I’ve had the fortune to meet (and in some cases become friends with) many authors and illustrators, it’s one of the coolest fringe benefits of my career. Later this summer, at the #LA15SCBWI Summer Conference, I’ll get the pleasure of meeting Dan Santat and hearing him speak—and I can’t wait!
I first became aware of Dan Santat through his presence on social networks. I found the artwork he posted to be brilliant and exciting and clever and funny and, well . . . all of the above and a bag of chips. That’s not my opinion only, though, the Caldecott folks thought so too. Dan’s THE ADVENTURES OF BEEKLE: THE UNIMAGINARY FRIEND is the 2015 Caldecott winner, in case you didn’t know!
Tate: First of all, seems like you produce a gazillion books or more per year—best-selling, award-winning books. Do you sleep?
Santat: I’ll admit that for the last ten years I got very little sleep. I averaged about 5 hours per night to be precise. When I would go to bed I would think about stories in my head right before I fell asleep. Life was possible by streamlining my art process and drinking copious amounts of coffee.
Tate: What drew you to the field of children’s books, as opposed to, say, advertising, visual journalism, or other areas of the commercial arts?
Santat: When I went to art school I originally had plans of going into animation. After I took my first 3D Animation class I realized that I loathed the process of animating (especially on a computer) and I started looking for a more efficient means of storytelling. There was a children’s book illustration class which I thought was a great segway from animation and so I enrolled in the course and I immediately fell in love with it. By the time I graduated I realized it would probably take a while to get myself established in book publishing and so I got the first job I could find which was as an Environment Artist at a video game company while doing editorial illustration after work and working on my art portfolio. I was also doing gallery art, some freelance animation, and other things to just get any kind of experience and get a taste of the whole art world. Two years out of school I got my first two book deal.
Santat: In art school I loved the work of folks like Chris Van Allsberg, NC Wyeth, Dean Cornwell, David Shannon, and William Joyce. As a kid growing up I loved many comic artists like Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo, Masamune Shirow, and Bill Watterson. Honestly though, as a storyteller and artist the biggest influence in my life was my advertising teacher Roland Yung. He made me view illustration less about simply making something look beautiful and more about seeing things as problems that have to be solved and there are effective ways to enhance the communication of those ideas. It was less about how I drew things and more about why I drew things they way I did. Form follows function is more of a product designers philosophy but I swear by it a an illustrator.
Tate: I love your illustration work. It’s computer generated but totally passes for natural media. Has the computer always been your tool of choice?
Santat: I used to be an ink and acrylic kind of guy. I was always stronger with my line work than painting because I had never painted anything until I got to art school. Acrylic was great because it dries so quickly that I could draw on top of it, sand it down, glue things down over it, etc. At art school it was required that all students were proficient in Adobe Photoshop but as an illustration tool people were still trying to figure out how to get that “digital” feel out of things. I loved the computer because it was quick and clean. You could scan in paper and images and things and incorporate it into your work. I fell in love with the Wacom tablet and I still use one today (an 8 X 12 Intuos 5) I’m not a Cintiq guy mainly because I like using my monitor to watch TV shows and sports while I work. I can also easily throw my Wacom into my backpack for travel so I can work on the road. Digital art was still quite taboo in many illustration fields and so when I entered the freelance world I began mainly working in acrylic. Eventually, I ended up getting so much work (especially in editorial illustration) that I would start doing the jobs digitally trying to hide the fact that they were digital by integrating textures (which I did horribly) and then at a certain point I realized that no one really cared if it looked digital and so I did the transition to full digital. The computer actually gave me the courage to experiment more with my work. It improved my sense of color, too. Now, I actually have a 50/50 method where I make art textures by painting swatches on paper and then scan them into the computer and I integrate them into my artwork. I also don’t use custom brushes because I don’t want to be in a spot where if I had to work on a computer and didn’t have access to them then I couldn’t work.
Tate: I’d like to talk diversity. As a child, what was the first book that you encountered that featured a character that looked like you? How did that book make an impact on the Dan Santat we know today?
Santat: Gene Luen Yang‘s “American Born Chinese” was the first book I read where I thought I was looking in a mirror of myself. Although I’m Thai, I still related heavily on the issue of being an Asian kid in a predominantly white community and somewhat feeling uneasy with my own cultural traditions. I mean, I’m sure I had previously read books with Asian characters but I wasn’t so mindful of the fact until I read his book. Gene’s book was like personal threrapy in a way. There was a part of me that felt like I wasn’t being a good Asian because I didn’t fully embrace my Asian-ness and it was nice to know that there were others who felt the same struggles.
