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."