Like many illustrators, Daniel Shaffer’s career path has always seemed inevitable. As a fairly shy child, he says drawing made him feel “more comfortable and safe”, and that expressing himself through art was a way to self-soothe and a “conduit for channeling and releasing built-up emotions”. He adds, “I used drawing as a way to attract attention that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. It felt good to be recognised and to express myself.”
Today it’s also how he pays the rent, having pursued illustration at Maryland Institute College of Art. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Shaffer has been working as a freelancer since graduating in 2015 and boasts a client list including the likes of the New York Times, the Washington Post, OkCupid, Adweek and Wieden + Kennedy.
His work features a distinctive approach to character design that’s rotund, cartoonish but highly expressive. “My characters are inspired by a lot of the media I consumed as a child — Nickelodeon, video games, anime, comic strips, children’s books — as well as a desire to simplify form into simple shapes,” he says. In a satisfying twist of fate, he also cites his love of Cartoon Network as a direct inspiration for his illustration style: it now happens to be one of his clients.
The depth in his images and their three-dimensional feel is likely a product of the fact he sometimes imagines his characters are made of clay, to make it easier for him to envision their form and how light would interact with their shapes. “I’m often thinking of my characters and paintings as still-life paintings because I love using lighting to create atmosphere in my work,” Shaffer adds.
His characters are undeniably cute — round heads, even rounder bodies, and big yearning eyes — but there’s always a hint of bleakness, or something a bit eerie about them. “Mixing cute and fantastical themes with dark and surrealist ones has become an interest of mine,” he says. “I think mixing contrasting themes can make art more rich because it more closely mirrors how the real world feels. I also embrace making imagery that’s simply pleasant to look at, because I value the ability to provide an escape from the difficulties of the real world.”
Shaffer “paints” using a Wacom tablet and Photoshop, aiming to create a feel that’s as close as possible to analogue in both process and appearance using digital tools. “The process feels much more organic than it used to because of how minimal the steps are,” he says. “I typically only use a single brush (Gouache A Go-Go by Kyle T Webster), and sometimes I’ll use a soft brush as well. Other than that, it’s just a matter of Photoshop layers which I arrange according to foreground, middle ground, and background.”
While his career seems to be going from strength to strength, Shaffer acknowledges that being freelance has its challenges, and he reckons “95% of artists will need to supplement their freelance income with part-time or full-time jobs (art related or not)”, at least at the start. One aspect of it he seems to have cracked, however, is social media—he’s clocked up more than 12,000 Instagram followers, though claims it’s still “a bit of a mystery” to him.
His biggest tip for those starting out isn’t about trying to solve the vagaries of social platform algorithms, but to have a website. He says: “As superficial as it may seem, I think from a client’s perspective a website makes it look like you’re making a career out of art and not just engaging in a hobby. Websites can make you seem more reliable and legitimate, and that’s important in the freelance art world because artists are so often taken advantage of.
“People apparently don’t need much of an excuse to try to devalue an artist’s work, and spend as little money as possible (or none at all).”
Despite the obvious pressures of having to actually get people to spend money on his work, Shaffer still sees it as “very closely tied to my emotions” — just as it was when he was a kid. He reckons his strongest work is created with clients that let him express himself “as freely as possible”, adding that he values direction, but not so much control that “it no longer feels like I’m making art anymore”.
In that case, what’s the difference between art and illustration, aside from the obvious commercial aspect? “Nowadays the bridge between fine art and illustration is blurred quite a bit because there’s so much cerebral ‘illustration’ that exists,” he muses. “It’s also entirely subjective, and always will be. The subjectivity of art is one of its most beautiful qualities.”