Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 5, 2011

Illustrator Saturday – Dan Santat

One day a year he is Santa Claus, but the other 364 days Dan Santat works as a children’s book writer and commercial illustrator. He is also the creator of Disney’s animated hit, “The Replacements.”

Dan has written and illustrated his own books and books by other writers. His new graphic novel, SIDEKICKS came out in July and he has another wonderful picture book coming out this month that is written by Jill Esbaum titled, Tom’s Tweet which is a slapstick funny story that pays homage to the selfless act known as parenting. All in all Dan has written and/or illustrated nineteen books.

He graduated with honors from the Art Center, College of Design and lives in Southern California with his wife, two kids, a rabbit, a bird, and one cat.

For all you writers and illustrators who have wondered, what is the best way to develop and present a graphic novel, you are going to love this post.

Dan takes you through his process on developing his new graphic novel about SUPERHERO PETS!
Captain Amazing, superhero and savior of Metro City, is getting old. He’s out all hours battling arch-villains, catching thieves, and helping little old ladies cross the street. He doesn’t even have time for his house full of pets. He needs – a SIDEKICK!

Captain Amazing’s four pets agree. But each one of them thinks HE should get the sidekick spot – and a chance for one-on-one time with the Captain. Get ready for sibling rivalry royale as pets with superpowers duke it out for the one thing they all want – a super family.

It began with a simple painting. Back in art school I took a class where we had to do a series of paintings that revolved around a theme. At the time I thought I wanted to go into the animation field so I decided to work on my character design skills and flesh out simple ideas of animals doing silly things. Towards the last month of the course I painted an animal super hero, which I called The All-American Beaver. The idea of a super animal really intrigued me and so I decided to paint another superhero animal. The next week I followed up with a painting of a cat who could generate large amounts of static electricity with his fur which I properly named Static Cat. Even though the term had ended before I could explore more possibilities I was suddenly obsessed and wanted to create more.

As I was sketching the characters over and over again I really didn’t think of a solid storyline until I had sold the manuscript to my editor. All I knew for certain was that they were all starving for attention and wanted to compete for the affections of their owner to find out who would be the favorite house pet of the house. In my mind I originally thought that Fluffy would be the leader of the group. He was going to be this arrogant loudmouth who wanted to just be bossy and give orders to everyone so he could wear a costume and be famous. Roscoe was the young naive kind hearted softie with massive strength (Think Lennie from “Of Mice and Men”)

A word of advice to all you aspiring graphic novelists out there. If I could go back in time and start this project over again I would have started with the outline and script stages first. When working with an editor it’s best to communicate your thoughts to them before you draw a single panel. Once you’ve ironed out your plot and dialogue then the drawing stage goes much much quicker.

NOTE: Notice that I drew many little thumbnail sketches on the side of the script. This is the process I adopted from storyboarding an animated show. From this step it is much easier to take a group of three to six individual panels and organize them into interesting compostions per
page spread. This also helps greatly in determining the pacing for the story instead of figuring it all out as you go.

In the next step, I take those same thumbnail sketches and blow them up to fit a full 8.5X11 inch page. I’ll tint the page a cool blue (or in this case green) and I lay type over where I think the text bubbles should go. As you can see on the right the text doesn’t blend together with the linework so it’s easy to read and easier for the editor to make notes.

The Guild of Geniuses- Written/illustrated by Dan Santat
Art Director: David Saylor
Arthur A. Levine Books 2004


“The Parade”

“Party at the Penthouse”

“A Barrel of Monkeys”

Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo

Had to show off Lisa Yee’s that’s illustrated by Dan.

Had to show off New Jersey’s own Dan Gutman’s book that Dan Santat illustrated.

Third Book in the series, Otto Undercover without the cover text.

A Sunday Drive To The Countryside
The first painting Dan ever sold

Second painting that Dan sold.

Some additional pieces that Dan has done that stood out to me. to visit Dan’s website. There are so much more.

Had to add this rejection letter and Dan’s comments, since I think it can help all of this put things in the right perspective.

