by Jason Thibault
I first started noticing the intricate pen and ink line work of sAnTos on a Hire on Fire t-shirt. His insanely detailed and creepy drawings immediately took me back to my punk and metal days of the 1980’s. Luckily I still dig punk and metal AND talented artists. We corresponded back and forth over the summer and sAnTos finally delivered a short novel’s worth of answers to my questions on how he does what he does.
What inspired you to first start drawing? Did you struggle in your formative years or did it come easy to you?
I’ve always drawn as far back as I can remember. I started out drawing skeletons, football helmets with the logos, and comic book characters when I was in kindergarten. I liked drawing those because skeletons had a lot of tiny parts, football helmets had logos to draw, and comic book characters were where I first fell in love with illustration. I used to draw extra lines into the pages of my coloring books to alter the image to what I wanted it to be. I would add things like weapons, backgrounds, torn-off limbs, and punk or metalhead clothes. My dad had a morbid sense of humor, so that played a big role when it came to pushing the limits. My parents were proud of my artistic ability and encouraged me to keep drawing — and to get good grades.
With my family and friends behind me, I continued drawing all through school. My notebooks and desks were filled with images from metal albums and I became enthralled with cover and t-shirt art. This didn’t help me in high school as I had an asshole of an art teacher who didn’t like the subjects that I chose for my art assignments. Not only that, but because he was hell bent on forcing his safe style of art onto us, it made me want to keep including the subjects that I wanted to use and keep the hell away from the mainstream art that he forced down our throats. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that he included some of my art in the school district art show at the local mall. My mother went to see my art there and while looking at my drawings, she overheard two women commenting on how my parents must be scared having such a disturbed kid. She just replied, “Yeah, we love him.”
After high school, I took a year off and worked before going to college in 1992. In college, I majored in biology/premedicine and my art took a backseat. I didn’t have any projects and was busy surviving school and working nonstop. It wasn’t until I decided to quit college and go out and see what the world had to offer that I started drawing again. I moved into a punk house that housed two bands, and that gave me the opportunity to draw fliers and come up with shirt and record covers. I also worked at the record store connected to the house and I got plenty of time to draw while working the slow nights. I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1994 and began drawing my ass off the day I arrived. I started a band with some friends and continued doing art for fliers, our band, and bands in the Colorado and New Mexico scenes. I met a lot of people throughout those years and was given many chances to make designs for my friends’ bands. Along with my love of record covers, t-shirt art, and art in general, I kept working. I worked on any project that people would give me (which was minimal at best). It took a few years for my art to catch on, and then people started to get a hold of me. It just took time, patience, and persistent dedication.
First professional work (piece / year) and maybe a quick story behind it.
It would have to be the High On Fire “Keys To Battle” shirt design. I would say that that is the first professional piece because they were the biggest band that I had dealt with to that point. Matt Pike was already known for his previous band, Sleep, as well as guitar work and signature Laney amps. Also, High On Fire were signed to Relapse Records. Up to then, I had only worked with friends and local punk bands.
It was around 2002 and I saw them play at the 15th Street Tavern in Denver. I walked up to the merch table and asked Matt Pike if they needed any art. At first, he said no. Then, as I was turning around to walk away, he called me back over and asked whom I had done art for. I told him a few of the bands names and he knew one of them, so he agreed to see what I could come up with. They came back to Denver soon after and I took a few copies of the finished design to show them. They really liked the design and it ended up selling really well for them. That design helped me pick up a ton of commissions from other bands and it snowballed from there.
Were you self-taught or formally educated? (or mixture of both, mentors etc…)
I am more self-taught than anything. I took art in school growing up, but never took art in my couple of years in college, nor did I attend art school. I have sought advice and learned new techniques from friends who are artists, and have learned a ton from them, but for most of my life it was the trial-and-error method that I learned from.
Tools of the trade: Taking a quick glance over at your pens, brushes etc…what tools have you mainly been using over the last few years?
I mostly use the Micron 005-02 and the Copic .03 pens. I also use Micron brush pens for filling in larger areas. Prismacolor markers are my primary tools when I’m coloring designs. Besides those mentioned, I have the paintbrushes that I stole from high school, cheap mechanical pencils, a metal ruler, and a carpet knife. I like to keep things simple.
How has your toolbox evolved compared to when you first started out?
When I first started out, I used any pen and piece of paper that I could find. My first illustrations were done using photocopier paper and ballpoint pens that I bought or found. Over the years, I’ve picked up using new tools and materials from friends, but mostly stuck to the basics that I felt comfortable with. I started working for a video game studio in 1999, and it was the first time that I had been around other artists who had gone to school to study art and who were already comfortable with their choices of tools. They introduced me to Micron pens, Prisma markers, and Paris paper. These became my basics and I still use them. I did add Saral tracing paper and some new erasers but that doesn’t really count.
Favorite brand of ink:
The kind in the inside of Microns.
Type of paper:
The only paper I use is Paris paper 180lb. 14×17; every illustration for the past 10 years has been drawn using it. Seth Cole heavy tracing paper and Saral transfer paper are recent additions and were suggested to me by a few poster artists. I do all of my paintings on wood.
Which artists or creators do you return to for a quick boost of inspiration? Who are the masters of ink?
