DAN DOS SANTOS
The master artist on success, sacrifice and being invisible
The debt made me very serious about art school. Perhaps a little too serious
By train, it’s a long way from Shelton, Connecticut, to New York City. Dan dos Santos remembers the journey all too well. He couldn’t get any drawing done – the train bumped around far too much for that. So he’d stay up all night painting and instead use the five-hour round trip to catch up on sleep.
While studying at the School of Visual Arts, Dan commuted between his parents’ house in Connecticut and the college in Manhattan. He reveals that he was a serious student. He never left early, he never skipped class or handed a homework assignment in late.
“I do regret not enjoying my college years a little bit more,” says the artist. “That lengthy commute definitely put a damper on the whole college experience. Tuition was prohibitively expensive for me, so I did everything I could to alleviate that financial burden – including making the decision to stay at home and commute in to school. That, plus the knowledge I was racking up exorbitant student debt in order to be there, made me very serious about school. Perhaps too serious.
“But I managed to pay off my student loans much quicker than most. I’m now actually doing what I set out to do. The rest is history.”
Dan graduated top of his class and quickly established himself as one of the most in-demand fantasy and sciencefiction artists of his generation. He’s best known for his book covers, but also works on comics, films and video games. The artist’s impressive client list – Disney, Random House, Universal Studios – is matched by the many awards that he’s won over the years.
While he had a bit of help on the way up, it’s through personal sacrifice that Dan has achieved so many professional successes. He’s at the stage of his career where he wants to not only build on this success, but to put something back by offering emerging artists similar support he received on the way up. He works as tirelessly today as he did as a student.
The assignment for a new book cover begins with the manuscript. Dan goes through the story and then produces three of four sketches based on what he’s read – perhaps a portrait, an action shot and a romantic embrace.
The book’s art director and marketing department look at his rough drawings and decide which is best suited to the title’s target audience. They’ll usually send a couple of revisions over with whichever sketch they choose for the cover.
To pay his bills, Dan has to do two book covers a month. With two decades’ worth of experience, he has the trust of art directors he regularly works with, so at this stage he’s left alone to work on
the piece. The next time the team sees the drawing, it’ll be finished.
“About half the time, the final art will need to be revised in some small way,” he says, “usually something simple like, ‘Can you lighten her face?’ or ‘Can you give her a tougher expression?’ Because the painting is usually still wet at this point, and I don’t want to scan the original a second time, I typically do these revisions digitally.”
Dan works mainly with traditional materials. While he acknowledges the many advantages of working digitally –”faster turn around, no drying time, limitless revisions, and the ability to see multiple options incredibly quickly”– he sees one great disadvantage that tops them all. “The problem with digital lies in its perfection,” he says. “The brush is always consistent, the gradation is always perfect and most effects are easily replicable from one artist to another. When you work traditionally, the hand of the individual artist plays a much greater role. The way a particular person draws a line is difficult to imitate. This offers more uniqueness to a work of art.
“Accidents happen when you work traditionally. Those accidents lead to experimentation and unexpected new techniques. Working traditionally adds an X factor of sorts. Personally, I like having that variable tossed into the mix. It keeps things fun and exciting. Though the greatest asset to working traditionally is that I have a real, tangible work of art that will last generations.”
Dan’s first art teacher was his older sister. As kids, they’d work on huge murals together, drawn on rolls of butcher
paper which would take whole days to colour. Through a high school-sponsored internship, Careers in Art, he met his longtime mentor Steven H Stroud. From the acclaimed artist, Dan learned the basics of illustration and decided this was the subject he want to study at college.
To Dan, art is separate from the artist. For this reason, he tries not to take criticism personally. But if something prevents one of his images being read clearly, he wants to know about it. He strives to ensure his book covers are not only narratively accurate, but are eye-catching, legible from a great distance and stand out from other covers on the bookshelf. How the audience perceives his work is central to everything he does.
