Interview: Dan Santat
Dan Santat illustriert Kinderbücher, die von oben bis unten vollgepackt sind mit popkulturellen Anspielungen und Kleinigkeiten – Roboter, Aliens, Ninjas, Superhelden. Dinge also, die nicht nur Kinder ansprechen, sondern auch den kleinen Nerd in uns allen.
Diskursdisko: Hi Dan. To start things off, what’s your background? When did you start illustrating?
Dan Santat: My parents never let me take art classes when I was a kid. They wanted me to be a doctor. Fortunately, I was a big fan of reading comic books and so I learned by copying pictured of Batman and the X-Men and so forth.
I eventually went off to college to study Microbiology. I was going to be a dentist. Somewhere around my senior year of college I went to a job fair and I saw a booth for the Academy of Art in San Francisco. All my life I had little exposure to art and I didn’t really know how artists could make a living. Suddenly, I realized there were all sorts of career options in the art field. So I started neglecting my classes my senior year and threw together an art portfolio to submit to various art schools. Surprisingly, my parents became very supportive of my change in direction. I earned my microbiology degree and I was miserable and they just wanted me to be happy.
In 1998 I was accepted into the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I graduated in early 2001 and immediately got a job at a video game company as a texture artist working on the Spider-Man movie video games. Meanwhile at home I was trying to get my freelance career off the ground and about 6 or 7 months out of school I started getting work. One year out of art school I got my first picture book deal and I’ve been working mainly in children’s publishing ever since (though I still do editorial work and commercial work from time to time).
Diskursdisko: How do you mainly produce your art? Do you have a system or method that you adhere to?
Dan Santat: My methods have changed a lot. I used to paint in acrylics and then when I started getting more and more work with tighter deadlines I had to start speeding up my process. Then I started doing the layout of a piece in acrylic and then I would finish the piece digitally in Photoshop. Now, I mainly have a whole archive of painted swatches on my computer and I use alpha channels to reveal all the paint strokes and then I adjust the values using various tints and multiply layers. Then there are other times I just do things straight digitally without a fancy custom brush and I just work up the tones slowly but treating the process like acrylic (painting dark to light with very opaque strokes)
Diskursdisko: What inspires you?
Dan Santat: I think I quickly realized that I use art as a means to tell stories. I am a storyteller at heart and I love watching movies, reading comic books and playing video games, especially the old graphic adventures of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Games like, “The Secret of Monkey Island” and “Grim Fandango” were outstanding to me and I think were literally the turning points in my life in wanting to tell stories for a living.
Diskursdisko: How did you get into illustrating and writing children’s books? Can you tell us a bit about the differences, if you feel there any, in working on children’s material as opposed to illustrations aimed at adults (not to be confused with adult material… :) )
Dan Santat: When I first started going to art school CG animated films were starting to really take off in popularity. Articles were constantly published in newspapers and magazines saying you could get a job making CG animated films and so forth for an amazing salary and jobs were everywhere. I dove right into 3D modeling and animation a soon as I could and quickly realized that I hated working with 3D software. The programs are so immense and so user unfriendly that it would take you a long time just to figure out what you wanted to do and to do it to a level you would be satisfied with. Then to top it all off it got very frustrating because it would literally take me 10 weeks to make 2 or 3 minutes of animation and I was eager to start telling stories right away. So I dropped the 3D computer stuff and I started looking into other storytelling mediums.
Children’s books seemed to interest me more and more since many stories were similar in tone to what they were doing over at Pixar and Dreamworks so I began taking the children’s book class at the art school and realized I was in love with it. Out of school I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators and entered a portfolio review with a crude dummy I had made. My editor, Arthur Levine (editor of the Harry Potter Books), happened to be one of the judges and he saw my portfolio and story and offered me a two book deal on the spot.
Children’s art is always fun and filled with lots of action and happiness. I have a pretty humorous side so I just tend to gravitate to it more, not that you don’t see that sort of stuff in adult humor but it’s very subjective when you get older whereas kids all pretty much find common things to laugh about like fart jokes and so forth.
Diskursdisko: Your artwork is very bright, cartoonish and has a very positive, joyous vibe. How did you develop this style?
