Illustrator Profile - Steve Brodner: "Become an author and producer of content"

By Robert Newman   Thursday March 30, 2017

Steve Brodner is a New York City-based illustrator best known for his powerful political illustrations and caricatures. Brodner’s illustrations have appeared in countless newspapers and magazines, and have included political commentary, elegant portraits, graphic reportage, and much more. Brodner is an equal-opportunity visual commentator—although his current work leans heavily on Donald Trump and his minions (check out this amazing group portrait of The Court of Donald I), over the years he has devoted plenty of ink and watercolor to documenting the failings of Hillary and Bill Clinton and other Democrats. Like all great political cartoonists and caricaturists, Brodner adds a heavy dose of humor and a sense of the absurd to his work.

I live in New York City and have all my life. Except for six months living in Hudson County, New Jersey near my first job.

I have been working professionally doing some version of satiric art since the age of 16. That would be since 1972.

Everything about me stems from my background, my family, my history combined with my personal makeup. It was because of a very drawn-out and messy divorce that my parents went through, that sent me into a more isolated world as a kid. That gave me space to ponder and draw things that had meaning to me. Mostly, I think I was drawing things that frightened me. It was that impulse, as it is today, that motivated the drive to make pictures.

I do my work almost exclusively at my studio on the Upper West Side of New York City. It is a very comfortable place to be: lots of light, very warm, wonderful neighbors, lots of caffeine and a warm puppy.

My medium is watercolor over line graphite/watercolor, using ink and then augmented digitally.

It is a very longtime career so I can count many big breaks. The first and biggest come-up was winning a national editorial cartooning contest at the age of 19. I was struggling at Cooper Union, which, as you know was a fine arts school. They didn’t know what to do with a wise guy like me. So they eventually gave up on the project and asked me to leave. I refused to go. In my sophomore year I won a national cartooning award, which was judged by Al Jaffee, the great humor artist at Mad magazine. This got a great deal of publicity. The New York Times, The Today Show, etc. covered this event. Cooper Union was stuck with me for the next four years. In addition, work started coming in. At age 19 I was a working pro.

This would be an endless list. I told my students to be influenced by every possible thing in the world: a piece of graffiti on the wall, a philosophy book, a Bach partita. Just write these things down when they happen to you. Catch it all.

I know that’s not what you're asking, so here are some of my all-time fave raves: Nast, Grosz, Gillray, Steadman, Hirschfeld, David Low, Ronald Searle, Winsor McCay, Al Jaffee, Ed Sorel, Robert Grossman, David Levine, Miguel Covarrubias, Diego Rivera, Arthur Szyk, Charles Addams, Jim McMullan, both Blechmans, Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Yeats, Joseph Campbell, Stephen Sondheim, Rick Meyerowitz, George Lois, Milton Glaser, Brad Holland, Marshall Arisman, Arnold Roth, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Herblock, Ernie Kovacs, the Marx Brothers, Bach, Leonard Bernstein, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lightning Hopkins, Preston Sturges, John Ford, Hitchcock, Keaton, Chaplin...

I love my colleagues. Harry Campbell, Hanoch Piven, Edel Rodriguez, Brian Stauffer, Tim O’Brien, Marc Burckhardt, Christoph Neimann, Henrik Drescher, Philip Burke, Stephen Kroninger, Ellen Weinstein, Yuko Shimizu, Chris Buzelli, Victo Ngai, Seth Tobocman, Marcos Chin, Gerard DuBois, Jeffrey Smith...

Also I read news, books (history) and then pay very careful attention to what needs to happen in my pictures. Also teaching is very inspiring. Young people see things their own way. We learn from each other.

I would say my group portrait of The Court of Donald I for the Los Angeles Times would come close to that. I told them that I would come up with something after the election. I kept wavering between one idea and another. After the results had stunned me for a couple of weeks I finally settled on a Trump parody of the family portrait of King Charles IV of Spain. I wound up including 42 portraits of Trump family and “friends.” This filled a spread on the Sunday following the inauguration.

