3:9: Interview: Donato Giancola

3:9: Interview: Donato Giancola

The Italian word chiaroscuro is a term for an art technique literally meaning light and shadow. Writers and artists are both wield their specialized tools and skills to illuminate images in our imaginations. Where writers have words, and ordered sequences of events to create the illusion of reality, artists have brushstrokes and line, color and compositions to make their impression.

Both are capable of touching the shadowy realms of imagination within us all. When words are no longer letters on a page and become both gateway and guidepost to another reality, then the writer has done his or her job. When an image ceases to be a mere likeness and becomes a trigger to imagination, and even rapture, the artist has delivered a wonderful gift.

In this series, through conversations with award-winning, ground-breaking, and emerging artists, I will explore the rich and varied world of art that is just exploding on to the world. I’m thrilled that publisher Marsha Sisolak and managing editor Amber Van Dyk have allowed me to share these discussions of technique, inspiration, and connections between the world of art and the world of fiction with you.

An artist who has given us great gifts in the form of dozens of science fiction and fantasy book covers, collectible trading card art, portraits, and stand-out commercial designs is Donato Giancola. He recently received the 2004 World Fantasy Award for Best Artist to add to his long list of honors and recognitions.

Donato constantly challenges himself by delving into subject matters and compositions where others fear to tread. Through his hard work, dedication, and a true craftsman’s approach to his art, he constantly delivers images that surprise, thrill, and captivate with their precision, level of detail, and narrative and emotional resonance.

I recently caught up with Donato before the opening of the exhibit From Imagination to Reality: The Art of Science Fiction, a show which marks both a logical extension and a new departure for his work.

Dan Braum: Congratulations on winning the World Fantasy award and on your participation in the New York Acadamy of Sciences Gallery of Art and Science show From Imagination to Reality: The Art of Science Fiction.

Donato Giancola: Thank you. The New York Academy of the Sciences is a very nice institute that supports the hard sciences. A very diverse group of people will be there. There is a very nice foyer in their building that they use to display art and gallery shows. A friend of mine, Vincent Difate, approached them to do an exhibition on science and science fiction. He invited me and a couple of other notable names in the science fiction community to show a couple of pieces of artwork there.

DB: The science of science fiction is a great area to be exploring. But, let’s first look back to your first book cover commissions. In 1993, you were selected to paint the covers for three classic books; The Time Machine, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. What were the creative challenges in taking this on as a new and young artist?

DG: The hardest part was actually getting the commission. There are so many good people out there that it was a challenge just to get my foot in the door. Once I landed the commissions, the challenge was to work hard and just to throw myself into these paintings to make the best impression that I could. The benefit was that it ended up leading to portfolio pieces that I could use to show other publishers that I was capable of producing good quality stuff.

DB: I was impressed with your accounts of all the hard work and all the practicing with the aim of perfecting the fundamentals of your craft. As a new writer myself, my mentors made it very clear how essential it is to put in the time and to just write, write, and write.

DG: In a way that is just what I did. For the very first year out of school, I was only working on samples for my representative — just to gain the knowledge and make the quality level higher so he would be interested in showing me around to publishers. After coming to New York and seeing work from illustrators at the Society of Illustrators, I became aware of what was expected of me in the industry, and it was a higher degree of detail and quality than what I had presumed just being in school. I had to get in gear with that level of craftsmanship.

DB: Good advice all around. At what point in your career do you see yourself now?

DG: I’ve been doing this now for a little over ten years, and I guess I’m fairly young to the industry, considering that a lot of the artists that I’ve met have been working maybe twenty years or so, or at least that long. I look back at my portfolio where I’ve been and try to think of where I want to go to next. What areas haven’t been explored in the genre. Or maybe just a little more introspection on what I want to say in my own artwork that I haven’t been able to do through commercial commissions.

DB: What direction do you see your art going both commercially and personally?

DG: What I love about doing many of my projects, Magic Cards included, as well as many of the book covers, is that I’m able to delve into a character investigation. I really love the idea of portraiture and storytelling. Human interest stories. I’ve really focused more so than previous years on the human figure and trying to tell stories about people either through some kind of portraiture or some kind of environment or the figure being engaged with others.

