Oct 29 2008 12:57pm

Dan Dos Santos interview

Dan Dos Santos

Dan Dos SantosDan Dos Santos exploded into the sf/f art world in the early 2000s, pretty much straight out of college. His highly rendered realist style combined with saturated color and exotic costuming create a great sense of otherworldliness. When it comes to it, Dan simply has a knack for making fantasy look cool.

Besides being a great artist, Dan is a remarkably curious and giving individual. He can often be seen on and conventions making the first move to reach out to younger artists, looking over their portfolios and giving advice. No one is allowed to be shy around Dan.

Dan Dos SantosDo you remember the first time you knew you wanted to be an artist?
Drawing was an obsession that happened instantaneously for me. When I was 5, I watched my father draw a picture of Optimus Prime on a smooth beach rock. Until then, I hadn’t realized that people drew the cartoons I watched, nor did I realize that I could draw them myself if I wanted. It was like an epiphany, “You mean, I can draw the Transformers doing whatever I want?!” From that moment on, I became obsessive about knowing how to draw all of my favorite cartoon characters.

Dan Dos SantosDo you have a five year plan or do you just take each job as it comes?
I always have a plan. Right now, I am trying to diversify my clientele a bit. In the next 5 years, I want to split my time evenly amongst movies, comics, book covers, and personal work. It’s really important to be conscientious about the direction your career is heading in. Otherwise, one day you’ll wake up at a dead-end wondering how you got there.

Dan Dos SantosDo you have a set image in your mind when you first start sketching or do you start out abstractly and let the process of sketching take over?
Both. When I first sit down, I usually have an image in my head. Unfortunately, that image is almost always too trite of a solution. Once the obvious answer is down on paper, the real challenge begins... developing new ideas. That’s when I just start drawing, and drawing, and drawing. Eventually, through sheer volume, I stumble across a fresh idea.

Dan Dos SantosHow do you feel your schooling prepared you for real life?
For real life... pretty well. Like school, “real life” is just about working hard and having clear goals. Learn from the competition, and play nice.

I do wish that they spent more time on running your own business though. Business ethics, contracts, invoices, taxes, etc. I was fortunate to have a great mentor that helped me with these issues, but I can only imagine my peers had to learn through trial and error.

Dan Dos SantosDo you have to like the book/comic/movie to be excited about the project?
Surprisingly, no. In fact, the opposite is almost true. Often times, if I like a book too much, I have a really difficult time deciding on an image that I feel does the text justice. Usually, excitement for a project comes in the form of visual inspiration. If the A.D. is describing a cool scenario and I instantly get a great image in my head, I get pretty excited about the gig regardless of the quality of writing.

Dan Dos SantosFavorite painting you did in the past year?
Green, for Jay Lake. (Alternate sketches seen here.) The painting itself isn’t any better or more complicated than any of my others. But the concept was so simple and effective, that it really made the process enjoyable. I think if you ask most artists what their favorite painting is, they usually pick the one that was most fun to paint. (Hot ninja girls don’t hurt either)

Dream assignment?
I’ve been asked this many times, and every time it’s different. Illustrating Dune would be pretty sweet though. A nice deluxe edition, with full color illustrations. Yummmmm.

Dan Dos SantosA career highlight?
I’m really hoping it hasn’t happened yet.

What are you working on now?
Right now I am working on the designs for an upcoming movie. It’s a fairly large production and presents a lot of unique challenges. I am designing the costumes that the three main characters will wear. When designing them, I have to consider how these costumes will look at 360 degrees, as well as how they will function when the characters are in motion. In book cover illustration, we can get away with some pretty ludicrous outfits (especially on the women), since they Dan Dos Santosusually only need to be seen from a single angle, preforming a single task. Here, I am concerned about function as much as form, and am spending a lot of time picking fabrics and patterns. It really is a ton of fun and a nice break from my usual assignments.

Your biggest influences?
Some of my favorite artists (in no particular order): Moebius, Katsuhiro Otomo, Katsuya Terada, Hiroaki Samura, Paul Pope, Jack Kirby, J.W. Waterhouse, William Bougeureau, Jean Gerome, John Singer Sargent, Gustav Dore, Arthur Rackham, Michael Whelan, James Jean, and Adam Rex.

