The art of Donta Santistevan is the manifestation of human joy. It is, in fact, the search for what it is to be human, what we could be, void of anguish and doubt. Fear or sadness. Santistevan’s figures lean into life and the simple joys of existing. His colors are bright and his brushstrokes crayon-like, thick and with purpose. The final drawing is the expression of his desire to show the audience his true nature.
With his work-life in the world of fashion and skateboard brands, his personal work is free to explore the nature of happiness: what it is and how to achieve it. The nudity is non-sexual, the delight is pure. Santistevan connects the viewer to embryonic glee, that point when a smile lets loose into a laugh, a handshake falls into an embrace, and friendship is an expression of honest love.
CJ: What struck about your work is its immediate expression of joy – your characters find happiness in the simplest of things; friends, nature, the very act of being alive. Is this attitude a reflection of yourself?
DS: Absolutely! Over the years, I’ve found myself surrounded by a really great group of friends. Friends who share similar ideas and mentalities. We all just want to be happy, and we want each other to be happy. A lot of my personal work is directly inspired by personal experiences.
I love how you treat nudity as just a thing to do – it’s fun, depicted without any hint of sexuality. How did you decide on the actual style of your figures?
Well, nudity is just a thing to do. We’re all naked under our clothes. It’s normal and isn’t inherently sexual. I’ve always felt my figures are regular people who could be sexy without being sexual. As far as style goes, that’s just sort of evolved naturally.
I never made a conscious decision to style my figures in a particular way. With every illustration, I try to do something new. Whether that be a new color palette, a new Photoshop brush, messing with halftones, or really working on the shadows, I always wanna try something new. That’s what keeps it interesting. Constantly learning. Constantly evolving!
Your illustrations have a realness to the figures, they feel like characters from a Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon show. An interesting visual combination with youthful nudity. They have a Sunday comics strip feel. Visually, they remind me of Bil Keane’s Family Circus comic. Even in the subject matter, there is kindness and joy and the heart of your work and Keane’s. Have you attempted any narrative work?
I have in the past for sure. Small comics here and there. I even had a chance to work on a graphic novel years ago that got scrapped by the client halfway through the project. Nowadays, I try to keep the narrative confined to just one image. I feel like that allows the viewer the opportunity to come up with their own story. It gives them the chance to project their own story on to it.
With such a cohesive body of work, have you considered doing prints or anything with them? Are you using your personal work to reach potential clients?
Up until a couple of years ago, I was freelancing almost full time. I did that for about 8 years and as fun as it was, I needed a break. I needed something more stable. The hustle is real and hunting down your check isn’t fun. That led me to getting a full-time job as a designer. It was the perfect thing for me to do. It gave me the freedom and confidence to explore more in my personal work. I got to draw and create without it having to be for a client. It was for me. I think that’s when I really started to blossom and come into my own.
Still working as an in-house designer, my body of personal work is has become abundant. I will sometimes use it as a way to reach out to potential clients, but nowadays, it feels like it’s happening on its own. People are coming to me. As far as prints go, I get a lot of requests for prints and all I can say for now is, I’m working on it. I’ll let the world know when they’re up!
You’ve done quite a bit of editorial design and layout, quite a shift from straight-up illustration. Is it refreshing to work strictly with layout, where you’re not creating every element? Having done layout work myself, I understand there can be limits or guidelines depending on the client. Having total control over your own illustrations, do you seek out creative control in editorial work or is that more of a “do what the client” wants type of attitude?
Honestly, as long as I’m creating, I’m having a good time. Sure, some projects are more fun than others but I’ve had some shitty jobs in my life. As long as I keep in the back of my mind that I’m still creating, I’ll enjoy the project. Editorial and layout work for other clients does have its limitations but limitations and guidelines force creativity and help create good work. It helps you come up with solutions that you wouldn’t have to find otherwise. Even with my personal work, I’ll give myself limitations. Whether that be color palette or how detailed I want the final piece to be, I’ll always keep it in mind while I’m working on the illustration.
Some of your editorial work has been done with Betabrand. How established was the brand identity when you came on board there? You keep a very bright and summertime vibe to your color palette, which shows up in BetaBrand. Did any of your own style make its way into that work?
I worked in-house at Betabrand for over 3 years. When I joined the team, the company sold both women and men’s apparel. I was hired as a graphic designer and was expected to come up with and execute wild Photoshop comps. I enjoyed the hell out of it. However, I was unaware that the company was about to have a full-on rebrand and was going to focus primarily on women’s pants. I went along for the ride for a while. I worked on some fun projects with some awesome people. To say I directly influenced Betabrand’s aesthetic going forward would rob those other amazing designers of their contributions. We worked as a team and I added a touch of my style when I was given the opportunity.
On social media, you show your personal work, but very rarely do you post client work. Do you try to keep those two separate?
To be honest, I’m just not that good a social media. I try but it’s like another full-time job, of which I already have two. There’s no strategy behind what I post. If I have time and something to show, I’ll post. However, I’m not one to worry about what I’m putting out there.
How did you find yourself working so much with skateboard brands? Did you seek out that type of work? Chocolate has your Sun Bathers series, did you take that idea to them or did your nude figure work spring from that gig?
Skateboarding has and will always be one of my true loves. I feel like it’s rare to find a skateboarder who isn’t forever obsessed with it. Even as we grow older and find less time to do it, the love is still there. I got into doing board graphics because I wanted to. I was a couple of years out of school and feeling a little lost. I went to art school and was getting gigs here and there but had no idea what I really wanted to do. I sat down and asked myself, “what did I really love? Skateboarding and drawing.” Why not combine the two? I knew that getting into skateboard graphics is kind of a difficult field. Every brand has its own established aesthetic and in-house designers. But that didn’t mean that there wasn’t room for an occasional freelancer to come in and help.
I remember it being January and I told myself that I had one year to get at least one board made. By February, Toy Machine Skateboards green-lit a 3 board series. That gave me the confidence that it was actually possible. I could actually do this. Ed Templeton may have been the first person to give me a shot but it was Chico Brenes who really gave me a leg up. I did a lot of graphics for him and his small board company at the time, Central Skateboards and from there I was introduced to the folks over at Girl/Chocolate. The Sunbathers Series is my favorite! Carlos, the art director of Chocolate, approached me via Instagram and asked if I wanted to turn one of my nude girls into a full series and of course the answer was yes! It was the first time my name was attached to a board graphic, the first time there was matching apparel, and the first time they did a homepage takeover with my work. That series means a lot to me.
Being freelance and working with a variety of different clients, do you find the individual brands you work with having any influence on your own personal style? Is there a balance between “client” and “personal” work and style?
There’s definitely a balance. I try to take on clients that will agree with my personal style. There’s a reason they came to me, to begin with, so why change?
Your Jeff Goldblum floral print is in between your personal work and your skate illustrations. Fun and vibrant. What prompted you to design the pattern, was it for a project? (Seeing your work with BetaBrand, I’m guessing Mr. Goldblum may have actually not worn the print?)
Ah, the “Gold-bloom” print. I love that one. That one came up in a brainstorm with some of my fellow designer buddies. We were just throwing around ideas and I couldn’t let that one go. I tried to get it made with BB but it was a no-go. The magnificent Jeff Goldblum has not worn it…yet. If anyone out there wants to connect me with him, I’d love to give him one!