The DART Interview: Daniel Baxter

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday April 18, 2019

Peggy Roalf: Which came first, the pen or the brush?

Daniel Baxter: I've always gravitated towards working with lines, and still do today. When painting, I am in currently in love with dry-brush technique.

PR: How did you decide on art as your métier? 

DB: As a teenager, I was a dreamer by nature, and felt comfortable with the idea of being an artist. But this was a very naive mindset, because I didn't draw or paint nearly as much as other kids. When I got to art school at Parsons, I realized I was way behind other students. I immediately buckled down, and worked towards overcoming my limitations and frustrations. Like other aspiring artists, I still battle those insecurities daily.

PR: Maps figure large in your art—here I’m thinking of the Stephen Hawking portrait, and the seed packet art for Hudson Valley Seed Company. How did you arrive at this trope? 

DB: Growing up in Buffalo, NY, our family lived very modestly, but my parents loved to travel. They would go to a different destination around the world every year. I took for granted that our house was full of maps of their travels. Thinking back to my favorite magazine as a kid, it was National Geographic, which was loaded with maps and fantastic images. Back in 2012, an old atlas of mine was falling apart. Instead of recycling it, I was compelled to turn the maps into canvases. I discovered that each map was an opportunity to meditate on the destination and culture it represented. Not having a travel budget, this became a form of escapism for me. In terms of exploring ideas, the format gives me lots of latitude (and longitude—haha!) to explore ideas. I will continue to build on it for as long as it brings me joy.

PR: As a regular sketchbook keeper, do you keep different sketchbooks for commissioned work and personal work? 

DB: For assignments, I keep bigger sketchbooks, so I can draw lots of thumbnails, and also to expand sketches outward when need be. I keep smaller sketchbooks in which I want to be consistently creative and engaging throughout.  But it's also important to keep sketchbooks in which have no expectations. In these, I jot down dreams, poetry, thoughts about politics and life, song lyrics, and completely mindless doodles. They’re a safe space, because they’re not intended for public viewing.

PR: Have you had any commissions that have originated from your sketchbook practice?

DB: Not directly. But a dream assignment would be to do a reportage project, like those of the great Alan Cober. He once followed and recorded the Pope as he toured the US, and the immediacy of his drawings was spectacular.

PR: What artists do you look to for inspiration in your own art? 

DB: There are too many to mention! For pure conceptual brilliance, David Suter is my favorite illustrator. I look to Henrik Drescher for spontaneity and fearlessness. Having grown up reading Rolling Stone, I follow the portraits of Anita Kunz, Phillip Burke and Victor Charles Juhasz. For seemingly effortless natural humor, Barry Blitt is a master. For sketch-booking, I look up to the amazing John Cuneo, as well as a close friend from college, Graham Smith (who is the most prolific sketchbooker I know). I could keep answering forever… 

PR: Do you see a lot of museum and gallery shows? 

DB: It's embarrassing to say, but living in a rural area, I don't visit  galleries nearly as much as I'd like to (or should). I've come to gain inspiration vicariously through biographies of artists. Recent ones include Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, and Jackson Pollock. It's important to learn about their thought-processes, techniques, and the struggles they endured. 

PR: What’s the best takeaway from seeing art shows rather than looking at books and magazines? 

DB: I will preface this by saying I work in a small studio, and my drawings are pretty small. It's awe-inspiring to see the scale at which some artists create. Like Chuck Close, I work a lot with grids, but his paintings are 20 times bigger than mine (and really capture your attention). I really need to set up studio in a warehouse (haha!). With painters like Van Gogh or de Kooning, it’s astonishing how fresh and alive the paint looks today, as if it just came off the easel.  

PR: Do you use photographs as reference in your commissioned art? 

DB: Yes, I get a lot of commissions which include portraits of specific people. I'm amazed by artists who practically have photographic memories. But for me, those references are valuable tools. 

PR: How do you avoid the pitfalls inherent in working from photographs?

DB: I draw from life regularly, and that practice helps me think dimensionally (when looking at photographs). It also helps to have a daily dialog with pencil to paper. You become less self-conscious, and forget that photo references are flat. 

PR: What elements of daily life exert the most influence on your work practice?

DB: Every night, I read books to help me fall asleep (mostly history, science, and psychology). In such a hectic world, it helps me to carve out space for deeper thinking. This practice helps fortify my imagination, as well as my attention span, and leads to more curiosity about assignments that land on my desk.

PR: What is your favorite way of taking a break when on a deadline? 

DB: No doubt, it is walking my dogs through the neighborhood, focusing on nature, and watching squirrels create mischief.

PR: How do you know when the art is finished—or when to stop working on it?

DB: I drive myself bonkers with this question. I struggle a lot, especially with digital illustrations. In terms of color and patterns, there are too many possibilities to choose from, making it difficult to settle on an obvious solution. I contemplate abandoning Photoshop and Illustrator programs, and going back to strictly traditional work (which has some built-in limitations). 

PR: What would be your dream job—the one thing you have always hoped for in an assignment? 

DB: I was fortunate to have one dream job come true recently. Collaborating with an amazing designer, Megan Mardiney, I illustrated an 8 ft by 10 ft map for Federal Reserve of New York’s museum (33 Liberty Street in Manhattan). The map represents their economic district (which includes NY State and Puerto Rico). It contains over 30 illustrations of landmarks and symbols of local industries. It was a challenge to overcome my fear of large-scale work, but the resulting display is very satisfying.

Daniel Baxter is an award-winning illustrator residing in Red Hook, NY, in the Hudson Valley. He is a graduate of Parsons School of Design. His drawings can be seen in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, to name a few.  dart-interview
Signed prints of my map drawings and portraits are available here:
I currently have a drawing in a group exhibit at the Staten Island Museum, on display until Feb 23, 2020. The exhibit is called Field Notes: Seed Stories and the Power of Plants Info
I recently illustrated an 8' by 10' map installation, which is on permanent display at the Museum of the Federal Reserve of New York, 33 Liberty Street, Manhattan Info