DB: This brings to me a specific question about one of your popular pieces. I originally knew it as Patron Wizard but I’ve also seen it listed as Robert Benedicto and Captain Nemo.

DG: This speaks to a lot of the different ways I see the artwork. Whenever I work on artwork now, I just don’t have the only client in mind on a specific project. I’m always thinking where will this piece of art take me. I’m thinking what was the main inspiration behind it. Many times I’m interested in investigating an idea or sometimes a piece of artwork that doesn’t match exactly with what my clients want. So, I’ll just take it a little further. The Patron Wizard character was actually one of my neighbors. And for me, it’s just a simple portrait of him, and the fact that it was done as a Magic card is nice because I get paid for it, it gets a lot of public exposure, and it was a moderately popular card as well, but the main motivation for me was to capture the likeness of Roberto so it would turn out to be a beautiful portrait of him regardless of its use on the card.

DB: And it was so successful you were able to reuse it.

DG: I think of it as a portrait. Sometimes I’ve re-titled works. But ultimately it doesn’t really matter what the title is. To me, Captain Nemo fit in well with the original intent of the Patron Wizard commission which was a blue wizard associated with water. Captain Nemo fit into the recent direction Magic the Gathering is going with the conscious effort to blend science fiction elements such as robots and bio-tech elements into their fantasy world. So in a way I was thinking of this particular blue wizard as the Captain Nemo type. Someone who is technically savvy as well.

DB: I noticed the figure’s face, or at least his eyes, are in shadow. Did this originate in capturing the portrait of your neighbor?

DG: Wizards of the Coast wanted a nice deep and wizened character. And rather than just showing him in a stereotypical pose, such as reading a book, I wanted to get into the sociolology of a character — someone you can’t see the eyes of has a little bit of power over you.

DB: An interesting psychological element.

DG: Yeah, like the idea if you can’t see into someone’s eyes, then you are really not sure of what they are thinking. It’s a powerful position to be able to hold that over you and be in an advantageous position to engage you. So when I photographed him for the piece I kept him in heavy light, and when I went to the painting, I made it so you can just see his eyes but not the pupils.

DB: Do any other of your early book covers stand out to you?

DG: I remember many times the first time I would create a cover for a publisher. Each one of those instances I was attempting to create the best quality that I could. My very first cover for Penguin books is still in a way one of my most successful robots. It’s called the Construct Of Time. It’s going to be displayed in the New York Academy show actually. And as well as my very first Bantam book done about three years later stood out as a good painting because I just threw myself into these things. I have so many milestones in the career. In ’97 after about four years of working in the industry, I was getting a little bored with doing single figure, maybe even three-figure compositions, which was usually pushing it. So wanted to break out of that, into something more challenging and different. And that’s when I did my first major battle scene which was Queen Of Demons for Tor books. There are over thirty figures in that one composition. I wanted to really impress them as I hadn’t done work for them in about two years. So I really tackled that one and made this monumental battle scene. It just floored everybody. My representative was just stunned that I would do this much labor. The art director, and even the owner of the company, Tom Doherty, were impressed. So that sealed my fate with them for getting really nice commissions.

DB: Just looking at the first painting Faramir At Osgilitath in your book, Recent and Select Works, I can see you’ve really broken out in terms of figure composition.

DG: Yeah, it is in that lineage of that multi-figure composition stuff. And it’s done for the same author, David Drake, part of the same series. I wanted to revisit the theme of a lot of men in battle and just do it again in a different way, but for me it’s the same aesthetic.

DB: I was struck by just the sheer amount of painting you’ve done. And yet you’ve said you feel the need for more output.

DG: (Laughs.)

DB: What kind of time involved in a painting, such as Faramir At Osgiliath?

DG: Faramir was definitely my longest. That was started in August and finished in January of the following year. It was a good five months of work, but not straight work. It was on and off between other projects. When you look at most commissions you don’t get that kind of time for gaming or advertising work. Time is really a luxury I’ve been able to squeeze out of a few publishers who know that if I get the time, and I’m really motivated, I can really pursue a painting far and beyond the normal needs for a cover. I guess that goes to why I like to find inspirations outside my clients. There’s no reason for me to work so hard for a book cover that would be paying the same for a single figure on a blue sky background. It would take me one twentieth of the time to execute. But if I really feel I have something personal to say about the artwork and the characters involved, then I kind of internalize the job and start making the painting for myself.

