Donato Giancola reveals the secrets of his painting process and offers advice on getting creatively inspired and keeping your passion flowing.

ImagineFX Workshop
#91, January 2013

"Impressionists and realists have taught me about exaggerating colour"

From the beginning of my career as a young artist, the worlds of JRR Tolkien have inspired me to create art. From Frodo to Boromir to Saruman, I love to delve into their psyche and create images reflecting the turmoil and conflicts that rocked their world, and in a way mirror our own.

My earlier attempts at portraying the riches of Tolkien's writings had always fallen short, not just at the technical level but on the conceptual as well. Yet still I pushed on, for my love of the story overcame any limitations I felt in my artistic skills.

This, I feel, is the most important message for you to take away from this workshop: that although you may glean some wonderful new insight into how to improve your art, these images and words can never supplant the passion and belief you must have for your own personal visions.

Dig deep into what you love about your subject matter and find a way to express those innermost feelings. It's this passion that will drive you to new experiences, challenge you in discoveries and bring you the greatest joy - it should also be enough to sustain you through all the downturns.

I couldn't be the artist I'm today without the inspirational trail-blazing by previous artists. I've learned from the best of contemporary figurative realists through to the greatest of the Old Masters.

The following insights provide a distillation of what I've gleaned from these studies and illuminate my approaches to contemporary figurative narration, draftsmanship, aesthetics of abstraction and imaginative development. May they benefit your creative development as other such knowledge elevated my own work.

Enjoy the journey!

01. Abstracts

My image creation begins with play in abstract forms. I prime my mind with relevant literature or from visual experience. I'm never sure what I'm seeking, but let the shapes, lines and mental images lead me where they may. For this reason it's good to generate numerous compositions. Derivatives, experimentation and tangents eventually lead away from typical solutions

02. Rough drawing

After selecting an abstract composition, I begin to resolve how to populate the image with specifics. I prefer to work mostly from imagination at this stage, freeing decisions for compositional play of forms. I'll introduce challenges to the art here, pitching curveballs to my assumptions.

Can I use six instead of three figures? Rather than a simple colour field background, will an ornamental architectural structure work? What if a pattern of massive horizontal lines replaced that shape? Engineering the difficult into the drawing here creates a foundation that's easier to build upon later.

03. Reference gathering

One of my favourite aspects of creating art is the research into props, costumes, environments, textures, architecture, character types, cultures and any other inspirations needed for elements in the illustration.

I seek out influences from other art forms - Islamic textile patterns, East African clothing, Chinese architecture, to name a few - and will purchase books loaded with references, if needed. Researching the diversity of the world in museums, libraries and on the streets of New York, and finding a way to weave it into my art, is what I love most about painting.

04. Models and acting

One of the cornerstones of my art is reference sessions with models in costumes. The interactions between people are highly complex and our imaginations can't fathom them all. So I let my models act out the emotions and scene, given my parameters. The accidental tilt of a head, casting of a shadow, or flesh on flesh compressions are what I live for during these sessions. When you hit upon the perfect human engagement it can make a painting scream to life.

05. Cartoon - preliminary drawing

With all the reference material gathered and the rough composition and abstract studies nearby as guides, I then create a cartoon for the painting. A cartoon in this context is a large drawing produced at a 1:1 ratio to the final painting (a preparatory step I borrow from medieval and Renaissance artists, like Hans Memling and Michelangelo).

I begin sketching in vectors and volumes of shapes and progress by adding details from the photographs and observations I've made. This is a stage that enables quick experimentation in greys and abstract vector placement to determine movement, values, scale, lighting and composition.

Playing around in pencil saves me from hours of corrections that could occur in the final oil painting. The most critical concept to emphasize here is bending the reference to fit the will of your initial impulses in the abstract and rough drawings.

06. Falling in love

One of the most difficult aspects of working as a freelance artist is falling in love, so you can spend hours in the presence of that which you so desire - I'm not talking about another human here.

The amount of time we spend with our art is greater than any other relationship. If you dislike your project or commission, it can be a torment spending hours with it. Finding a way to personalise and make the art desirable is key to staying happy and inspired. Sometimes it can be a little inclusion, like the face of a friend on a background character, or a pattern or lighting effect (here it's the drawings and manuscripts Tolkien used in the creation of his books). These inclusions force you to learn something new in the execution. Whatever it is, try to fall in love with your art, or at least offer it a little hug!