I am very lucky that my assignments are quite often like that. I urge my students and all young illustrators to initiate an assignment; then pitch it. Become an author and producer of content. Give yourself permission.
Over the past year I have done many pieces responding to the political landscape. The way I work quite often involves pitching an idea to media. These pieces, initiated by me, have appeared in The Village Voice, the LA Times, the Washington Post, and The New Republic, among others.

I have had many favorite art directors over the years. Those have been people who were talented designers who understood that illustrators could be partners in a design project. Good ideas move back and forth easily and there was not a sense that one knew more than the other about what needed to happen. But rather as in all art projects we understood that the road ahead was uncharted territory that needed to be discussed and discovered with fresh eyes. Numero uno for me and probably everyone of my generation is Steven Heller. He is the greatest living design mind—and very welcoming to young talent at The Times, back when. Working with him was a lesson, every time. Robert Best of The Nation, Andrew Horton of The Village Voice, Patrick Flynn of the Progressive and The Baffler, Wes Bausmith of the Los Angeles Times, Len Small of Nautilus, SooJin Buzelli of Plansponsor, Chris Ruken of the Washington Post, Kelly Doe of The New York Times, Francoise Mouly of The New Yorker, Marshall McKinney of Garden & Gun. Present company included, Bob.

Some have been mentioned above. I am very lucky that I have gotten to know a lot of the artists I admire a lot. Some have actually been students of mine. Joe Ciardiello for his searing and brave spontaneous pen. Victor Juhasz for his deep courage in telling core truths, brilliant draftsmanship and technique. Burt Silverman for his amazing realism and deep humanity. Brian Stauffer, Edel Rodriguez, Yuko Shimizu for their extraordinary design and draftsmanship in the service of eloquence. Peter Kuper for mastering cartoon, social commentary and being a great soul and generous friend to artists everywhere. Tom Woodruff for his extraordinary painting originality and deep caring for students. And likewise Marshall Arisman, a giant. Robert Hunt, a great teacher of art and one of my favorite painters. Likewise Susan Blubaugh. Melanie Reim for her spontaneous live art and powerhouse teaching technique. Koren Shadmi, a comics master and Mickey Dudyj whose art is off the page and flying through the air. Yao Xiao, who can do anything. Frances Jetter's work is unique in its graphic power, intelligence, and empathy.

And my daughter Terry Brodner, who is an author and illustrator. I have seen her struggle and am blown away by what she is accomplishing.

My illustration work is my personal work. There’s no separation. I seldom do projects just for the money. It’s all blended. If that weren’t the case my life would not be as rich as it is. When I am not doing my work I am spending time with my family and friends. And trying to catch up on sleep.

I am using social media to inspire interest in my projects. Happy to report, this is working. When I pitch a piece my design colleagues know what I am up to. It’s quite wonderful. But I do reach out in mail and email.

Self-promotion has changed over the years. It has moved from direct mail and phone calls to digital communication. I have many friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter and Instagram. More people see my posts then they do some of my printed pieces. That was a little jarring at first, but I am very used to it now and have learned to let it serve to promote my ideas as well as my art.

My advice to young artists is to understand that the game has changed. Illustration is no longer a waiting game. You are an author and a producer. There are properties waiting to be sold. Yours must be one of them. Go and develop your expressive work. But also develop your talents in coming up with large projects that you can present. Whatever they tell you about the decline of the graphic arts, it is untrue so long as you think of yourself as a producer. Have a steady flow of postcards to a very narrow group of likely suspects in the design world as well as a real portfolio that you can ask to show. Fire in all directions, to quote Koren Shadmi.
This field is full of hope and exciting prospects provided that you know how to meet this new reality head on.

See more Steve Brodner illustrations, new work, and updates:
Steve Brodner website
Twitter: @stevebrodner
Instagram: @sbrodner