Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Featured Interview: Dan Dos Santos

After much delay and a lot of excitement, I can finally announce that the January issue of Mir Fantastiki made my interview with the talented Dan Dos Santos the featured article! The cover you see was produced and printed over 30,000 times out of Moscow and is available in hard copy throughout Russia! Special thanks to MF for allowing me to post the interview in English, thanks to Sergey & Cate for the introduction and formatting, and a special thanks to Dan Dos Santos himself for agreeing to the interview and answering the difficult questions.

The Cover of the December issue of MF

A conversation with Dan Dos Santos

Dan Dos Santos was born in 1978. A dedicated fan of comics, his childhood dream was to become a science fiction artist. Dan studied at the New York College of Visual Arts where he perfected his love of painting on oil, the technique in which he creates all of his works. After college, Dos Santos rented a studio, prepared a gallery, and began work as an illustrator. Dan Dos Santos has collaborated with well-known companies like Disney, Universal Studios, Wizards of the Coast, and DC Comics.

Dan Dos Santos, by his own admission, likes to portray beautiful and powerful heroes in his paintings. Works by this American artist, who's favored genre is Urban Fantasy, decorate many book covers. Today Dos Santos shares his thoughts with us on how to break down stereotypes about comics, reveals some of his "kitchen" secrets, and confesses his love for the show Firefly.

You are a famous fantasy artist. How would you define the genre?
There was a really good quote I heard recently that said "Fantasy begins where nature ends" and I think it's a perfect affirmation of what it really is. The fantasy genre is broader than people give it credit for and while many people just assume it's a lot of boobs, armor, comics, and dudes with swords it's really anything that doesn't exist. This includes the majority of the novels that we read. The genre I work in primarily is Urban Fantasy, which includes anything with a little bit of magic in it or anything a little larger than life.
I think maybe 15 or 20 years ago fantasy art had a stigmatism to it and even great artists like Greg Manchess would work under a pseudonym like Ravenwood (or Rick Berry who worked under the pseudonym Rakeland) because being a fantasy artist would not quite ruin your career, but it would seriously add enough stigma that you couldn't be in a gallery or earn the same respect. My generation grew up with Spectrum, which I had in college, and I particularly aspired towards fantasy art. Even at a young age all of my favorite cartoons in America in the 80's were ThunderCats, Dungeons and Dragons, Voltron, and Transformers, which were all fantasy.

In your work, which is more important: Trying to tell a story with an image or showcasing a character?
It depends on the subject. I never think of myself as a fine artist but when I do get to do a piece for myself I'd say it's probably a little bit about the story and the emotion. When you say story I'm not thinking a literal novel but for the most part that is my primary goal: to achieve the flavor of that novel. I'd say 99% of the work I do is commercial work so i'm really focusing on the accuracy of the character, capturing that character's attitude, and getting not just a scene of the story but the flavor of the whole book.

Do you get to read the books that you're asked to create a cover for? If so and you don't like it do you get to reject the commission?
[laughing] So i'd say most of the time I get the manuscript and I always read it. Every now and then for the really big titles the cover actually gets painted before the book is even finished, like all my Mercy Thompson covers. I'm working on a cover right now and the author hasn't even begun work on the novel because they start promoting it to the Barnes and Noble buyers early. By the time I read the manuscript no, you can't say no anymore, and sadly there's a great number of really horrible books I've read, that even though the book is bad those are some of my favorite covers, oddly because they just have good visual material to work from. Maybe the character looks really cool or some absurd scene makes for a great cover even though the story is not so good.

Is it easier for you to draw with more specifications from a client or less?
Just enough. I really do need a compass to tell me what to draw. If you tell me "Oh just paint whatever you want" I could do a guy, I could do a girl, I could do a dragon, a vampire, anything. If you tell me to draw a cool vampire now all of a sudden I can think of 20 different cool vampires and can really focus in on it. Some of my hardest covers have been the ones where they let me do anything I want. It's difficult when you have a million options and you don't know what you want but if you box me in I'll find a way to think outside that box a lot easier.

Do you ever feel too limited by the description of a character?
No. Oddly enough authors tend to provide a surprisingly small amount of description in most of their characters because they want their reader to envision them (the character) the way that the individual reader wants to envision it. It's usually "oh she was really tall or really buxom and had glaring blue eyes" but usually not much more than that. So no, i'm not too restricted.

Do you think that portraying the portrait of a character on the cover of a book in some way inhibits the readers imagination?
It's kind of tough because when it's nondescript you always envision it the way you want to envision it and the moment you put a face to something people will love or hate it. It's either what they envisioned or not what they envisioned. So I can [create] what I had in my mind but if there wasn't that much description in the book, all of a sudden you start getting complaints from readers saying "that's not what he looks like," and I think "no, the author doesn't say what he looks like. It's just what you though he looks like." There's a book I love called Name of the Wind and the main character Kvothe is described as having red hair but that's pretty much it. I've seen so much fan art because the covers don't actually show is face, and no one ever gets my Kvothe, the one I have in my head. I'm not even sure that I could achieve that if I tried painting him, it's tough.