07. Initial layers

With the transfer of the drawing completed, the messy work can begin - and I mean messy. The cartoon drawing, typically fixed beneath a layer of clear acrylic gesso or matte medium, holds key landmarks to the work allowing for a liberal play of colour and texture. I'm conservative in my approach, but the need to carefully follow a contour is out the window as I slosh around the paint and feel what my image needs for a colour direction.

08. Meditation

Time slows down now as I break out the minimalist music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass to set my mind to intimate, repetitive tasking. Filling in links on a suit of chain mail or similar is about careful observation and patience.

A little note on advertising...

Take Yoda's advice here and concentrate on where you are now, what you are doing. Forget about emails and suchlike. Focus on what the art needs from you and give it back.

09. Second passes

I find that practice tends to lead to perfection, so here I plan to rework any critical area if it falls short on the first pass. Let each part breathe for a while as you move onto other areas of the work.

After the entire image receives its first layers, you can better assess the balances needed to harmonise the painting and come back in for a second, third and even a fourth reworking. I usually plan on making at least three passes on a main figure's body and face, that's even after I attempt to make it perfect the first time.

10. Exaggerated colour

Enter the mind of an impressionist such as NC Wyeth and try to visualise colours in the shadows. I've learned from impressionists and realists, such as Peter Paul Rubens, when it comes to exaggerating colour in the cracks of objects, folds of skin and cast shadows.

The use of colour in these areas helps me describe a shadow by replacing a dark shadow with a complementary contrasting colour higher in value. It's hard to describe, but easier to understand visually!

11. Glazing

Glazing has traditionally been used to describe the process in which a small amount of pigment is suspended in a larger amount of medium, creating the visual effect of tinting an image without completely obscuring the lower surface. Paints are composed of varying pigments, and can range wildly as their application as a glaze. Digital technology allows nearly all brushes and colours to be easily manipulated as glazes and endlessly modified until flattened.

Oh, how I envy the digital artist for this! I use glazes during the entire painting process, providing saturation increases, opaque fogging effects and darkening tints to unify objects and shadows. Glazes are an exciting way to get messy again without sacrificing your image's structural integrity.

12. I see dead people...

As a commercial artist, it's easy to get caught up in the swirl of your client's needs - following the art order to the letter and implementing change suggestions from marketing directors - and in doing so losing your artistic voice. My professional career has been strengthened by solving client's problems while at the same time injecting more of my own voice into the art.

My first images for Magic: The Gathering incorporated hands that I love to paint, and now I illuminate anticlimactic moments portraying protagonists as vulnerable and non-heroic.

These may not be the perfect solution for my commercial clients, but for better or for worse my work has become recognisable for these traits. I feel an intense need to push in this direction - clouding my vision with dead or near-dead figures as elements of composition as if they were normal.

Pro Secret: Hard-earned cash

Be willing to spend money to place your best work forward - be that through framing, a quality portfolio or a special leave-behind booklet. If you're deciding between the 15 plastic portfolio or the 75 leather bound one, spend the extra money. It will make your images look more professional, and make you want to fill it with quality art. When you're willing to spend money on your own work, others are more likely to do so with commissions or purchases.

Words: Donato Giancola

Much of Donato's art has deep historical roots linking the past to the contemporary. Through his teaching, exhibitions, live demonstrations and educational films the artist aims to reflect the role that science fiction and fantasy plays in modern culture. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 91.



by Steve Ellis,
Lunacon 1998 Program

When I first met Donato Giancola I thought to myself, "I've got some competition!" I was a freshman at Syracuse University in 1989 when I attended my first meeting of Comics Plus, the comic book club there. Donato was also new to the group as he had just transferred into painting from electrical engineering in Vermont. When everyone shared their sketchbooks and I saw Donato's work, I was blown away. Already present in his images was an understanding of compositional structure and an impressive comprehension of light and form.

I was still more impressed when I learned that Donato was relatively new to art, having considered the field seriously for only a couple years previous. Present in even this early work was the drive, discipline and talent to become the successful painter he is. I have watched him develop, in tandem with myself, from an art student at Syracuse University into an accomplished artist at the top of his field.

Over the years, I've watched as he pored over old, dusty library texts and visited museums seeking out techniques from the great masters. I would visit Donato in his studio and talk to him about his newest influence as he applied one more thin glaze of oil onto his most recent piece. This striving toward creative perfection has persisted from college into his professional career and has been instrumental in his rocketing success.

