real tangible change in the world. His work, and work by others like him will become even more important during the Trump presidency.

To recharge the batteries I try to go and see as much art as I can at museums and galleries. Traveling is also great for inspiration, although I wish I could do more of it!

I’m thankful and lucky to work on my own, but for me maintaining two full-time art practices becomes the biggest challenge. I have an illustration practice and a separate conceptual art practice which consume most of my time and working alone can make balancing deadlines and making new work challenging. The other challenge of working on your own is yourself. You always have to question your work and try to outdo the last thing you did. Its kind of like shadow boxing—the only person who can beat you is you.

My favorite assignment of the year was a cover I recently did for New Scientist magazine about the hidden powers of the unconscious mind. I love making covers, but this one was fun because the unconscious provides unlimited directions and subject matter to work with—and was a welcomed change of pace.

Making a book from concept to illustrating it cover to cover would be special!

Recently I’ve really enjoyed working with Jarred Ford at Redbook magazine. I think some of the best work comes from a collaboration with an art director, and a good art director should know your strengths and should also not be afraid to push back on your ideas. Jarred works this way, and I’ve been really happy with the work we’ve done this year. We recently completed a series entitled “You Can Change Politics for Good” which was about the various ways women could get involved in all levels of the political process to enact change. The assignment was a timely series of three illustrations that looked at three specific moments in a woman’s journey climbing the ranks of the American political system.

When I was studying illustration it was a relief to be introduced to work by illustrators like Robert Weaver, Guy Billout and Brian Cronin. Weaver showed that illustration could be political and socially conscious, while having a strong and direct visual language. And Billout and Cronin showed that images could fuse conceptual ideas with strong images, which was refreshing to me. There’s a lot of interesting work happening today but to name a few, I think Gerard DuBois continues this approach with strong concepts and images, and Luba Lukova’s work also continues this in a social and political manner. Tatsuro Kiuchi’s digital paintings are a pleasure to look at and Brian Rea’s work brings together concepts and humor in an interesting way. Vivienne Flesher’s work is beautiful and evocative, and Oliver Munday is doing some great stuff in the design/illustration vein.

Aside from my illustration work, giving talks, demos, and the occasional teaching gig, I have a separate conceptual art practice which I exhibit in museums, galleries and public spaces. I work with performance, intervention, photography, video, text, installation, sculpture, and web-based media to consider and critique the representation of history, place, and the self within the structures of power that encompass our physical and digital worlds. The work challenges the public to question the familiar and, envision alternative realities and histories.

A project which reveals the politics of identity and history in our Information Age is Operation Guest. The son of Muammar Gaddafi—Saadi Gaddfi— assumed my name as a pseudonym in a failed escape from Niger, Africa to La Cruz de Haunacaxtle, Mexico after the 2011 Libyan Revolution. Operation Guest realizes his failed exotic exile through documented site-specific performances in the safe houses, beaches and restaurants in which Saadi was to spend the rest of his days in. 

And in my ongoing project Rec-elections, I critique the weaponization of nostalgia within campaign advertising by appropriating historical campaign posters from past Presidential campaigns and re-inserting them back into the context of our presidential politics and political landscape through site-specific performances, interventions, and prints. The project reveals a romanticized American myth that is built on ideas of manifest destiny and which has come to be solidified in cultural memory. 

The industry is definitely changing but the biggest and best thing I did a few years ago was to rebuild an old decaying website that was built on some seriously outdated software. I’ve tried a few different marketing approaches through the years, but as the industry and marketing are constantly in flux, it’s kind of like fishing—you have to go where the fish are biting.

Since I don’t work with a rep, my website, a few portfolio sites and entering the annual illustration competitions are critical. I’ve also recently started putting work on social platforms like Instagram. Since I started out I’ve always said that the illustration annuals were the best way to get your work in front of as many eyeballs as possible, and if your work gets in, great, but even if it doesn't jurors will still be exposed to your work. It’s also the best bang for your buck! At the end of the day, the best promotion you can do is make great work; it will eventually be noticed and the world will come knocking on your door.

Illustrating is about communicating with images, so the best thing for students or illustrators starting out is to learn the basics, to draw, paint, color theory, anatomy, etc. It sounds super obvious but once you have those skills under your belt, you’ll always have them, and then you can incorporate them into your own voice, or even abandon them. But just having those fundamental skills, your work will be better in every way. As for illustrators starting out, I think the most important thing is you have to believe in your work and trust what your voice is trying to say. I remember when I was first starting out after school, I came to New York to show my portfolio around, and one of the of the places was The New York Times. I showed my portfolio to someone in the art department and the person “didn’t think my work would be a good fit”. Eventually I did get a call from The New York Times, and I even ended up doing the cover of the opinion section. So I think growing some thick skin and having a belief in yourself and your work is what will carry you through the “awkward phase” of starting out and will also create a solid foundation you build can from. And this is really something that could be applied to any creative facet of life, not just illustration.

See more Dan Bejar illustrations, new work and updates:
Illustration website
illustration Instagram: @bejarprints
Art practice website


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