DB: In 1996, you began your long association with Wizards of the Coast with the release of Mirage, a game that prominently featured tropical themes. What kind of departure was this for you?

DG: When you are working on book covers, the thing that is most depressing is that the artwork gets covered with type and a designer winds up manipulating the image and laying over quotes and names and information. But on a Magic card, even though it is significantly smaller, it is untouched, and you don’t have to worry about this in the composition. That was very liberating. The other thing that was great, was that it allowed me to investigate different cultures. I was able to really build off different cultural artifacts and atheistics. So, when I received the Mirage commission from Sue Ann Harkin at Wizards, I immediately bought books on African culture, costume, dress, jewelry, all kinds of housing and such, so that I could get a flavor to create this world.

DB: It really comes through in the art.

DG: The other thing that was great, was that this was my first chance to paint hands as a main theme. Actually, the very first painting I did was Amber Prison, and it was great to focus on hands as the center point, which you can never get away with doing a book cover.

DB: Hands are very challenging as a subject.

DG: Most artists find hands difficult, but for some reason I’ve been able to do them easily. Hands for me are just second nature. Actually much easier than just painting almost anything else. When I received the second commission for the set Visions, I included three hands in the composition of the card Sisay’s Ring. I like to keep challenging myself.

DB: Working for Wizards of the Coast has offered the opportunity to travel.

DG: Yeah, that was great. I made my first international trip back in the fall of ’97 or ’98 to Portugal where some young gentleman were handling the distribution of Magic, and Wizards was becoming involved. I had been to some events here in New York City, where artists were invited to attend and that was great. You don’t get that in any other field. No other industry has supported artists like Wizards of the Coast and my hat is off to them for taking that initiative and for staying with it — sponsoring the artist and presenting the artist as an intrical part of the game.

DB: Wizards of the Coast has done a great job of giving wider recognition to artists. With their most recent release, called Champions of Kamigawa, they’ve moved onto new ground by introducing a world inspired by Japanese culture and the art of Misaki.

DG: Right. It’s nice the way they take risks and bring on new people as well.

DB: What was the inspiration and challenge in the creation of the Wizards of the Coast promotional piece, Archangel?

DG: Competition. I was given the original archangel card that Quinton Hoover had done. Wizards said they wanted to reinterpret this a bit to use it as a packaging image. If you look at that you can see how similar some of the design is. If presented with another another artist’s work, I’m always looking for a way to ‘one up’ . In a very positive way. This is what got me into book covers. To see what is expected and to do it better or different. Quinton works wonderfully in line and color, and it was fun to take his image and do a more atmospheric take, which is why I limited my palette to the whites and the yellows.

DB: In 2000, you were commissioned to do art for the Lord Of The Rings. What were the challenges, risks, and rewards in this undertaking?

DG: Well, in a way similar to working on magic cards, when doing a Lord Of The Rings commission you know there are going to be hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people viewing this thing. Lord Of The Rings fans are diehard fans, so you have to try and make everything exact in terms of the way Tolkien described it in the books. What’s great about Tolkien is that he is actually so vague.

DB: You talk about Tolkien’s emotional descriptions that have allowed you room to create.

DG: Yeah, to interpret. I’d say Tolkien’s more of an emotional writer, in the fact that he uses emotion to evoke a sense of scene, so rather than telling you about a dark room, he tell you about how mysterious it would feel. So you will paint a mysterious room. It opens your doors so much more.

DB: It seems like a great opportunity for an artist.

DG: For some artists. Some people don’t like that kind of freedom either. An artist might just clam up. They might want that physical description such as the windows were shuttered, the lights were off, a candle is burning in one corner casting a yellow light over the room. For some people, that works better. For me, I like the openness of the vague descriptions Tolkien provides for much of the scene. With that in mind, I wanted to try and evoke that sense of emotion more so than trying to capture everything in details, although I am a detail painter to some degree. It’s a wonderful combination to be able to bring my sense of detail to his level of psychological drama. So that’s what I was after.

