An illustrator today is not just an illustrator—if he or she ever was. If Daniel Adel is a paradigm, a successful illustrator has a multifaceted career that encompasses creating images for magazines and newspapers, illustrating children’s books, making several different genres of art for galleries and personal edification, portrait painting, even owning a gallery. On two continents, in two languages.
Daniel Adel does all these things, and more. His illustrations—mostly celebrity portraits and caricatures—grace magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair. Children’s books he’s illustrated include The Book that Jack Wrote, by Jon Scieszka, which won a Society of Illustrators’s medal. His still-life oil paintings of subjects like classical drapery sell for five figures at Arcadia Fine Arts in New York’s SoHo, where he’s had two one-man shows and is currently finishing sixteen paintings for a third. College presidents and captains of industry have commissioned portraits, which hang in boardrooms and libraries. With his wife Véronique, a photographer, he owns Atelier Rue Basse, a gallery in the village of Lacoste, in Provence, France, where they live for six months each year and exhibit landscape watercolors and photographs. A Franco-phile since childhood, he publishes a bilingual journal about artistic goings-on in Lacoste, which is also home to Savannah College of Art and Design’s study-abroad campus.
“There are days when I wake up as a painter, have lunch as an editor, spend the afternoon as an art dealer and go to bed an illustrator,” he says of his life. “But I’ve always been a fan of hats, so I quite like wearing a bunch of different ones.”
A longtime denizen of the Upper West Side and Chelsea neighborhoods of Manhattan, Adel is adjusting to the country life. He and Véronique recently moved to Cold Spring, New York, a hamlet of Victorian and Federal-style houses, antique shops, stone walls and picturesque churches. Many New York illustrators have lived outside the city limits, relying on faxes and delivery services to get their work to art directors and editors. High-speed connections now make life and work in more remote, idyllic places like Cold Spring—and Provence—a reality.
In a cul-de-sac at the edge of the Hudson, the house he and Véronique share has a rowboat dock, gazebo and panoramic views. “This is a remarkable spot,” comments Adel. “The view is always changing, the light and the water. One minute a massive freighter comes by, pulled by tugboats, then a 100-car freight train.” He’s keen on taking up where the Hudson River School left off; an easel for plein-air paintings may very well be set up in the backyard, come summer.
The walls of the house are filled with paintings familiar to readers of popular magazines. Nicole Kidman for Esquire is over the sofa, and Santa for Entertainment Weekly’s holiday movie wrap-up is hanging in the front hall. Adel works in a studio five minutes away, in a small office building on Cold Spring’s Main Street. “I need the separation,” he says. Tucked behind a flower shop, the studio looks like it’s right out of a nineteenth-century engraving. There are stacks of canvases, pots of brushes, reproductions of classical statuary, shelves of art books, a still life of crumpled paper set up next to the easel—and a Nikon D100 digital camera on a tripod and an Apple Cinema Display. Adel delivers his work by photographing it and uploading high-resolution images to his clients’ servers.
Adel grew up in suburban New Rochelle, New York, where Norman Rockwell had his studio for many years. Rockwell’s realism was “in the air” during Adel’s high school years in the late 1970s. He was an art history major at Dartmouth College, where he worked in the art history library and tutored fellow undergraduates in French. He studied the Dutch, Flemish and Spanish Baroque painters, and was especially interested in French Salon painters like William-Adolphe Bouguereau, whose work was out of fashion yet exemplified the idealized treatment of figures and draperies that have become a hallmark of his work. Although he took only one studio art class at Dartmouth, he was drawing all the time, doing caricatures for the college newspaper and obsessively looking at illustration annuals, as he puts it, straddling the line between Ivy League academician and would-be published illustrator. The nineteenth-century caricaturist Honoré Daumier was a major influence; so was John Tenniel of Alice in Wonderland fame. On the other hand, the early 1980s were a golden age in magazine illustration, and commercially successful bad-boy Brad Holland “was god.” With little formal training at the time, Adel worked in a dark, metaphorical style influenced by both Holland and Matt Mahurin.
After graduating from Dartmouth in 1984, Adel was accepted to the master’s programs in illustration at the School of Visual Arts and Syracuse University. He was trying to decide between studying with Marshall Arisman at SVA and Murray Tinkelman at Syracuse, when thoughts of a career in the real world intervened, “Let’s see what happens if I show my work to the New York Times.” Jerelle Kraus, art director of the Times Op-Ed page, looked through his portfolio, which had fifteen pieces, three styles. She said, “These are no good” of the first five pieces, he recalls. “Too much like Brad” was her assessment of the next group. Of the last five, she said, “If you can do this, we can use you.” He did, and it turned into a gig of two Op-Ed illustrations and five smaller spots on the Times letters page every month for several years, most done in black-and-white acrylic paint. He also worked in China Marker on black paper, pencil on tracing paper and oils on canvas.