As a fantasy and science-fiction painter, Donato is a kind of oddball. Traditionally, artists of the genre cite Frazetta and Boris as major influences, both of whom are regarded as contemporary masters of fantasy. While respecting these and other artists, Donato draws inspiration primarily from the much older masters of representational and abstract art. As he has said to me over many a pizza and Coke, "Why not build on the successes of the past?"

The past Donato looks to includes Hans Memling, a brilliant painter of the Northern Renaissance tradition who emphasized an intricate patterning of detail, symbolism and saturated color in his realistic paintings. The iconic structure and carefully selected imagery in the paintings of this period act as the major driving force in Donato's art. Islamic art, elaborate and complex in its abstract two-dimensional structure, has also served as an inspiration to his design and composition.

The observant viewer can also see such influences as Jan Vermeer, one of the Dutch Masters renowned for his subtle use of light, William Bougereau, to whom Donato attributes his understanding of skin tones and textures, and Caravaggio, who helped bring domestic subject matter into the limelight of high-art narrative picture making. When Donato needs to express an emotion through a figure, he will do so with a subtle yet loaded gesture: a smirk, or a gentle turn of the hip that gives his characters life and dimensionality. His work is grounded in an artistic legacy of realism and simple beauty which makes even his most fantastic creatures convincing.

The more recent past which has strongly influenced Donato's creations can be found in the movie theaters and comic-book stores. Donato's imagination (as well as the imaginations of most of his generation) was captured by Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, and E.T., among others. Like many of us in the field, he learned to draw from the best of comic book illustrators (for example, John Byrne in Fantastic Four, Sal Buscema in Conan the Barbarian, and Walt Simonson in Thor) and spent hours drawing his own characters, which were often inspired by his role-playing in Dungeons and Dragons and the literature of J.R.R. Tolkien.

But what really brings Donato's painting to life is his love of science. He has often spoken to me, voice full of wonder, of being awakened to watch astronauts land on the moon when he was a child and of the eerily beautiful northern lights (aurora borealis) visible from northern Vermont, where he grew up. He strives to bring a scientifically accurate observation to his art. Donato credits direct observation of nature, for example the reflection on a chrome ball or the glow of flesh in front of a fire, as his biggest tool in creating the seeming otherworldliness of his paintings.

Donato is an artist's artist. When he approaches a painting, he is just as interested in whether the finished painting stands up as its own object than he is in the reproduced image. When you see an original Donato, the textures and luminosity of the paint and the strength of the overall composition come through, characteristics that are often lost when a piece is photographed and printed on paper. His techniques are masterful in their execution, and his devotion to his work is unparalleled. His draftsmanship is executed with the utmost attention and love for fine rendering and painstaking detail.

Donato's work ethic and creativity are an inspiration to those around him. I am honored to call him friend as well as colleague.

-Steve Ellis is a professional comic book penciler whose clients include Marvel and DC Comics.


Science fiction artists cover the cosmos

Anita Mabante Leach, The Arizona Republic

October 17, 1998

The proverbial picture may be worth a thousand words, but science fiction artists are talking infinity.

Robert McCall, 78, known as the NASA artist, is one such artist who has had plenty to say. He will exhibit his works depicting the vastness of space at the Science Fiction Festival this weekend. A Valley resident, McCall's works are recognized worldwide. His depictions of space give viewers an idea of the vastness and drama of the cosmos.

A second artist, Donato Giancola, will show works he has created for various science fiction book covers.

Giancola, 31, is a relative newcomer to the field of illustrating science fiction. He says he believes in focusing on individual characters in "a microscopic way."

"I try to get very personal with the characters," Giancola says of the entities that populate his oil paintings. Construct of Time, one of Giancola's early book cover illustrations (for Simon R. Green's Shadows Fall) from 1993, will be sold as posters at the Science Fiction Festival for $1 each.

The illustration is loaded with the images of time.

"The publisher gave me a very simple description: A robot made from watch pieces," Giancola recalls of the assignment.

"I purchased a book on watches to study the inner workings of them. I looked at the tissue and bone structures of the human body and had to "ap over" the human anatomy with pieces of the watch. I wanted a figure that was virtually timeless, so I went to art history and chose Michelangelo's David."

