Although we call him an illustrator, Dan Santat is in the business of alchemy. Just as The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend explores the shifting of human (and inhuman) properties, Dan spends his time realizing the imagined as a writer and artist involved in the creation of over fifty titles. He managed to keep the coals of inspiration stoked even during a four-year degree in medicine when he really would rather have been — and millions of readers are so grateful he did.
His hilarious, heartfelt books are instantly recognizable; though his characters are rarely human, they have a heaping dose of humanity.
Dude! Your characters are so charming and lifelike, and you’re incredibly thoughtful about character creation. Have you ever created characters based on real people, or are they all summoned up from the imagination?
Yes, I have done that in several cases. One example is from one of my earlier books, Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World). My wife and I have two young boys and people always wondered what it would have been like if we had a daughter, so the girl in the book was inspired by the possibility of what our daughter would have been like. She was left handed like me, she was a scientist like my wife, and wore glasses like both of us. Another example is The Three Ninja Pigs. The three pigs all knew martial arts but they were inspired by actual famous martial artists. Pig #1 was Ralph Macchio from the Karate Kid, Pig #2 was Steven Segal, and Pig#3 was inspired by Bruce Lee.
How did you finally make the leap from studying Microbiology to art and design, and what was your family’s reaction?
It was my friends in college who encouraged me to take the leap of faith. They saw how much I loved art and how much I hated studying science and insisted that I try to apply to art school (just to see if I could get in) Their constant nagging finally won me over, and I took some figure drawing classes around San Diego (where I was attending college at the time) applied to art school and I got in. My friends all knew that once I got in I would be sold on dedicating myself to a life of art. My parents were surprisingly supportive of my decision. It was odd to me considering that every minute of every day of my childhood was spent telling me that science was the only option, then suddenly, “Hey, we just want you to be happy.”
I honestly think they realized deep down inside that I would have been an awful doctor.
Does your background in science influence your art at all?
It does in the sense that it strengthened my love for art even more. Spending four years studying in a field you have absolutely no interest in can really demonstrate your grit and your capacity to do things that you don’t find particularly pleasant. When I got to art school I saw so many other students goofing off and I thought they were taking it all for granted. I thought, none of them should have to be pushed into making art. You should want to do art every day!
What about going from illustrating picture books to creating a television show, The Replacements, for Disney in 2005? What was the most unexpected challenge you encountered there?
I first thought that having a TV show was “the dream” and that it was going to be the most amazing achievement of my life and less than one percent of one percent of people get that opportunity. It honestly was a bit of a drudge. Most of my time it was me trying to talk to executives and convince them why every little detail had to be in the show, while executives were in the pursuit of climbing up the corporate ladder without any real interest in the show itself. I left after the first season and collected the checks for the second and third. Publishing was whee my heart truly was. It was me, and editor, an art director, and no one else. Easy.
Did your time in television change anything about the way you approach books?
The aspects of storyboarding a TV show really helped me get a better understanding of pacing and building up a moment in books. When I start out with a dummy book the first weeks of crafting the dummy is solely for the purpose of developing the right feel of pacing to maximize the impact of a significant moment. On the other hand I don’t do much character design. I feel like those aspects of story development can be overworked and you can easily end up staring at the pebbles and not the whole beach if you know what I’m saying.
You’re renowned in the picture book business for being able to create an immense amount of work. What does your average workday look like?
Wake up at 7AM and make my coffee. I drop the kids off at school by 8:30 and I go for a 2-mile run every morning. I answer emails, I read the news, and then I start work at 10AM and work straight to 3 or 5PM. I’ll often have to take the kids to piano lessons or something like that, I’ll make dinner, clean the kitchen, and then It’s off to be around 11PM. If you asked me this question 10 years ago, I used to work 16-hour days. I can’t do that anymore. My body just gets wrecked.
What do your kids think about what you do?
I’m the fun parent. They get to go to Comic Con, animated movie premieres, and cool art events because of me. Their friends read my books and they’ll sometimes peek their head not my studio out of curiosity to see where the sausage is made.
What’s the best interaction you’ve had with a child about your work?
I once met a kid at a comic convention who saw my badge and he said, “I loved your graphic novel, Sidekicks. I went to art school because that book made me want to make my own comics.”
We included The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend (for which you won the Caldecott Medal in 2015) in our April 2017 Friendship collection. What’s your experience with imaginary friends?
None, actually. I never had an imaginary friend. When I was a kid I would pretend I was riding my bike with Optimus Prime and things like that, but I never had an imaginary friend, though I always loved the concept.
And finally: do you have any advice to share with young aspiring illustrators?
Don’t have a style. The easiest way to improve your illustration is by being a good designer.