ImagineFX Interview
Jon Schindehette's Interview
Vanguard: Saga of Heroes Interview by Nick Parkinson
The Science Fiction Book Club Interview by Rome Quezada< on Character Design Interview by Shane Watson
Wizards of the Coast Interview

First Impressions - ImagineFX Interview

March 2014

- You're a child, you see a painting that changes everything... where are you and what are you looking at?

If only I could point to one event or inspired moment that launched my career, what a story that would make! But I can point to an event I can still 'feel' as clear as yesterday - that of watching Star Wars for the first time at the age of ten at a local drive in from the backseat of my parent's car. A few of my friends had seen the movie and were raving about it. Little did I know how strongly that movie would resonate while me as a young man - the twin setting suns of Tatooine, the camaraderie Luke finds in his new friends, and the adventure awaiting anyone who wishes to leave their hometown. I cannot think of a more perfect movie to have watched as an inspired ten year old. Chills still run up and down my spine when I hear the opening refrain to the anthem by John Williams - I am experiencing an uprising of that adrenalin rush even now as I write this! That is power stuff to tap into as an artist...

- One person who helped you on your way?

At the age of nineteen I enrolled in a drawing class as my first formal art training. It was an experiment to see if I liked art as a 'profession' and whether I was any good at it, outside my interests as a hobby artist. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenges the teacher, Chris Campbell, placed upon us as students. She saw my passion, dedication, and potential and recommend that I 'go some where else' to study art more seriously. While my university was a good school, it could not offer any level of challenging course work for a serious art student. Chris' recommendation resulted in a transfer into Syracuse University two years later where I blossomed as an artist, and further built my confidence to go 'some where else' for my art; moving onto New York City where I now reside and then travelling the world on pilgrimages to museums. All the while pushing my skills to their limits. Thank you Chris.

- Someone who's tried to get in your way?

You can point fingers all you want, but the only true impedance to maturing as an artist is yourself. Far too often I hear about how 'school didn't teach me this', 'that publisher didn't give me a commission', or 'that jury didn't vote for my art'. These barriers are nothing more than hurdles for you to climb over and leave in the dust of a productive and inspired career. Move forward and beyond that which is petty.

- What was your first paid commission?

I can happily state the first piece of art sold was a drawing inspired by 'The Lord of the Rings'! I was fourteen years old and showing my friend Tony an image of a ringwraith I had just finished. I was creating plenty of images from Middle-earth at that time, as a prolific artist I was working on superhero and science fiction images as well. Tony's mom was an avid fantasy reader and picked up the ringwraith drawing quick - SOLD for $5!

- What's the last piece that you finished?

My latest works have included twelve images for the 2015 George R.R. Martin Calendar for A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones for many who have not read the books) The final piece, Forging the Iron Throne, was just delivered two weeks ago. George was been wonderfully supportive, giving me tremendous freedom to interpret his visions.

I am now in the middle of a major project, The Fellowship of the Ring - Descent from Caradhras, a large oil on linen painting, 3 m x 2m in size. Inspired by the Hudson River school landscape painters. A real monster!

- What are your painting rituals?

Wake up and hit the studio! I actually do not need any rituals to be motivated to create art. The pleasure of creation is enough to keep me happy, inspired, and eager for the day to begin, and regretful as the sun sets that there is not more daylight, as I work in a natural light setting!

If there are any rituals to my labors, it is the pleasure taken in laying out a new palette, or the contemplative assessment of the art at the end of the day as I wash my brushes and close down the studio.

- What's changed in the industry of fantasy art the most in the 20 years that you've been working in it?

As much as you may be tired of hearing it, the internet is the greatest change, from how we shop for art supplies, to research content, to advertise our work. Imagine back when you emptied a tube of paint you actually had to leave the studio and go find one out in the real physical world like some primate looking for food. Now you press a few images on a glass screen and it shows up the next day at your door step. Magic! And most importantly no time lost from the studio work hours.

- When did you become a teacher of art, and what is the most important thing that you've ever taught someone?