Giancola's robot echoes that classic pose while holding a sun dial in his hand. The sands of time are reflected in his chrome limbs and background dunes.

"The effect of chrome plating was accidental," he said. "As I started on his head, I decided to bounce the light from the ground and sky on his helmet. Once I did that, I decided to continue with the rest of the body."

Giancola said he believes that the recent fantasy genre reaches back to author J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. His other personal favorites include Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles) and Ursula K. Le Guin (The Lathe of Heaven).

As for visiting a state that is fraught with UFO sightings, Giancola admits to being a skeptic , but only as far as the human aspects are concerned.

"It is impossible, I believe, that we are the only life forms that have developed. However, the genre is so filled with people who are oriented toward (believing in UFOs). It wasn't until humanity began to fly that these 'sightings' began. Still, I hate to be too hard on those people. I'd probably alienate half my audience!"



by Karen Haber
Science Fiction Age Magazine, 1998

As bestselling Science Fiction novelists have learned, everything goes better with Giancola.

Science fiction and classical art don't seem to have much in common unless you consider the work of Donato Giancola. While depicting visions of the future he keeps looking back over his shoulder at the work of such great classical artists as Rembrandt and Hans Memling. A Chesley award recipient, Donato credits the old masters with inspiring him to create paintings whose audacious composition, brilliant color, and dizzying perspective have delighted art directors and book buyers.

Donato's work has been further enriched by the cultural wealth of his adopted city, New York, where he can gorge on the artwork hanging in the world-class museums. "I really believe in looking at other artists," he says. "Their craft, their ideas. Being able to stand in front of a 15-foot painting instead of flipping through a catalog."

Like many successful Science Fiction artists, Donato demonstrated his gifts early. "I must have been drawing ever since I was little, my first paintings were probably cave paintings inside my mother's womb." From the age of six he drew tanks and aircraft based on the war comics he read and models he made. A huge roll of paper , the gift of an uncle, enabled him to draw epic pictures, 30- or 40-foot-long battle scenes, with his younger brother, Dave.

Science fiction entered his life with the Star Wars movies. "Star Wars was a big influence," he says. "The Empire Strikes Back was the movie for me. Chills went up and down my spine each time I saw it."

Around that time the seminal role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, made its debut, and Donato was quickly hooked. "I was a gaming addict. I started off with D&D and, later, Traveler. Then we modified the rules, increased spells, etc. Finally, we came up with our own game. I would make my own map grids, even my own grid paper. I wasn't happy playing in somebody else's imagination."

His older brother introduced him to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and from there he immersed himself in the literature of sci-fi and fantasy. However, science fiction and art were only hobbies. Donato had to be practical about selecting an occupation. "I grew up in Vermont, where artists were people like Rembrandt, not people from my community."

He began to study electrical engineering. Despite a real talent for math, he grew restless with his major and found he was more interested in his mechanical drawing classes. Mid-term, he dropped his engineering curriculum, and when the dust had settled was enrolled in the painting program at Syracuse University. "I was aiming for their illustration program but got into their painting program instead. And it's affected every creative decision I've made since."

"Studying painting really opened my mind up to the way we make art. I got to learn about abstraction, about art history, composition, color, and narrative story-telling. Meanwhile, I was part of a comic book club where we published our own books. That's where I indulged my love of science fiction. But most of my classwork was serious."

Through Syracuse University he made contact with the professional illustration world, meeting artist representatives at portfolio previews. Donato quickly obtained representation and, diploma in hand, moved to New York to be closer to the action. But the hard work was just beginning.

By day he toiled at the Society of Illustrators. At night he worked long hours, sometimes until dawn, to provide samples for his rep, hoping that one would do the trick. Finally, he got an assignment from Wal-Mart: paint new covers for the classic sci-fi novels The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, by Mark Twain. He was on his way.

Nearly ten years and several awards later, Donato has become increasingly interested in art for art's sake. "I'm focusing on quality now, not quantity. TOR [publishers] has allowed me a lot of freedom. I'm exploring figures and compositions. Whenever I get to do a wraparound I forget about what's going to happen to it as a cover. I used to give art directors exactly what they requested: commercial problem-solving. But that's not what I got into art for, and I don't know if I'll always want to deal with that."

Although he admires computer-generated art, he says it's not for him. "Drawing is what dictates my artistic choices. I want to be able to meld the idea of abstraction, pure gesture, with the reality of what I'm going to make."