“I think about the reader a lot,” he says. “Illustration, by its very definition, is about communication. If you’re not speaking to your audience, you’re not doing your job as an illustrator. This form of art is not solely about self-expression, it’s about telling a story your audience can understand.”
call for criticism
“The image was created for the audience’s benefit, not mine. In fact, you might say that criticism is actually part of my artistic process. I correspond with other professional artists on an almost daily basis. I ask for criticism on all my work before calling a piece officially finished. It’s these considerations for the audience that most separate a fine artist from a commercial illustrator.”
After graduating the School of Visual Arts, Dan started by painting portraits out of his parent’s basement, and soon made enough to set up a studio with Steven, his mentor. But for a while he worked on “whatever would pay the bills”. He began selling a particular kind of painting quicker than he could paint them. He found this work – figurative stuff, lots of ballerinas – quite enjoyable, but it was a long way from the art he imagined he’d be making.
So he decided to make the difficult decision of sacrificing the regular money these paintings brought in and focusing more on the kind of illustrations he always set out to do. His very next painting, Shiva’s Crown (see page 43 for more), still one of his favourite ever pieces, helped him win his first proper illustration job.
In Shiva’s Crown, we see many of the things that make Dan’s work so great. The
This form of art is not solely about self-expression, it’s about telling a story your audience can understand
subject is one of the artist’s tough women. The costume she wears is elaborate, the colours bright. Her face photorealistic, but she has an otherworldly air. There is a story bubbling away beneath the surface.
Dan’s reluctant to describe his own work, but says his peers recognise a certain tone and mood: “There must be,” he says, “some sensibility that I am blind to.”
Dan works from home, which is in Greensboro, North Carolina, as does his wife. They have two young children, which, “Makes for a lot of noise and a lot of distraction”. So he paints at night, often working through until 7am. He says he doesn’t eat properly and rarely goes outside during daylight hours, which has caused, “Weight gain and a general decline in health overall”.
Yet Dan is still generous with his time, willing to make further sacrifices to help out others in much the same way Steven H Stroud helped him in his early years as an artist. Dan teaches at colleges and workshops throughout the US, as well as hosting instructional demonstrations. He is also the creator and moderator of the very popular art-education blog Muddy Colors.
“I think our readers would be shocked to know just how many hours a day go into that blog,” he says, “and that is time I could be spending elsewhere, such as exercising or being with my children. We haven’t monetised Muddy Colors, and don’t accept ads of any sort, so there’s no financial boon to speak of. Really, the only pay-off is just the knowledge that we’re helping foster this community we all love so much.
“I seriously wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for the efforts of a few remarkably generous teachers. Muddy Colors is a chance for me to pay that generosity forward, and hopefully also help inform and inspire the next generation of young illustrators.”
No longer the bright young thing of fantasy art, Dan dos Santos is now spoken of in the same breath as the masters he originally learned so much from. But his dedication remains the same, little changed from the young artist who rode the train five hours a day to art school. “Like school,” he says, “real life is just about working hard and having clear goals. Learn from the competition, and play nice.”
A private commission for a collector. “Unlike a book cover, there isn’t a single story. Instead, I had 14 novels worth of inspiration to pull from.” harry dresden
angelic art Dan dos Santos has made a name for himself partly with his depictions of powerful women.
The cover art for Diana Rowland’s My Life As A White Trash Zombie. “Making it more sexy than scary was essential.” The image earned Dan a Spectrum silver medal. white trash zombie
the fires of heaven “Dan’s talent for painting preternaturally beautiful women and his mastery of an intensely chromatic palette made him an easy choice,” said Tor’s Irene Gallo, on the cover art for the fifth book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.
shifting shadows For the novel Shifting Shadows, by Patricia Briggs. “The client specifically requested a close-up of Mercy’s face – and that was it.”
“With the exception of the dragon’s eyes and red smoke, the piece is painted entirely in oils,” says Dan of his cover for Tor Books’ Forged in Fire by JA Pitts. forged in fire
Dan painted the cover for the second book in the White Trash Zombie series. Tor Books’ Michael M Jones calls it “brilliantly evocative” and “wonderfully skeevy”. even white trash zombies get the blues