Tate: Have there been challenges along the way related to being a creator of color?
Santat: I’ve never had any struggles whatsoever in terms of getting work, or getting my foot in the door of any business. I did notice in some industries, like TV animation at the time, where folks were still a little weird about having main characters of a different ethnicity, but I’ve seen that change over the years. I do notice how much more mindful folks are in certain fields like textbook illustration where it’s so aware that it gets a little annoying. They want to represent everyone equally, which I appreciate, but to a point where it’s trying too hard. For example, if I had to draw a classroom of kids I would get art notes back like, “OK, make that boy Hispanic, make that one an African American girl, and make that Asian boy look MORE Asian, oh and put the African American girl in a wheelchair and the Asian boy in crutches.” Suddenly, I have an illustration that represents a diverse cultural leper colony.
Tate: I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a hundred times, but where did Beekle come from? Was he your childhood imaginary friend?
Santat: I actually didn’t have an imaginary friend when I was a kid but I always loved the concept. I also found it interesting that imaginary friends never have a say in the matter. They are the ones who are destined to be friends with some kid whether they like it or not. It’s much like kids with their parents. There is an unconditional love that is present although you as a child don’t get to choose who your parents are (though many of us wish we could.) Beekle originally existed as a story about an imaginary friend who was so odd that no one could imagine him and so he went out of his way to look and act like the other imaginary friends so he could find a friend. My editor and I discussed that this was more of a behavior that an older teen would perhaps embrace and so we shifted the thinking to the thoughts I had about my first son and the thoughts that ran through my mind about the anticipation of becoming a first time parent. You don’t know who this person is going to be but you’re curious, and you fill your mind with ideas of what they could be like. It isn’t until you finally hold your kid in your arms when it all becomes a reality and you give your child his/her name much like Beekle did in the book. From a child’s point of view it’s the anticipation of your first day at school and making your first friend. Beekle was my son’s first word. It was his word for bicycle, and my wife and I thought it would be a great name for a character in a book and so, I wrote this book for him as a love letter. I wanted to make a clear message to my son that even though I may be strict, or that maybe we don’t see eye to eye on things, even years down the road, this will be a thing that he can read when he is older, and maybe share with his kids (or grandkids) and it can be read for generations down the line as how I would love my family to be defined.
Tate: Dude, you won a Caldecott! That’s beyond cool. How has life changed—if at all—since winning the highest award? Are you able to get any new work done, or are you constantly under interview pursuit from folks like me?
Santat: I’m much more relaxed. In fact, now that I reflect on the last ten years of my life, I wonder how I even got through it all. I don’t think I realized how intense I was at my craft until now. I think, it quite possibly even saved my life, because I struggled my whole life to feel like I did something significant. Something that felt worthy of my peers. This is the one time I get to embrace that. It’s less about showing others my worth but, in fact, proving to myself that I belonged in this business. I sleep more (which still isn’t saying much) but work isn’t constantly on my mind anymore. I don’t worry about things as much as I used to, for now. I do have other concerns that come from winning, but that’s a different matter. I’ve been asked to many more events and I’ve had to travel much more. This is even with the fact that I’ve turned down half the things I’m offered. I’ve done more interviews, been asked to participate in more panels, and contribute art to auctions, etc. Getting back into the groove of work has been a struggle, but publishers keep reminding me of my contractual obligations. It’s clear to me that publishers want to get in on this train, as well, but my agent has been very good about regulating all of that. She’s been my best friend in all of this. She wants me to take the time to enjoy this moment and soak it all in.
Tate: Now, concerning the summer conference, I understand that you will co-lead the Illustrator Intensive. I wanted to sign up for that, too, but I decided to polish my word chops. I signed up for the writer’s intensive. Without making me regret my decision, can you give me a hint as to what I will miss?
Santat: The illustrators intensive, I feel, has always been the best thing for illustrators at SCBWI. I feel it’s the whole conference for them. I do admire you venturing into the writers side of things, however, because I feel that having that knowledge just makes you a better craftsman as a whole. I think your illustrations will improve by the way you communicate as a result. I’m doing an intensive about how your work needs to address the problem at hand and not marketing yourself as just a style. I’ll also be doing two break out sessions during the regular conference. The first is about how to write books from the point of view of an illustrator, the other is about how to improve your illustrations simply by being a better graphic designer and composing your images more thoughtfully. Then there’s also the keynote. You have no idea. Keynoting at the Summer conference has always been a dream of mine.
Tate: Thanks Dan!
Click here for more information about the SCBWI Summer Conference and to register for the full day Illustrator’s Intensive.