I first began to lead classes a few years out of college - what a disaster. I was too young and inexperienced to truly teach the students in attendance. I really began to teach about six years ago, after spending countless hours presenting, lecturing and demonstrating my art at conventions. A decade refining the various aspects of my skills, business, and maturity as an artist allowed me to more effectively reach out and share what I had learned to others. Every year I learn a little more and become a more effective teacher.

The most important issue I stress in becoming an artist is to be prolific - keep making the art. It is through this process an artist will find their audience, and their voice, in what they wish to passionately create.

- Who was the most important teacher in your art career?

I could never pick just one masterful influence. Selecting just one teacher is like saying 'what is your most important body part?' Without so many pieces, the whole really cannot exist. Do I credit my first drawing teacher, Chris Campbell, who opened my eyes to abstraction at the age of nineteen? Or the painter Lance Richbourg who showed me how to experiment in oils? Or the anatomy lessons of Jerome Witkin? The deconstructive critiques at Syracuse University in the classes of Sharon Gold? The professionalism gained from working my first years as an illustrator with my agent Sal Barracca? Or the sublime conversations with my mentor Vincent Desiderio as I worked as his assistant in New York City? All have contributed in deep, meaningful ways to my development as an artist. Remove any one part, and the whole collapses.

- What advice would you give to your younger self to aid you on the way?

Take more chances. Shoot higher for your dreams.

- What sucks about the industry right now? - Why is it still the best place to be working?

What sucks is also a boon. The industry is huge, massive - global! Need an artist for a commission? Which country would you like to hire them from! Old school classicalism, new school abstraction, any school pluralism? Competition in the commercial field reaches far beyond geographical and language barriers, there are thousands of artists for a client to choose from. The flip side of that is the potential is nearly limitless in regards to the worldly influence, popularity, and business dealings an international market can offer. Being savvy to what is happening in the marketplace is smart business for a freelance artist - reach out, advertise, diversify, share your art, and others will find you and support you - globally! For good and bad, it is now the world we live it.

As I reflect back to major pivotal/emotional moments in my life, it is amazing that nearly none of them revolved around visual art. The success I have experienced as an artist has evolved from the kind of person I am/was, not the art that I have looked at. These experiences stem from loving to work with my hands on projects, from digging hideouts in the woods, building tree houses, and of course drawing. Craftsmanship is the underlying motivator, to make something tangible, something real. Other life lessons came from the teachers I had in school, and the camaraderie I had with fellow players in the sports I participated within. Working with a team, shared goals, and having fun while enduring great challenges both physically and mentally. That is what made me the artist I am today.


Jon Schindehette's interview

How I Made It
by Donato Giancola

July 6 , 2010

First, let me state that there have been specific moments which I can point to and state, this is when I got this job, or that client, or that special break. But before those 'chances' occurred I placed a tremendous amount of labor in refining my skills, acquiring knowledge about narrative picture telling, and producing highly labored paintings of images I believed in: from comics, to gallery work, to book cover samples. It is that foundation building which set the stage for events to happen. Onto the story...

In the Spring of 1992, Syracuse University held a portfolio review in New York City for graduating seniors. At this review, where students are not present, I received a few potential leads for representation in the illustration field based upon what I exhibited in my portfolio (attached are a few of the images I had included, comics, gallery work and a 'bookcover' with knights). This was before the internet and discovering new talent was not as easy as it is now for art directors and agencies. It was easier to run into art directors, agents and other artists at openings and events in the city. As I lived in Vermont, this review was my first crack at entering the New York art scene.

I immediately set up interviews with two agents who left their contact information at the review. The first agency, Mendola Brothers, thought I had potential, but found my work lacking in finish and suggested I return when I had a better polish to my paintings. Reading between the lines I understood this as 'come back when you are already a professional'. A Catch-22 situation. How was I to get better without landing any jobs? At the second interview with Sal Barracca & Associates, I received the same response regarding my quality of painting and relevancy of content in the portfolio, but Sal extended a vague invitation of representation if I could create samples of professional quality worthy of book cover work. Sal's specialty was representation in the New York book publishing market. I saw my chance to become a book cover illustrator, concentrating in the science fiction and fantasy field. These interviews were my first lesson regarding any art business, you are not hired on your potential, but on what you can deliver. Immediately upon returning to Vermont, I began to create samples at the rate of one new painting a month. On the completion of the work, I would drive to New York City for a brow beating from Sal as he pointed out deficiencies in my samples, and head back home to work on the next one.