Favorite color?
Rembrandt’s “Yellowish Green.” Aside from looking really yummy on its own, it makes the most beautiful flesh tones when mixed with reds.

How do you balance personal time with work?
Personal time....
I know I’ve heard that somewhere before.

Advice to a young illustrator?
Get a real job.

What do you do outside of art for fun?
Spend time with the kids, and cook. Man, I really, really love cooking.

Dan Dos SantosYou can see more of Dan’s work on his website and gallery. You can also see a time lapse video of Dan Dos Santos painting the cover art for Brandon Sanderson’ s Warbreaker, (including a way cool soundtrack by Ratatat) soon to be a full length instructional DVD from Massive Black.

Tae "the librarian" Drake
1. booklust
Love his stuff, it's so beautiful.
I love his Mercy Thompson covers for Patricia Briggs, especially. I like the fact that Mercy looks like a real proportioned woman, she's sexy, and she's a believable mechanic.
Keep up the great work!
Pablo Defendini
2. pablodefendini
Having read the Jay Lake story that Dan did the illos for, but not Green itself, I'm now very curious as to the difference between the protagonist on the cover, and the protagonist on the story illustrations. I'm assuming they're not the same people (duh).

Aside from that, it never fails to amuse me how almost every interview with an illustrator/independent designer contains the same "I wish they'd taught me about running a business in art school" lament, yet schools have done very little to include this type of education in their curriculae. I remember when I attended art school, they had a one-semester seminar about it, but it was very, very basic.

If I had my druthers, I'd structure the entire communication arts department like a business: have the teacher teach and mentor, but when it comes to assignments, have them take the role of the client, force design students to hire and art-direct illustrators and photographers instead of heading directly over to iStockPhoto, have students price out jobs and draw up contracts using the G.A.G.'s guidelines, submit invoices—the whole nine. And then supplement that with a multi-year short class on taxes, best practices, running a studio, etc.
Irene Gallo
3. Irene
Pablo, you're so right. That's why I keep asking the question.Everyone does have the same complaint -- you'd think the schools would notice. To be fair, the schools have kids at an age where they just aren't interested in such things, but they still should make it mandatory learning for at least the last three years.

I've heard of one guy that makes his students "invoice" each project. And I know Donato assigns a money value to his grades -- if you do an average job you get X dollars, the better the grade the more money you are assigned. At the end of the semester students can get a rough idea if they could have lived off of what they earned. Making them (hopefully) want to get a whole lot better!

The other side of the schooling question that I find interesting is that I think you'll find a lot of people my age and older complain the schools never taught fundamental drawing and painting. We were taught by a bunch of "painting is dead" artists. Thankfully, I think there has been a shift over the past bunch of years to get back to basics and teach some craft. Let the students figure out what they want to say _after_ they learn how to communicate. It's heartening.
Eric Braddock
4. EricBraddock
You know, it's funny, when I was in school, we were exposed to a lot of the business aspects of illustration but not really TAUGHT the aspects. I know a lot of it is figuring that out on your own path and such, but it'd be nice to have some course that actually takes you through a step by step process of how things work in the real world. I think a lot of students really need that kind of fundamental break down of a simplified Art Director-to-Artist relationship and howit works.

As far as the actual art is concerned, luckily I went through a school that still emphasizes the use of traditional backgrounds, so even the ones with their hearts set on working digitally still had to trudge through the drawing and the painting like everyone else. It's really odd to think that some people automatically assume that computer = better. As an oil painter, I always tell people it doesn't matter what media you decide to work in, they all need fundamentals. You wouldn't want an auto mechanic working on your car unless he understands how the engine works, right?

Hm, what exactly qualifies as a "real" job, Dan? ;)

Also, it's my opinion that Donato should allow his students to trade in these assignment dollars for TCBY gift cards. If that isn't incentive, I don't know what is.
Nicole Cardiff
5. NicoleCardiff
Heh, I think it's the same uphill battle no matter where you go to school - a lot of the teachers, at least where I went, had been out of the industry and solely doing personal work for so long that even when I asked specific business questions, I mostly got non-answers.

We certainly had to push to get traditional draftsmanship skills from our program, too, so the style-first ethos isn't gone.

I always love Dan's skin tones. Beautiful stuff. The T. A. Pratt covers are some of my favorites from him, especially the Poison Sleep and Blood Engines ones.

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