A Peek at the Creative Space of Dan Santat

I imagine some of you regular readers may have wondered what happened to my interview with Dan Santat. I gave away his books in July as part of Book Cover Bingo, but then . . . no Dan Santat. Well, guess what?!? Today is Dan Santat Day! (Not officially, as far as I know. Although we could get a petition going on that if you’d like.) There was a minor scheduling hiccup and I couldn’t bring you this interview when I originally intended, but I’m very excited to share with you today a peek inside the creative space of the talented and hilarious Dan Santat.

Dan Santat debuted in the children’s literature world as the author/illustrator of The Guild of Geniuses published in 2004 by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Since then he has illustrated numerous picture books like Chicken Dance by Tammi Sauer, The Secret Life of Walter Kitty by Barbara Jean Hicks, and Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo by Ayun Halliday.

He’s been illustrator to the stars with the Otto Undercover chapter book series by Rhea Perlman (Carla from Cheers).

He creates mind-boggling book trailers like this one:

He is the creator of a Disney animated series:

He illustrates one of my new favorite chapter book series (Bobby the Brave, the next title in the series, releases this September):

And his most recent release is my current favorite picture book of the year (which I gushed about here):

and he even dances for pete’s sake!

But a better overview of his work than any written summary I can give is this video portfolio created by Dan Santat for a presentation he gave for ICON 6 in Pasadena, CA, on mass marketing and promotion for artists using video and the internet:

All right, enough chit-chat. Let’s step inside the creative space of Dan Santat and learn a little about a day in his life:

Describe your workspace. 
When my wife and I were shopping around for houses we found that this place had a converted garage. The previous owners had placed carpet on the floor and funneled in central air conditioning and it’s detached from the rest of the house with its own separate door and a back door leading to the backyard. The one major change I did to the room was that I painted the back wall with black chalkboard paint.

It’s just one enormous chalkboard wall for me to keep notes, deadlines, or just to doodle. My kids love to use the wall all the time. The oldest son likes to use it to practice his alphabet. It’s the most popular room in the house, and the kids loves to play in the room, which leads me to the conclusion that I can’t write the room off for tax purposes. There are toys in the room constantly. It’s an awful mess. I have horrible organizational skills so I lose everything.  

Describe a typical workday.
I wake up at 6AM (thanks to the youngest child being done with sleeping for some odd reason) and we like to unwind with a bowl of cereal and some Spongebob Squarepants. (If my wife is hanging out with us she makes us watch A Baby Story. What’s up with that?!) I take the children to daycare at 7:30AM and after an hour of surfing the web, answering emails, and goofing off on Facebook I work until noon. I have lunch in the studio around noon, and then I hop right back into work. A lot of the day is me spent working while watching Hulu, Netflix, Daily Show, and Colbert Report on my laptop so I’m constantly being entertained. I never actually feel like I’m ever working. The wife and kids all come home at 5. We eat, play, give the kids baths (or whatever we need to do with the kids) and then they’re put to bed at 7:30. I hang out with my wife (most likely watching a TiVo-ed episode of General Hospital and whatever awful reality show she has TiVo-ed for that night), and then she goes to bed at 10. I go back to the studio, work until 1 or 2AM, and then I go to bed. My youngest son wakes me up at 6AM again, and I continue the cycle.

What media do you use and which is your favorite? 
Because of the amount of work I get now, I work purely digitally in Photoshop. I can complete the same amount of work in less than half the time when I work digitally. I use a fancy schmancy Wacom tablet and I feel like it gives me super powers, like the power to do stuff in less than half the time. If I could do my taxes on a Wacom tablet, I would. I still do paint on occasion, like when I have to paint a piece for a gallery show, or creating a texture of a digital piece, and that’s on a separate table to my left complete with brushes, inks, paper, and so forth.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
1. I have a stack of postcards which my wife wrote to me while she was backpacking in Europe for three months. We graduated from college and we had just started dating and she sent me a postcard for every week she was in Europe. I kept each one and I have them in a stack on one of my bookshelves. I’ll get them framed when i find out how I want to frame them.

2. Collection of artwork from other artists. I have some artwork from Adam Rex, Kelly Murphy, Tim Biskup, Oliver Jeffers, Edel Rodriguez, Martha Rich, Erik Sandberg, Paul Slater, Ronnie Del Carman, and a whole bunch of others.

3. All the kids’ toys which are strewn about, which I will either play with the kids or put on display to do some silly scene. They help break up the day if I feel like taking a break and help me remind myself what it’s like to be a kid.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
I start off the morning by making a large pot of coffee using my French Press. (I let the coffee brew for about 15 minutes so it can suck out every last bit of caffeine.) Afterward, I might go for a jog around the neighborhood for a half hour. This is important because after lunch I usually get pretty tired so the coffee and jog give me energy to get past that hump. As for my work habits, I generally try to take my sketches as far to completion as I can. That way, painting the final goes much quicker.

What do you listen to while you work?
I’m often found listening/watching documentaries or movies on Netflix, but if I’m in a radio mood I’ll switch on to the KCRW radio station on iTunes (greatest station in the world as far as I’m concerned). Or I’ll listen to the This American Life podcast. If all else fails I’m a sucker for some nice eclectic tunes of bands I’m sure you’ve never heard of (Nujabes, Mos Dub, etc.)

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

SNACK: I’m a sucker for carrots and hummus for some reason. 
DRINK: Coffee. Black.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?
I’m generally in a hypnotic trance when I work so I guess it’s safe to say the work is what keeps me focused. Otherwise the coffee is helping me out unless it’s too strong which in that case will make me all nervous and jumpy.

What aspect of illustrating do you find most challenging and why?

It’s always a challenge to attempt to take the text of a picture book manuscript and trying to make the illustration say or do more than what is written. I think that’s the challenge of making a good picture book into a much better one. Like in the movie Spinal Tap, I need that artwork to hit an 11 (not a 10) in order to be satisfied. Not all my solutions may be the best, but every spread is a challenge that has to be met.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

I would love to have a really solid 3D computer modeler/animator so that he could help me make some really cool book trailers with fancy special effects and so forth. Unfortunately, I share my space with my clone (which you may or may have not seen in my book trailers) and I’ll just have to settle for him.

What is the best piece of illustrating advice you’ve heard or received?

I have two pieces of advice actually. . .
Marshall Arismann the head of the grad school program at the School of Visual Arts once told me, “Paint what you love and your work will find you.”
Roland Young an advertising teacher at my alma mater, Art Center, told me (and I’m paraphrasing), “Do your own thing and don’t follow trends. If you succeed you’ll be viewed as a genius. If you fail then everyone will think you’re an idiot, but at least you’ll be remembered either way. Following trends will just put you in the middle and no one was ever remembered for being like everyone else.”


3 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Dan Santat”

  1. LadybugSF

    As a PeeWee Herman and Cockatiel fan myself (RIP, Homey the Bird) I have to say that this guy sounds GREAT! I am on my way to the amazon to purchase!