Dan Santat: A lot of my style comes from studying other artists who inspired me. Guys like J Otto Seibold, Tim Biskup, and William Joyce (creator of A Day With Wilbur Robinson) The teachers I had also influenced a lot of my color palette choices but when I came out of art school I noticed that my work was all over the place and inconsistent because I was trying different things. What I ended up doing was starting from scratch. I would start a painting and I wouldn’t stop painting it until I was proud enough to hang it up on my own wall. I also didn’t look at any other artwork at the time because I knew if I saw something I liked I would subconsciously try to add it to my work. The first painting took a week, then all the other paintings after that took less and less time until I could eventually finish a painting in a day and I felt comfortable with the particular choices and habits that I had. I essentially had a brand new portfolio in about six weeks.
Diskursdisko: When working for clients like magazines or companies, how do you keep up the balance between clients’ wishes and concepts and your own need to produce art? Do you feel there actually is any difference between “commercial” artwork and other art?
Dan Santat: HAHA When i do sketches for clients I only show them the ones I want to do. There’s an ongoing joke that me and a lot of my friends have and that is if you have a weak concept the art director will most likely pick that one. The scary thing is that it’s kind of true. When I was just starting out in illustration I was always creating new work for myself to make my portfolio stronger. It was always about getting out there and making the freelance business grow. These days I have a ton of work and I really don’t have time to do my own things as much as I would like but I am more selective about the projects I select and I give it my all.
Unfortunately, I’m at a point in my career where my free time is so scarce (I also have two children of my own) that if I do anything it HAS to have a means to an end. It has to be in preparation of a book pitch or for promotion or something that I want to use towards my freelance work. It’s still fun for me, though. I just don’t waste my drawing time on things I don’t want to take to a certain level of finish.
Diskursdisko: You’ve obviously got the website at dantat.com, any other presences on the web you’d like to publicize? Social networking?
Dan Santat: There is a large network of children’s book people (editors, art directors, authors, and other illustrators) on Facebook that a lot of people either do or do not know about and I take every opportunity to share my work there. I’ll upload my work on Deviantart from time to time but for the most part I often forget I even have the account.
Diskursdisko: As you use the internet to showcase your art, are there any other websites you feel have influenced you, opened your mind or shown you new ways of creating art?
Dan Santat: Drawn.ca is one of the best art blogs out there. I check it almost every day. If there’s anything in art worth seeing they’ll know about it.
Diskursdisko: Of all the work you’ve created, or at least the ones showcased on your website, can you name a couple that you have a special love for or connection to?
Dan Santat: I did the Macy’s Day Parade poster for 2006. That was a huge honor because my artwork was shown in every Macy’s Store in the United States, it was in full page spreads in newspapers, in programs for Broadway plays, and even a bit on TV.
Another favorite was the Otto Undercover series that I did with actress Rhea Perlman. She was the sweetest woman ever and she invited me and my family to their place a couple times for parties. Danny Devito, her husband, was also a really nice guy. It was just so surreal. One time we were invited to their beach house in Malibu and it was the first time my oldest son had ever gone to the beach and they gave him a free kite. True story, we saw a guy walking down the beach and he looked strangely familiar. It turned out to be George fucking Clooney and when he got there you could just feel the coolness oozing out of him. Now I can say I was at a Hollywood A list party.
Diskursdisko: Do you have any specific plans for the future direction of your artwork?
Dan Santat: I’m slowly aging up my work a bit to an older audience. Teens and young adults because when I write I feel like my humor and sensibilities suit that age bracket a little better.
I’m currently working on a graphic novel (which I thought I would never do and I’m falling in love with, though it’s taking a long time) called “The Domesticated Four” with Arthur A Levine Books.
Then I’m trying my hand at a young adult novel and seeing how I like that.
Diskursdisko: Dan, many thanks for the interview – is there anything you’d like to add?
Dan Santat: I should mention that even though I hated animation in art school I ended up pitching an animated series to Disney Animation and it was picked up and became “The Replacements” which aired on TV for about 3 and a half years.
You can still see reruns of it on TV but that whole experience is a completely other story for another day…
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