“Jerelle let me figure out who I was,” says Adel. “It was exciting. I was an illustrator for the New York Times!” He also began doing work for trade publications—and studying formal drawing and painting techniques at the National Academy of Design and privately with celebrated portraitist Burt Silverman. “I realized how critically important observation is,” he says of those days. “Before, I was just making stuff up.” He also took classes at the Art Students League of New York and enrolled in the academically-oriented MFA in painting program at Hunter College. “After a year at Hunter,
I put my pursuit of an MFA on hold when I found myself using words like ‘hermeneutics’ and ‘transgressive’ in casual conversation,” he muses. It was a new, satirical style developed in 1994 to illustrate The Book that Jack Wrote—a slightly twisted version of The House that Jack Built, by Jon Scieszka, author of The Stinky Cheese Man—that really got things going. “It sold well and led to tons of caricature work,” says Adel. “Thanks to the Society of Illustrators and other annuals, I was able to start over. Before, I was always asked to do serious topics like domestic violence or the breakdown of the salt II Treaty talks. With a successful children’s book, things lightened up. Now I could do funny.”
The first call that came in was from Michael Mrak at Esquire to do a monthly column spot. Over the next few years came calls from art directors at, among others, New York magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, U.S. News and World Report, the Atlantic Monthly, Forbes, Der Spiegel, Newsweek and Time, for which he painted two covers, one of which was the 2004 Person of the Year, George W. Bush. Diplomatically sidestepping any personal feelings about the subject, Adel says, “I can’t think of a more visible and prestigious forum for illustration than a Time Person of the Year cover. It was a big milestone for me.”
Those interested in the process of illustration—how an idea is sparked by an event, explored by an editor, envisioned by an art director, then interpreted and rendered by an illustrator—might wonder who is most responsible for the concept that ultimately appears on the printed page. It’s a collaborative effort, but the best illustrators bring much more to the table than anticipated. John Korpics, now art director of InStyle, considered Adel one of his most important collaborators at Entertainment Weekly, Premiere and Esquire. “Dan is that rare combination of a classically trained artist with a pop-culture sensibility, which makes him unique among illustrators working today,” Korpics says. “The combination of his painterly style mixed with his twisted sense of humor makes for a terrific and powerful style that is uniquely Dan’s. There is just something very funny and visually arresting about seeing Paris Hilton painted in a-turn-of-the-century illustrative style. He probably hasn’t actually painted Paris Hilton, but I know he wants to.” (Note: According to Adel, he hasn’t yet had the pleasure, but is mildly interested).
Adel captures the foibles of the rich and famous in ways that surprise even the most jaded art directors. He is master of the big-head thing, practiced by artists from Daumier to Robert Grossman; shrinking the body to half or less of the overall image allows more square inches in which to convey the subject’s countenance, yet leaves plenty of room to exploit his or her body language. Cases in point are paintings of Madonna as Marie Antoinette, octopus-armed Al Sharpton pressing the flesh on the campaign trail, Mike Myers as a shagadelic Rumpelstiltskin, Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat/Hamlet in a codpiece. All demonstrate that no ethnic group, sex, age or type, if a public figure, is safe from Adel’s wicked brush. Stefan Kiefer, art director of Der Spiegel, the German newsweekly, who commissioned Adel to do a life-size portrait of the magazine’s editor-in-chief for his birthday party—and got a landed aristocrat with cell phone and whip—sums it up simply, “Dan is quite brilliant at what he does.”
Like many illustrators, Adel is perhaps most passionate about his personal work, realistic abstractions—in this case not an oxymoron—based on classical drapery, crumpled paper and water in all its guises. The only thing twisted about these serene still lifes are the folds of the fabric or paper. “These paintings are a great antidote to illustration, which is always on deadline and a much faster process. Illustration often involves working from someone’s else’s photos, depicting someone you’ve never met. You are three or four steps removed from the subject,” he explains. “When I do these still lifes, I spend days focusing on every nuance of a given object. The technique and subject matter are controlled.” To the viewer, the object, rendered in almost monochromatic oils, can take on a life of its own. It’s no longer a piece of drapery, but might suggest the wing of a classical sculpture or a bird in flight. Comments Alex Hulse, assistant director of Arcadia Fine Arts, “Dan’s work is a sublime, modern take on still life, with a power that draws you in from across the room.”
Adel’s daily routine could be a model for the multitasking, self-employed artist. Mornings are spent doing business: paperwork, emails, phone calls, talks with art directors about ideas. He starts painting after lunch, usually a French meal cooked by Véronique, and works through late in the evening. He is prolific. “I can do one illustration in a day,” he says, “though it might take a few days if there are multiple figures.” In France, a day might also include driving around the Provençal countryside, taking photos, passing time in cafés eating and drinking, and meeting the French, American and British tourists who visit Atelier Rue Basse. The newsletter he publishes, L’Os de Figue, or The Figbone, named after a missed shot in the French game of petanque (or bocce) showcases short fiction pieces, poetry, “ridiculous, fact-free news” and drawings and photographs by a group of local writers and artists.
It’s an elite group. And surely Daniel Adel, with all the things he does so well, has earned the privilege of membership in that group and many more. “I’ve been powerfully drawn to the in-between zones,” he says of his career and work. “Between illustration and fine art, classicism and modernism and, most important, between the sublime and the ridiculous.” ca