In September, I made my greatest leap ever in advancing my professional career, moving to New York City. I wanted to be immersed in the largest arts scene in the world. It was a big gamble, as New York is not cheap and, little did I know at the time, the country was in a recession. It would still be half a year before I landed any commissions. I resisted the temptation to get a 'regular' job and supported myself through part time work at the Society of Illustrators working as a coatcheck boy. All of my free time was spent creating monthly illustration samples for Sal, visiting museums, examining other illustrators and artists work and attended life drawing classes and art openings. I shared a small apartment with two other aspiring artists, and painted every day for 8-12 hours. I developed a great bond with Sal during this time as I solicited his feedback on sketches, references, and finished art, examined actual commissioned art from other artists in his offices, and began to understand how the business for freelance illustration is run. By December 1992 I was in the middle of my sixth sample for Sal. The images were progressively improving, but money was running short and I didn't know how long this could last. I resorted to borrowing money from my girl friends parents as I felt my own parents had been tapped out. I began to consider finding a second job possibly at a Kinko's or selling retail electronics, a job which I had used to support myself through college. I was saved from that choice, as the hard work, gamble, and move to New York finally paid off.

Sal called me one Monday morning with commissions to produce covers for a series of classic science fiction books. I was at his office in a matter of minutes (the huge advantage of living in New York). He handed me a list of 30 amazing classic titles Walmart was publishing to sell in their stores. He asked me how many I could do in two months. WOW! I could do all 30 right!? I did a quick calculation and figured if I could create one sample a month, and if I worked my hardest, I could get three done in the time it had been taking for two. I selected these three: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. My professional career had begun. I could not have asked for better commissions for initiation into the field of illustration and I did my best to prove that Sal's gamble on me would be worth it. After delivering the art for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court , I have not had a free moment without work as a free-lance illustrator and am expanding into other markets as I push my art further. I owe a debt of gratitude to Sal Barracca and the Joe Curcio, the art director for Tor books on those first Walmart projects, for sticking their necks out for a young artist looking for a break. Looking back, they really did not take that much of a risk, as I had to prove my worth to Sal through the consistency of six samples, but they were there to mentor and support me as I provided the energy and time to make the art.

My advice to talent looking to break into a new market: you need to do the work. If I wanted to become a children's book illustrator, even now, with my reputation, I would still need to make the samples and prove my abilities. There is more to illustration than making pictures: knowing your market, knowing your fellow artists, and understanding what trends might influence the aesthetics of the image. This fall, the first collection of my work in book format is to be released on a topic that is so very dear to me -Middle-Earth: Visions of a Modern Myth. This book would not have been possible with out the dozens of sketches and paintings of characters and scenes from Middle-Earth I have undertaken just because I love the writings. It is that kind of passion an artist needs to tap into in order to make a career of their art.


Vanguard: Saga of Heroes
Interview by Nick Parkinson

Fall, 2009

1. You were commissioned by Sigil, at Keith's request, to complete the box cover for Vanguard. Up until now, what types of art have you mostly been involved with?

I think what caught Keith's interest in my work was the highly narrative images I had been creating for science fiction and fantasy book covers. For the first half of my career in the nineties, paperback and hardcover book jackets were the mainstay of my art: producing 25 to 30 covers a year. This cover work had been, and still is, evolving into higher complexity as I embrace multi-figural compositions and tackling dense architectural forms to flush out design aesthetics and abstract compositions. About 8 years ago, new commissions began to present themselves, from Playboy Magazine to Video Game advertising and box covers, from concept art to private commissions. These various venues helped expand my artistic interests as well as add variation in the narratives I presented in my portfolio. With each major commission, I found challenges, technically and aesthetically, to push me further afield to the artistic horizons. Thus by the time Keith and the Vanguard commission needed me, I was well immersed in a mature style and looking for new challenges to round out my portfolio.