The other thing about the Lord Of The Rings piece was I decided to experiment with size. The painting is almost five and half by three feet.

DB: I had an opportunity to see it on display in a show at Stonybrook University a few years back.

DG: You are one of the few. I think within a month or two after that, I sold it, and it has been gone from the public view ever since.

DB: You’ve mentioned humanist moments in the Lord of the Rings that Tolkien uses to capture the spirit of the characters and the story. Some of these are Gandalf smoking in the Mines of Moria, and Frodo and Sam cooking rabbit in the shadow of Mordor. Why did you choose the moment of Gandalf and the dwarfs looking for shelter in the Misty Mountains for your painting, The Expulsion, done for the Hobbit cover?

DG: It’s almost a minor point in the novel. It’s a point of transition right before being captured by the goblins. But it was a way for me to show the sense of the human struggle against the forces of nature. Here, they are having to run away from nature. The natural forces against them are overwhelming, this giant rainstorm and in the distance are the stone giants tossing stones back and forth on the other side of the valley. It is also a scene where they are all together. Gandalf, the dwarves, and Bilbo are all together here. There are not a whole lot of moments in the book where that occurs. The other potential scene I was thinking of was the Trolls. But, that was a scene that had been done before by many other artists, so I was looking for something else to interpret. Everyone’s been caught in a rainstorm, and you know what it is like to get drenched. Even though I didn’t really portray the rain much in that painting, it is that sense of huddling and the lightning and impending storm and how miserable it can really feel. The Misty Mountains are a barrier into the complete unknown just before they cross over into Mirkwood. It’s a coming of age moment, where they are leaving innocence behind and moving into the big world. For me, it represents the expulsion from Eden in a way. So, you’ve got Gandalf, as a godly figure banishing them to go out to the real world. To leave the comfort of the Shire behind. To seek knowledge and experience in the real world where there is pain and suffering and misery, but pleasure, too. So that’s why I thought that moment was a wonderful representation for what the novel is all about.

DB: Is this still on your living room wall?

DG: Yes. It’s my couch painting.

DB: Why is this such a personal inspiration to you?

DG: It’s my largest piece of art at 6 by 3 feet, and there is a nice little story behind it too.

When I received the commission from the science fiction book club to do the covers, they also were going to be getting The Hobbit as well. I did the very large painting for the Lord Of The Rings cover, and the editors liked it, and the art director loved it, so when the time came to do the Hobbit cover, I wanted to do another humanistic painting like the Lord of the Rings. I had done a couple of sketches but they had turned them down. They had said they just want the dragon on the cover. So I said come on everyone does Smaug. But they wanted Smaug. So I gave them a painting of Smaug and about a year later, an art director I know at Ballentine saw them, was reminded of what I was doing, and offered me the cover of the graphic novel. And I went, oh yeah, I have just the thing for you. So expulsion became the cover for the graphic novel and is such a stronger piece than the dragon. So the Science Fiction Book Club lost out on an even better painting than the one they got. I guess my story is sometimes you need to just let the artist do what they want to do, and they will knock your socks off.

DB: In the ‘On Painting’ section of your book, Recent and Select Works, you mention your desire to produce narrative art. You mentioned how the Great Masters were revisiting the grand stories of their time. There was a shift in the 17th century where some of your influences, Valzquez and Caravaggio, began focusing on domestic scenes. If you were looking back at the art of today, what are the great stories being illustrated today? And how does commercial art fit into this picture?

DG: The problem is there is so much being done today. Even more so than the renaissance which had tens of thousands of artists. But today, there are hundreds of thousands of artists creating their images. One thing I see more of in the western world is the idea of art being self referential. I see a lot of autobiographical work. People making paintings about their self and family. In some ways it’s sad that maybe all the great stories have been told so often, and so well, that many artists have turned inside themselves. Which makes for an interesting and wonderful social commentary, because here, you have a couple of generations of artists referring to themselves. You can look back at the culture and see how the culture saw itself through its artists. Kind of what like what was great about Caravaggio and Dutch domestics is you got to get snippets of the life of everyday people. You can see how people dressed and such. Most of the renaissance was religious commissions. Michangelo, Raphael, Bellini, and Botecelli. All these artists worked for the church or for clients who donated to the church. So you don’t get a sense of culture. I see contemporary stuff going self-referential. But there is so much stuff out there it is just one small section of what is behind done.

