Daniel Sulzberg on how illustration has changed and what value artists can bring that AI can't replace

Comic books, cartoons, and an idyllic childhood growing up in quiet Californian suburbia in the 1980s form the basis of Daniel Sulzberg's delightful zany work. The Santa Barbara-based illustrator has enjoyed plenty of success thus far, boasting clients such as Red Bull, Major League Soccer, and The Washington Post. We chat with Dan to find out more.

Daniel Sulzberg

Daniel Sulzberg

There's easy-going creativity behind Daniel Sulzberg's art. One infused with the kind of influences that only come from a childhood spent during a more innocent pre-internet era. We're talking Saturday morning cartoons, sugary breakfast cereals and when MTV ruled our screens. Nintendo video games and superhero comic books. Safe suburban life, playing with friends on bikes until our parents called us for dinner. It's no wonder Dan's style is joyful, colourfully charming, and endlessly optimistic.

As an established illustrator in the United States, we wanted to know how illustration has changed since he began his career in the 2000s and whether he's worried about AI and the future of creativity. We also wanted to discover more of his trade secrets and share his tips for success. Here's much of what we uncovered.

Growing up in the 1980s, do you think we were lucky compared to kids today?

Yes, I feel lucky to grow up in the times that we did. There was definitely more of a sense of living in the moment. Even the experience of watching TV had to be done right there and then. The show you were watching was only on once a week, and you had to see it when it came out. I remember running to the bathroom during the commercials to avoid missing the next part of the show because you couldn't pause it.

The next day at school, everyone would discuss whether they saw the new movie, music video, or show when it debuted. They felt like real moments. I remember watching MTV when they premiered Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit music video, and you could just feel the cultural shift after that. There was an innocence and excitement to it all.

You grew up in a small town. What was it like? How did that shape you as a person and creative?

Growing up in Danville, a town 40 minutes east of San Francisco, offered a serene suburban life filled with ball games with neighbourhood kids around a green belt that connected all our houses. We knew the same kids from Kindergarten all through high school.

At the time, I don't think I appreciated it as much because I always dreamed of living in a big city like Los Angeles and working in Hollywood, but now looking back, I can see it was the perfect setting for a sea of creativity. I would create worlds with my action figures in the nearby creek, invent games in the garage, and draw endlessly in notebooks while watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or playing Super Mario Bros.

Danvillage characters © Daniel Sulzberg

Danvillage characters © Daniel Sulzberg

Bubble City © Daniel Sulzberg

Bubble City © Daniel Sulzberg

When did you realise you could turn your love of art into a career?

While in college, I studied abroad in the UK at Cambridge University. I was always doodling and creating characters, but it was a trip to Salvador Dali's home in Figueres, Spain, that I had a bit of a "spiritual" experience and started to see surreal images all around me. I began to fill notebooks with drawings.

When I returned to the States afterwards, I knew I wanted to work in a creative career. I just wasn't sure how to go about it. After college, I moved to Los Angeles and worked in many creative fields to see which I liked the best. I worked for a video game company, Sony Pictures, record labels, etc.

After being a bit of a creative nomad, I went back to school at UCLA to study graphic design but discovered that being an illustrator made me happiest. I landed a job as a creative director for Red Bull Cartoon and learned how to illustrate for brands, and then I started to freelance on the side. During this time, I learned how much I loved working with different clients on different projects and how satisfying collaboration with creatives was. I signed with my agency IllustrationX in 2018 and haven't looked back.

You've done some pretty amazing jobs. You worked on Smallville. Tell us more.

When I returned from my study abroad trip, I had an idea for a feature film. I asked my best friend, who was studying at USC to become a director if he'd like to write it with me for fun. We were both inspired by classic '80s comedies, especially John Hughes films.

About halfway through writing the movie, we were having such a blast we thought, "What if we just did this as a living?" So we went for it. The feature didn't sell, but it did get us a lot of meetings in town. We continued to write, and before we knew it, we had caught the attention of the showrunners of Smallville. They were awesome mentors and brought us on for seasons 4 and 5. It was an incredible experience.

As much as I love to write and be a storyteller, I was also constantly drawing at the same time. My writing partner said, "Why haven't we made a cartoon with all these characters you've created?" So, we've been developing animated ideas and even sold one to Dreamworks.

Work for the LA Times © Daniel Sulzberg

Work for the LA Times © Daniel Sulzberg

When and why did you decide to launch your studio?

It was when my son was born in 2017. I was always known as Dan from Danville, so the homage to my childhood city felt right. I also consider Danvillage a tiny village inside your brain where all the characters from your dreams live. I wanted to start bringing those characters to life. Starting my studio felt right when I went out independently in the freelance world. I wanted to show that my creativity is not a choice, it's literally who I am as a person, and I can't turn it off. My brain is always working on ideas.

You call your studio Danvillage. Is there a part of you that misses your small hometown and that era we grew up in?

I wouldn't say that I miss my hometown now because it's changed so much from my childhood, but I would say that I miss certain things from the era we grew up in. My six-year-old son is always blown away when I tell him about my youth, and now I feel like such an old man when I describe what a VCR is or when I show him a cassette tape or play him a vinyl record.