2. Speaking of the cover art - When you were given the task of finishing Keith's work, you must have had a lump in your throat! What were you thinking, at that point?

First let me state how much Keith has been an enormous influence on my career: from his work on Dungeons and Dragons to the wonderful covers gracing hundreds of novels. I bought books solely based on Keith's work, and learned to enjoy and discover the authors after the cover enticed me. His death is a tremendous loss to the genre: at this past summers' GenCon, we had a packed room of artists and fans paying tribute to his labors and lifestyle. Thus when Donna approached me to consider the Vanguard cover, I was floored. To fill Keith's shoes would be impossible. I loved the EverQuest images he had created and now I was asked to step in and create an image which commercially was to rival these. What a burden! Rather than trying to 'do' Keith's style, I thought it better to create a work which paid homage to Keith: a celebration of those narrative qualities he brought to his work and inspired in others. I knew I had to give this piece my all, if nothing more than to find my way of saying 'thank you' to Keith.

3. The line drawing was good. The finished product incredible! Having been in an area of art, I sat for the longest time looking at it! Was it hard to merge your artistic soul so flawlessly with Keith's to do this?

The hardest part was not having the time to paint the homage to Keith the way I felt it deserved. As a commercial commission, there was a very serious, over-looming deadline to meet. I've been under that kind of pressure before, actually nearly all the time, but when you are passionate about a work of art, you do not want to let ANYTHING slip. There are elements I feel are not all the way there. If I lived in California, I'd probably sneak into Sigil and work the painting a bit more- I know Keith did that to his works as well.

But the heart and spirit of the work shines through. It was very easy to 'channel' Keith, from detailed preliminary drawings, costuming of characters, narrative structure, compositional designs, and even cultural aesthetics: it was from Keith that I drew much of these inspirations and 'artistic languages' in the first place! I can see much more clearly now why Keith wanted me on this project. He knew me better than I knew myself.

4. Putting Keith's face as part of it was genius, and a great tribute to him. Was that your idea, or Sigil's?

I can't remember who's idea it was, but I know Den Beauvais passed onto me some renderings of Keith within the game world of Vanguard. I knew that on the cover, Keith needed to be there. As with most of my characters, I love the common man. I thought of Keith not as the Alpha-hero, but rather that guy you could count on to watch your back, share a beer with you at the tavern, and sit down with you as a friend. That was the Keith I knew, and the reason he is on the cover right in the middle of the party, off to adventure, surrounded by friends.

5. What is your favorite piece of work that you've done?

That's a tough one- like asking a father which of his five daughters he loves best. There are many achievements and milestones in my artistic career with none that outshines any of the rest. Over time, a few notables stand out: my first cover for Penguin Books, Construct of Time, a robot created by Father Time from watch parts; the tragic triptych Eric Bright-Eyes of a Viking and the two women who loved him; the epic battle painting Faramir at Osgiliath with over two dozen figures engaged in desperate combat around their captain; the sublime Doors of Obernewtyn, a young girl caught at that moment of choice between two possible futures; the list can go on. My peers and fans 'tell' me which are my most successful works: from personal comments to medals in juried shows, all the works above have garnered numerous accolades each, and it is from that feedback that I make my assessments. I hope Vanguard will join those ranks very soon, but that is not for me to decide, my work on the art is done. I hope Keith would have been happy with the results.


The Science Fiction Book Club
Interview by Rome Quezada

April 17, 2008

Book covers - no matter how much we may protest it's one of the first judgments we make when buying a book. That's not to say it's the only judgment, but as a first impression, it goes a long way in setting a tone for any given book, particularly if you're browsing for something new and not familiar with an author's work or read any reviews about it. Science Fiction and Fantasy in particular loves its book covers, and with good reason, due to the amazing work artists produce in capturing the feel of the stories between the covers. There's always an arresting image to push our imagination in a way that no other genre can come close to doing. But we rarely hear from artists about their process, how it is they can take a book and capture it in a single image. How do they do it and what goes into their decisions?

SFBC just published an original anthology of six stories by some of today's best fantasy writers, titled A BOOK OF WIZARDS, and we commissioned Donato to come up with something to grace the cover, knowing he had the creativity and talent to come up with something that would knock our socks off.

