The master artist on suc­cess, sac­ri­fice and be­ing in­vis­i­ble

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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.

well cov­ered

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.

happy ac­ci­dents

“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”.

help­ing hand

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

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