What's it like working on preexisting characters, like your Firefly/Serenity piece?
That's a geekout for me. I got that job because the A.D. knew I was a huge Firefly fan. I'm a browncoat forever and I might be doing a 6 issue miniseries (the covers). We'll see though, their first deadline is tight and I don't know if I can make the first issue. If I can't make the first issue I might not get any of them because they don't want to change artist mid series. I've got my fingers crossed. As for the piece I already did that was a funny job. It was a total geekout but because I have so much passion for Firefly I felt this weird weight in having to really do it justice. It gave me an excuse to go back and re-watch the entire season for the zillionth [**Translation Note: a fictional number that Americans generally use as an exaggeration. It rhymes with Billionth**] time, doing screen captures of Nathan Fillion's face, because I didn't want to use the same Google Image photos everyone has. Then, I flopped the screen caps, trying to  figure out a good face that no one had and I put it on my body to make a new pose that didn't exist. That's kind of what we artists live for and even though those kind of jobs don't pay as well as some of the other book covers those are the ones that make it all worth it.

Do you often use yourself as a photo reference?
Sadly so. I've posed as 14 year old girls on covers but usually I'll find a really handsome model to get the face. I think maybe it's the way I draw. I tend to draw poses for comic [projects] that are so off the wall that it's really hard to get people to take those poses sometimes, and I know what i'm looking for. I'll usually set the camera on a timer, get that body pose, at least just enough for reference, and then when I hire the real model I can move them like a mannequin and just mimic what I did. I'd say at least 50% of the time i'm using myself.

In Russia and in America people regard comics as simple entertainment for children. What do you think is the origin of this perception and do you think there's truth to it?
Absolutely. We don't give comics nearly the respect that they deserve. Some of the most talented and hard working artists I've ever met are in comics, particularly American comics because they come out on a monthly basis. French comics, called bande dessinĂ©es are treated so much more like an art form, and they take a year for the artist to complete. I wish we had the same amount of respect for them here. As for why they're considered childish, we don't get pictures in our books anymore. If I want to read Treasure Island, it's not childish to me to have a chapter head drawing or a picture in the book but for some reason we have that bizarre stigma here where people say things like "Oh there's pictures in that book so it must be for kids."

How do you think we can overcome the stigma?
I'm hoping e-books might be the saving grace. For a lot of people reading seems a lot more cerebral than simply looking. It's a higher art form or it's considered that, so I think pictures went out of fashion. Financially it's also really difficult to print a book with pictures in it. I'm hoping E-books, because there's no overhead cost to having an illustration inside an e-book will revive that a little bit.

What do you think of the oversexualization of female characters in fantasy art?
Artists get so much blame for that but it's the market. Almost every single art director I work for on a regular basis is female and all of those covers I do that seem overly sexualized are these female art directors asking me to do that, generally for a female author and a female readership. You can't blame it on sexism, it's not a guy thing. It's really just a market thing. Women know that if they want to read a romance novel there's probably going to be a buxom woman on the cover so they want me to paint a buxom woman on the cover because that's their audience. If I painted it to look like something else they're going to miss their market, not that it's necessarily faithful to the book, but you've got to reach your audience.
I feel like people are so worried about it lately that it might change. A lot of the worry is from the internet. Outspoken people are always outspoken but if these people really had what they wanted there'd just be words on the cover. They wouldn't have any pictures and no picture can ever do justice to what they want. My problem with sexualization: I don't mind making a woman sexy. Sex is okay. Making her look weak or like an object, that's different. If you make her look sexy and make her look tough, or make her look powerful, who doesn't want that? Guys want to be sexy and powerful in the same way. It's the submissiveness that I take issue with and for the most part I don't do those covers.

Everything you do is by hand but there are those who think that digital (versus traditional) methods of creating art will take over the industry. Where do you see the future of art?
It's kind of like saying the Casio keyboard is going to make pianos obsolete because it's not. Top 40 music will be created digitally, commercial art will probably be produced digitally, but there's always going to be a niche for traditionally created art. When you go to a concert you want to hear a real grand piano. If you want to hang a piece of art in your house you want it to be an original piece of art. So it may come to that, but I also still think it has a place commercially. I expect that within the next few years we'll see a [demand] for people to painting traditionally. There's just so much digital work and it's all become a little incestuous because digital art is so young that people are feeding off the same artists over and over that I think they're lacking the voice that they need, that they're going to look for new ways to do be creative and they might go to traditional media and manipulate their works digitally, almost like CGI in a movie. I think the perfect blend is a little bit of practical effects mixed with CGI.

Could you explain the concept of Muddy Colors?
Muddy Colors is a fantasy art collective. The basic idea was that it's hard to maintain a daily blog with a daily readership on your own (as an artist) unless you're James Gurney, so I got some of my best friends to help me put together a blog and it's grown from 9 to 14 people. It's basically some of the leading artists in the fantasy industry providing insight to their process and the industry for the benefit of aspiring illustrators. I have a really poor concept of time but I think it's been around for two to three years.

You've done a few videos showing your creative process. Do you have any advice for young artists?
Drawing is a super important aspect of painting. My painting was not as good as it could be for a long time because I kept overlooking the amount of effort that drawing takes. One of my teachers once told me that beneath every good painting is a great drawing. If you don't have that great drawing don't take the next step yet. You have to start with the under-painting a little bit before you take the next step.

For more of Dan Dos Santos' work, please visit his website:
For more information on Muddy Colors, please visit their blog:

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