This is a reminder of where I was eleven years ago. This was circa summer of 2000? I flew out to New York with a friend of mine and for one week I did the portfolio drop off to all the major book publishers in the city. This was a little leaflet that I left in my portfolio for art directors to make notes on for any advice. I was still in art school and I wanted to get a feel of how the professional world viewed my work before I unleashed myself to the hounds. I wanted to be prepared. I still remember that when I got this note I was a little devastated. Scholastic was a dream publisher to work for. Now, when I reflect on this letter, I think of the portfolio I had at that time and I completely agree with David Saylor. (If I still had that portfolio I would have shown you some images but I unfortunately I don’t)

I wasn’t ready, and in fact, that was the common response (with exception to Henry Holt) from all the art directors at the time. Getting a response from someone like David Saylor was a huge step for me and though the notes weren’t detailed they still spoke volumes. I didn’t cut the mustard. I had to work harder!

At one point in life everyone feels the sting of criticism and there comes that fork in the road. Do I give up the dream of being an artist or do I fight harder and learn from this? It goes for anything in life really. When I am asked to critique portfolios for SCBWI I find that it’s best to not be too harsh to most people. Yes, I understand, people can be sensitive, but there is also a part of me that feels that if you’re paying $300 or more for a conference that you should get some advice to improve your work so you can get to that next level to reach your dream. I’ve seen people cry, get mad at their reviewers, and even heard that cliche shout of denial, “I’LL SHOW YOU SOMEDAY!!! YOU’LL BE SORRY!!!!”

I often give one or two bits of advice, a list of artists they should reference, and end with a “Keep your chin up!” sort of send off. It’s as much as I can give so as not to be too attached to a person and be judged for judging them. I don’t need that extra drama in my life. I was in high school years ago. I HATE drama. It’s not that I don’t want to help more but there is always the fear of a backlash which keeps me restrained from giving my full honest review. If I’m too harsh I’m viewed as an insensitive jerk. If I’m too easy then I don’t feel like I’m being fair to you in helping you improve.

But here’s the God honest truth…

It’s never personal.

In the end, the critiques are what will make you a better artist. I, as well as the other reviewers, are never out to crush your soul, and we say it over and over again. If you want to be better you have to hear it. When I send my stuff out to friends I don’t want compliments because that gets me nowhere. Even when I get compliments from friends I ask, “Did you really mean that or are you just saying that because we’re friends?”

There comes a point where some people just like to hear the compliments and their work just seems to plateau. They’ve settled. They feel like they’re good enough and by that I don’t mean that their work isn’t sincerely good, but they don’t know how to improve and get to that next level. It’s not that the person can’t get to the next level, but after years of hearing nothing but compliments it’s easy to assume that it’s the publishing industry not giving them that big break. That may also be true but that’s where constructive criticism comes in.

Although art is subjective there are standards in the commercial art world. It’s a business. Your work may be good, but as David Saylor simply put it to me, “It isn’t right for their list.” Over the years I feel the publishing industry has become a very square hole in a world of many different shaped pegs. If you’re not the right shape of square peg then you won’t get in. Be open to constructive criticism and embrace those negative notes and fight hard to improve.You’ll be a much stronger person for it.

NOTE: Scholastic ended up being Dan’s very first publisher and David Sayor became his first art director, so keep our dukes up and keep fighting.

Thank you Dan for sharing so much with everyone.  I was totally fascinated with your creativity while reviewing your illustrations.

Don’t miss visiting Dan’s sites:  and there is so much more to see.  Also you can download a 275 page booklet of the Art Behind SIDEKICKS:

I am sure Dan would love to hear from you, so leave him a comment.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I wish I had time to look at this tonight! But now I REALLY can’t wait to REALLY look at it on Sunday! 🙂


  2. Kathy, thanks for the reminder! I intended to come back and look, but like everything else, it slipped my mind!

    This is amazing stuff, Dan, and reading about your journey as an illustrator is very inspiring. I’m happy to say I’ve seen some of your books on the shelves at B&N! 🙂

    Seeing your process and how the pictures develop is SO fascinating. Again, it makes me itch to learn photoshop, but who knows when I’ll make the time! lol And, in case you didn’t know, Dan, Cheryl Klein included “Boys vs. Girls (accidentally)” in her talk at our NJ SCBWI event this past weekend 🙂

    Thank you, Dan and Kathy, for all the work that went into sharing this with us. I also think it was an excellent thing to do to explain the true purpose of critiques. Many people do them with the expectation that whoever sees their work will think it’s perfect, as is, will fall in love with it and offer a contract. Critiques are just that: an assessment of your work for the purpose of improving what may need improving and reaffirming what’s already good.

    Thanks again, (and yay for Dan Gutman, too!) 🙂


  3. Reblogged this on annjonesoriginalimages and commented:
    attended an intense one day thing w/ Dan Santat this last weekend…. very informative! Fun guy


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