DB: I noticed some of your more recent paintings are very expressive portraits.

DG: Yes, the Free Masons. They were referred by a friend who was the one who got me into Magic in the first place and encouraged me to send my portfolio to the art director at the time. Which is how I landed the Mirage commissions. The Free Masons were looking for a new portrait painter for their permanent collection, and he referred them to me. I enjoyed working for them.

DB: Your recent triptychs, Water and Optics, also seem somewhat of a departure.

DG: These represent where I am going now with the art work. It is a direction where I am trying to explore.

DB: Are they personal or commissioned works?

DG: Optics was a personal work. It was my very first triptych to tackle in quite a long time. Water grew out of a commercial commission. The center panel is a cover for a David Drake novel. Then I painted out the figures, so that I didn’t just have the pure landscape to work with. The left and right panels I created to tell a little story about the issues of water and life. The right panel is Europa, the moon around Jupiter, where we have great hopes that there’ll be some kind of micro life under the ice — and the potential oceans. So these are some directions, I’m heading. Getting back to the science. The hard core science.

DB: It comes full circle as you are heading off to the science show tonight.

DG: Yeah, hopefully that will lead to doing a science exhibit in the science gallery. I’m interested in some of these ideas in science fiction that tie into the science. Water is about science fiction, the discovery of life — imagining what life could be like on another world. I mean, obviously, nothing like something we could conceive of. Who knows what life might look like? Definitely not like us.

DB: You did your children’s book Visit My Alien Worlds offer an opportunity to explore some of this?

DG: It was my first children’s book and maybe my last. It wasn’t a true children’s book from start to finish. It was an experiment of sorts. There was a publisher who was looking for a n experiment in marketing. He needed a book fairly quickly. So in order to do that we used a lot of my stock images, book cover work, that I had previously created and we came up with a theme and a story and some new paintings to unify it. It never was fully realized the way I wanted it. I thought it would be fun to make a guidebook, Let’s Go or a Frommer’s of the universe. Places to stay and travel. Things to see.

DB: That’s a vast undertaking.

DG: It is too much to do. Too grand for what we needed. We pared it down. My niece and nephew appear on the cover, and I did a reading at their school so it was fun.

DB: Where do you see your work going in the next ten years and beyond?

DG: I’d like to get into larger painting and try to explore stories that go beyond commercial commissions. How I can really investigate characters, places and themes. The idea of life on other worlds. It is fantastical- and science fiction-oriented, but there is a lot hard science that can be explored such as S.E.T.I. There are people spending their lives into this search, and there has never been anyone tackling these subject in paint or portraits. I’d like to create narratives about what they are doing. It’s just me looking for a challenge and stuff that hasn’t been done before to see where I can bring my expertise and my love of the science to bear together.

DB: It sounds like you might be excited by some of the science fiction that focuses on some of the technical aspects — do you have a preference?

DG: You know I’m not that familiar with science fiction, but I guess I vacillate. Sometimes the real fantasy science fiction is way too out there, but then the galactic-wide cultures, like out of Asimov, that sound so infatuating: a billion different worlds of human occupation and dealing with the sociology behind that that makes for wonderful paintings — the ideas of spaceports that rival our airports with starships coming and going. That’s really a pure fantasy that will most likely never occur, but what I love is just extrapolating from the world we have now and finding parallels in science faction stories. Wherever those two meet, I’m agreeable and I like where they merge. Shows like the the Academy show is where I want to go.

DB: How long does the show run for?

DG: From the end of November through the end of January.

DB: Thanks for speaking with me today. I’m very glad to have had this opportunity to begin this column with our conversation. Good luck with the show and I’m looking forward to seeing your new work.

DG: Thanks for having me. I hope the column turns out nice.

More of Donato Giancola’s work can be seen at his website at www.donatoarts.com.

From Imagination to Reality: The Art of Science Fiction runs from Nov 5, 2004 – Jan 28, 2005 at the New York Academy of Sciences, 2 East 63rd St., New York, NY 10021. Phone: 212-838-0230 Gallery hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Leave a Reply