I feed off of the artists around me and the ones who are working in the music scene — guys like Tom Denney, John Baizley, David D’Andrea, Arik Roper, Aaron Horkey, Mark McCormick, Yuzuru, and Dan Mumford. Those guys know what it’s like working on shirt and cover designs, and we all seem to support one another in many ways. Pushead is where it all started for me. That’s why I have the “Hand Of Fear” print next to my art table. That design was one of the first designs that stuck in my mind and made me want to draw. Gustave Doré was also one of my favorites. His illustrations were so detailed and full of texture that I obsessed over his pieces. I got lost looking at each page of the “Divine Comedy” and looked up to him as one of the masters when I was young.
In addition, I can’t forget Nick Blinko. His pieces are so impressive and always have intrigued me. I sometimes think that I am a sick man for the detail that I add into a piece, but Nick goes far above and beyond anything that I do. The man can fill a page with the most intricate images and textures and you find yourself lost in the landscapes that he creates. To me, the masters are those who share my need for detail within their art. Sure, there are many more out there who have influenced me, but these three men have always been tops in my book.
Once a client has handed off an illustration job to you, how do you first tackle the job? Could you give us a quick overview of your process?
I first ask for lyrics, music, or any ideas that the band may have. I like to personalize the design for the client, so lyrics are usually the biggest help when it comes to starting. I sketch out a quick design and send it back to the client to wait for any ideas or changes that they may have. I have been fortunate to work with bands that trust me and the ideas that I bring. Most will just let me go and do what ever I want for a design, so that is a great feeling when that happens. When the final sketch is approved, I set up a sheet of paper and measure out the size of the design. A sheet of tracing paper is added over the top, and I sketch and lay out the design on the tracing paper. After I get the design where I want it, I transfer the design onto the Paris paper. I remove the tracing paper and ink the whole outline of the design. From there, it’s just detailing the hell out of the piece and cleaning up what lines I can. When I’m done, I scan in the design and clean it up a bit. That usually means just adjusting levels and removing dust from the scanned image. It seems like such an insane process when I read it out like that.
What’s currently sitting in your mp3 / CD player / turntable?
On the mp3 player, I’ve been listening to Holy Sons and a lot of Grails. I enjoy using the shuffle setting most other times. The last CD in my player was Asva’s “What You Don’t Know Is Frontier” and it is a great album. The turntable has been seeing a lot of use with the likes of Heart, DJ Shadow, Dick Hyman, KMD, and Sisters Of Mercy, among others. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music because I hate getting bored with just one genre. However, I do lean toward the darker, heavier end of the spectrum.
What’s hanging on your walls and what is your favorite piece of art that you own (not created by you)?
I have a few framed show posters from Michael Michael Motorcycle, Daniel Danger, and Mark Ryden, and I have a Pushead “Hand Of Fear” print up in my art room. The first High On Fire design I drew for them is also in my art room. It’s a nice reminder of how far I’ve come. My favorite piece, though, would be the Bob McDonald print of the Neurosis “Times Of Grace” cover. Prints were made from the original lino cuts and I was able to pick one up when he had an art show in Seattle. A good friend and neighbor of mine performed said printing, so I was able to go in and pick out my print.
What’s the last novel you read and last movie that you saw that you’d recommend? Which movies and books do you always return to?
The last book that I read was H.P. Lovecraft’s novella “At The Mountains Of Madness.” I don’t get to read as much as I would like to, but that is a great collection of stories. Movies I don’t recommend much; they’re often so mindless and not entertaining at all.
I love collecting dictionaries and encyclopedias. A few of my favorites are The Dictionary of Thought, The Dictionary of Symbols, Encyclopedia of Birds, Encyclopedia of the Esoteric and Supernatural, and the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft. I had no idea that there were so many different types that had been produced. I also have a lot of animal and anatomy books. Combined, these are the books in my collection that I constantly refer to and can’t get enough of.
When it comes to movies, I sway toward older films, cheesy comedies, and independent films. I grew up watching a lot of black-and-white war movies and westerns with my dad. There’s also a place in my heart for shitty movies, the kind that just fade into white noise while you’re in between naps on a Saturday afternoon. My dad is also to credit for that. He would go to the video store or library and bring home the worst sci-fi and fantasy movies. The man knew how to pick the kind of crap that you just had to watch because it was completely absurd. Rarely do I watch any of the new Hollywood pulp without becoming angry.
Current and upcoming projects?
I’m currently working on many projects at once. I’m sketching up a three-sided shirt design for High On Fire, a shirt design for Cobalt, a hoodie and tour shirts for Shrinebuilder, a couple of designs for Lamb of God, a shirt design for Karim at I’m Better Than Everyone Records, a collaborative design with Tom Denney, and a collaborative shirt design with John Baizley for Baroness. Those are a few of the projects on my schedule and many more are being added. So, it looks like I’ll be busy for a while.
What would you tell aspiring artists who are working their asses off but still need and want to break through to the next level?
Never stop working. Work for free, work for next to nothing, work for yourself, just keep working. Get your art out there any way that you can because the more art that you have out in the world, the more people will see it. Word of mouth is a tremendous advertising tool; you would be surprised how the right project will gain exposure and the word will spread like wildfire. Talk to people and find a community of peers and artists that’ll be there to lend a hand or give some advice. And you truly have to love what you’re doing, otherwise it’s a pointless endeavor. When you love what you’re doing it’ll always show through in your work and it will keep you driven.
To find out more about sAnTos go his MySpace page.