"I rarely use any vanishing point perspective. It's the cubist influence: fracturing the vectors. I watch for strange overlaps or foreshortening. I'm very, very conscious of composing my pictures along a two-dimensional layout. That helps them read graphically." In Ravengers (Warner Books), the fractured vectors keep the viewer's eye moving over the dizzying multilevel cityscape."

In addition to his work for publishers and private clients, he also paints cards for Magic: The Gathering, Dune, and the Middle Earth card games. "Cards are fun because you don't have to worry about text. But they're small, so you have to simplify the compositions, which is directly opposed to my goal for the book covers."

Included in his "mission statement" is a determination to alter the "babes-in-bras" and "heroes-in- battle" formulae of fantastic art. "I want to break the stereotypical icons of the genre. I'm trying to make males look heroic through body language or lighting without being in conflict. And I prefer to use atypical models."

In Mother of Winter (Barbara Hambly, Ballentine) Donato achieved several goals. "I really pushed for the right to do a beautiful elderly woman on the cover. And I appropriated the curvilinear patterns of Islamic art to tie the painting together, overlaying the image and integrating it. So I was able to meet the publisher's needs for an attractive subject, and mine as well." (A science note here: The machinery Donato depicted in this work is a detail from the Babbage analytical engine, a precursor of the computer.)


The mirrored tour-de-force of A Construct of Time (for the novel Shadows Fall by Simon Green, Penguin) came about by chance. "The assignment was a simple description: a robot made of watch parts. The original idea was to have him be brushed chrome. So I painted the background, using basic complements. I started to work on the face, and thought I would try a challenging move and make his helmet reflective. Once I had the pattern and chrome effects established on the head, I saw that I could mimic it all over the figure. That was a fun painting."

He relies upon photographic references for the actual figures, either posing and shooting them himself or using professional photographers and models. In the cover painting for The Queen of Demons (David Drake, TOR), Donato photographed fellow artists Stephen Youll, Steve Ellis, and Dorian Vallejo as models for a tricky bit of action. "They're on the far right of the painting: that's Stephen being tackled by Steve and breaking through the stair railing as Dorian swings a mace nearby." The artist also makes an appearance in the painting as the bearded figure on the stairs. "I'm the one who's not engaged in combat, just watching."

Donato works at home in his top-floor studio, teaches at the School of Visual Arts, and has curated an exhibit at the Society of Illustrators. In addition to the Chesley Award for best paperback cover, 1996, he has received a Silver Award from Spectrum II: The Best of Contemporary Fantastic Art, and the Jack Gaughan Award for Best Emerging Artist at Boskone 35 in 1998. That same year Donato was Artist Guest of Honor at Lunacon, where he received Best of Show and Best Professional Artist awards.

He enjoys the awards, but says he's in it for more than the accolades or even the paycheck. "Craft comes first," Donato says. "I'm concerned with making a nice painting. It has to work for me as an object, a painting, before it can work for an art director as a cover."



Donato Giancola
1967 -

by Vincent DiFate

The contemporary science fiction artist is one whose work is distinguished by a devotion to craft and a high level of technical competence. At no time in history have there been more artists in the Science Fiction specialty who can draw and paint with so high a degree of excellence. What many of these artists lack, however, is an extrapolative keenness for narrative picture-making that carries Science Fiction to a higher level. Great Science Fiction illustration should be as good as, or better than, the story it illustrates, and it should also build on an understanding of the author's ideas.

Happily, Donato Giancola has both the technical excellence and the love and knowledge of Science Fiction to make his work special indeed, for after only a few years in the genre, he stands at the very vanguard of contemporary Science Fiction art.

Born in Colchester, Vermont, he studied electrical engineering for two years at the University of Vermont before becoming a fine arts major at Syracuse University. He graduated in 1992, secured a staff position at the Society of Illustrators in New York City, and within two years had taken on so much freelance illustration work that he became a fulltime contributor to the Science Fiction and fantasy paperback markets.

Donato presents his clients with a comprehensive drawing which, subject to editorial changes, is copied to size and mounted on board with a layer of acrylic mat medium. The copy then functions as an underpainting, with the artist building up glazes and empastos in oils until the painting is completed. The results are stunning, but more importantly they are conceptually sound and are consistently among the best paintings now being done in the genre.