What has changed in illustration since you began?

The advancement of digital art and the tools to create it have been a game-changer. It's also been exciting to see illustrations used in so many places that, in the past, weren't even considered. I was lucky enough to be brought into the world of NFTs early on and was a part of illustrating for Yuga Labs, the creators of Bored Ape Yacht Club. From there, I've done numerous NFT projects, and I love the positivity in the space and Web3's infinite potential.

Weird Flex © Daniel Sulzberg

Weird Flex © Daniel Sulzberg

How do you feel about AI and where that's potentially heading?

Whatever you think about my opinion on AI, I'm OK if you disagree with my take. I am all for people manipulating technology to create art. That is what art is all about. What I am not cool with is how these programs are stealing images from artists to create these new images. I think it's a real shame that companies are using AI instead of real artists just because it's faster. The experience of collaboration is feeling completely lost.

I am worried about how many creative jobs will be lost in the next decade. I see AI's potential to help society in places like health and wellness, but I don't see why we need it to replace art. Regardless, I know what I am good at and what I can offer a client, and I hope they will see that value as something that a computer can't replace.

Is it a daily push on marketing and finding new clients? Or have you reached that comfortable stage of loyal repeat clients and are always busy? Can the freelance mentality ever stop?

I hate using the term "hustle" for what we do as illustrators, but I believe you must be incredibly driven and confident in your abilities. I have big dreams of working with certain brands, bands, and companies, and I don't fear reaching out to them to see if they are interested in collaborating.

My years as a screenwriter and facing lots of rejection have made me feel resilient. I obviously don't like being rejected or not hearing back from dream clients, but I also learned that in order to win, you have to learn how to lose and take your shots. When I think of the best athletes, they trained harder than their peers and missed more shots than they made. You don't remember the misses; you only remember the wins!

I know what I am good at and what I can offer a client, and I hope they will see that value as something that a computer can't replace.

You also run an animation studio with a friend? How did that come about?

While I was freelancing, my friend Casey Ouye (who is a brilliant creative and animator) thought it would be fun to take some of my wacky characters and animate them. When I posted them originally on Instagram (back when Insta could get you attention), I started to get requests to do more projects with animation. Casey thought it would be fun. We did our first project for Wise Potato Chips creating mini cartoons about a chip bag named Chipsy Hustle. That led us to want to make lots more fun creations. We are currently working on animated pieces for a gallery showing for a psychedelic club here in Santa Barbara.

The life of a creative freelancer can be challenging in such a competitive field. What are you currently obsessing over, learning or focused on?

I think the big trick is to not compare yourself to others or get caught in obsessing over other people's work. The most important thing is to focus on projects that come from your heart: ones that give you immense satisfaction.

When I don't have client work, I always have side projects that fulfil me. During the pandemic, I created a book for my kids called Smile Now: Lessons Learned From 2020. At first, they were just some lessons I wanted to teach my kids, but then I put the book on Amazon and decided to give all the profits to a local organisation called CALM that helps children who have dealt with a lot of trauma. The book did fantastic, giving me a sense of how my art could help others.

Work for Facebook © Daniel Sulzberg

Work for Facebook © Daniel Sulzberg

NHL Mascots © Daniel Sulzberg

NHL Mascots © Daniel Sulzberg

With all your success, what would you say has helped you the most to get to where you are?

The thing that has helped me the most is my insatiable knack to keep creating new things. It's the sense that I would do this kind of work whether I was paid for it or not. I can't stop creating! Even more than that have been the relationships and collaborations, I've had in the creative community. I love working with younger creatives and helping them find their voice and style. I love learning from other creatives and hearing their stories. We are lucky to live in a world where we can create something from our minds and bring it to life.

Can you reveal a favourite or recent project or two and talk us through them?

I am working on my first graphic novel, which Little Press Publishing will publish, and it has been a massive undertaking. I've never drawn an entire book's worth of images, but it has been immensely satisfying. The book is called Unicorns. It's about two tween horses that sneak into a Unicorn University to learn their magic and be a part of their world. Keep your eyes peeled for the release in 2025.

I also just finished a project for the National Hockey League (NHL) posted on their socials that showcased the mascots of the teams that made it into the playoffs. I love drawing wacky characters, so mascots are always a favourite of mine, and art director Neil Tennant was an absolute joy to collaborate with.

I also just created a poster for Dead & Co. Gig posters are my absolute favourite because I'm a total vinyl junkie. Dead and Co. was extra special, especially since I grew up near San Fran, and the Grateful Dead are like the inventors of the gig poster, so it was incredible honour to be a part of that legacy now.

Finally, what advice would you give to emerging illustrators?

The best advice I can give emerging illustrators is to create yourself in opposition to no one. Be unapologetically yourself. All of my creative heroes – Salvador Dali, Prince, Miyazaki – created worlds from who they were inside. For me, Danvillage is the place where I can be myself and share it with the world.


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