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Donato Giancola

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Donato Giancola
DoB: 1967
Location: New York City, US
Favourite music: Minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich... and Beethoven.
Favourite food: Gnocchi with pesto or paella.
"I never think about style,” says Donato Giancola. “I tend to gravitate towards work and methods that enable me to realise my narratives and concepts into a visual language I’m content with. Abstraction tends to be at the core of the foundation. I then turn to classical approaches to realism and the human figure, from Caravaggio to Rembrandt to J.W. Waterhouse, to understand what makes great art timeless and delve into what makes us human. If you need a label then I’m a classical-abstract-realist working within the science fiction and fantasy genre.”

Painting with passion
Donato Giancola is a man extremely passionate about his work. His paintings seem to transcend generations as well as genres – mixing pre-Raphaelite realism with futuristic themes – and tying them together in epic, emotive compositions. “I’ve always embraced the thought that the more you look, the better you see – both literally and metaphorically,” he says, discussing the beginnings of his painting process. “Obtaining mounds of references – from textures to models and photographic images – has been at the core of how I resolve my images. Photographic reference is like a window back in time – to assess and understand what’s occurred during certain lighting conditions, to consider details, or capture an expression.” He continues: “I typically spend two to six hours on this stage [of a painting]. On a major project, nearly a quarter of my time is spent on this phase, finding the perfect model to pose, gathering the textures of objects I wish to realise, looking up vague descriptions of objects, or taking a few hours to browse through some creative source books or references that have only the slightest tangential relationship to my commission. [This is] all with the intent of sparking a new creative visualisation that I may not have thought of before.”

From engineering to… Art?

For such a technically brilliant artist, Donato’s formal training came late in life – and it could have been a different life story altogether: “I began my college career at the University of Vermont majoring in electrical engineering,” he says. “I was as gifted in mathematics as I was in art. It wasn’t until my second year that I withdrew from this career path, frustrated with the lack of creativity in classes, subjects and assignments. I still remember the day I dropped out of three engineering classes in mid-semester, shocking my friends, my family and even myself. I enrolled in an art course the next semester and began my first formal lessons on drawing. That same year I picked up my first set of oil paints, created some horrible initial paintings, and realised I need guidance – lots of guidance.”

He continues, building up the picture of how he became the successful artist he is: “It became obvious that to take painting seriously I needed to pursue an education at a more challenging art college with competitive peers. I enrolled at Syracuse University in 1989 and majored in fine art painting. The doors which were opened to me at Syracuse proved to be extensive: from colour theory to composition, anatomy, paint techniques, experimental drawing, post-modern, modern and abstract theorising. Anyone who talks about God-given talent hasn’t seen the hours laboured to understand how to put an oil glaze on a painting. Practise, practise, practise – create, create, create. One of the greatest lessons I learned at school is that no art is perfect – keep moving onto your next project or vision with additional challenges. All told, my ‘college career’ lasted seven years.”

A busy, busy man
Donato’s client and award list is pretty much complete and you’d struggle to find something on there that he hasn’t done or won. From a multitude of Tor book covers to Lord of the Rings and the graphic novel interpretation of The Hobbit covers; from a raft of Magic the Gathering artwork to high-profile video games projects; Hugo, Spectrum and Chelsea Awards… this man is a prolific, tireless artist.

All things considered, Donato is an artist who uses traditional materials – his medium of choice being oils. As he explains, he has extensive – yet limited – experience with digital tools. “I was creating drawings on the computer back in 1983 when you had to enter in plotter coordinates to connect vectors for line creation,” he smiles. “And I was using the computer extensively while laying out and colouring our comics at Syracuse University. Now I incorporate the use of the computer in nearly every phase of my work.”

But, and it’s a big but: “I can’t envision myself ever passing fully into that [digital] world, as I love the creation of a unique object of art more that I love working for my commercial clients. I value the tangibility of the artist’s hand working with material over any other quality in a work of art, and this has opened my appreciation of different art forms such as sculpture, textiles and even architecture.”

No relic
This leads us perfectly onto his main obsession: museums. “I’m obsessed with visiting them,” he smiles. “I moved to New York to be near its wonderful institutions. I still spend many afternoons visiting my favourite artists – Hans Memling, Jan Van Eyck, Waterhouse, Velázquez, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Ingres, Mondrian, Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian. I strive to comprehend their complexity and bring that into my work. There’s nothing so impressive to me as standing in front of a huge Velázquez that’s 16 feet wide and ten feet tall with fully life-sized figures! Or I will spend long stretches of time gazing into the minute details of a tiny Van Eyck, 8 inches by 12, bumping my nose on the glass straining to see details that are almost invisible to the eye. It’s the combination of classical aesthetics with my love of modern abstraction that I attempt to meld into one art form in my paintings.”

Like the artists that inspire him, there’s no doubt that Donato is a modern master. Perhaps more importantly though, he’s is a man who enjoys it. “It’s a thrill to watch a painting come together – like magic,” he beams. “It’s also depressing to watch one fail after investing so much labour in its preparation. But regardless of the outcome, I keep moving forward onto the next project and series of challenges, keeping art an enjoyable lifestyle for me!” 
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