He did.

In fact, we thought it was so spectacular, we decided to create a 24" x 38" poster that sfbc members would get with every copy of the book - it's huge!

The first glimpse I got was a sketch he was working on during last year's World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs. It showed a woman caught in the throes of some unimaginable - torment? Ecstasy? It was an arresting image. But as breathtaking as it was, I did wonder what a woman would be doing on a book about wizards. Luckily, I kept my thoughts to myself because the final piece is drop-dead stunning, capturing the sense of wonder found in the book's awesome stories. Given my original reservations, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to talk with the artist directly on what it's like to create art destined for book coverdom. Even better, nice guy that he is, Donato decided to answer my questions.

SFBC: Hi Donato. First of all, thank you so much for the great cover art and for talking to us about your process. To begin, how did you get started working on science fiction and fantasy books, and what drew you to the genre?

D: Ever since I was young I've held a strong desire to create imaginary worlds through my art from watching science fiction movies, reading fantasy novels from the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien or role playing with such games as Dungeons and Dragons. This hobby turned into a professional passion, when, within a year of acquiring my BFA in Painting from Syracuse University, I found myself illustrating my first set of sf/f novel covers, gracing reissues of classic works of none other than Mark Twain, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells! I couldn't ask for better authors for my first professional works. Those covers led to hundreds more over the course of my 15 year career.

SFBC: When working with a book, what do you look for when creating a cover image?

D: I desire to create an image which conveys the essence of the story and provides insight as to a different way of interpreting the story. I always attempt to meld external influences from my personal experiences into the narratives provided by the authors. This marriage brings a high degree of commitment and passion to the work, and provides the inspiration necessary for me to bring the best technical and narrative skills to bear in each and every painting. I not only want to produce a compelling book cover but also to create a work of art worthy of standing on its own integrity. Some of my cover images may not appear to be an exact scene from the novel, but they certainly illustrate the essence of what is occurring within.

SFBC: It's a very powerful and evocative image you created for A BOOK OF WIZARDS. How did it evolve?

D: This anthology challenged my assumptions of what a wizard was; a few writers deviated from the standard wizards I had always known. Taking that challenge to heart, I decided to pass along my introspections to the reader and find a way to place a non-wizard figure on the cover to a book of 'Wizards'. The final character is an amalgam from two of the stories (I'll let you figure that out!). After an initial pass of rough sketches, I found my concept to be a bit contrived - staged in the old school of what wizardry represented. I needed an external influence, and turned to the shelves of art books. But after browsing through a collection of modern dance photography, I came to the realization that the dynamic figures within these pages reminded me of the ritualistic passions I had seen from primitive worship/magic/conjuration. Immediately two of the stories came to mind which included female magicians/spell casters, and one of them spoke to the ritualistic nature of wizardry. I knew I had my cover: a female wizard, primitive, half nude and passionately engaged calling magic from the earth. I didn't realize just how successfully it would evolve! The shaman is a friend Sylvia, who did an incredible job as a contortionist for the reference photographs in my studio, and the tattoos grew out of the scarring and body decoration I have seen within African and Polynesian tribes. My thanks go out to the art director at SFBC, Matthew Kalamidas, and the editors there for sticking with me on this vision.

SFBC: As an artist who has spent a great deal of time traveling the world to study the great masters paintings firsthand, were you inspired by any artists for A BOOK OF WIZARDS?

D: That is a hard question to answer, not because it's difficult, but rather this is one painting I really did not think of 'playing' within another artists mind/style in order to create it! Usually I can answer this question with an easy 'Peter Paul Rubens', 'J. W. Waterhouse', 'Velazquez' or 'Caravaggio', but this time the image demanded it's own integrity. I was able to compose this work by drawing upon previous experiences. At moments of difficulty I turned to Rembrandt as a savior, but the painting really took upon a life of its own. It was a true pleasure to paint!

SFBC: You execute your paintings in sizes much larger than they will eventually be printed on book jackets. Can you explain the thinking behind this practice?

D: This is easy. I want the painting to be appreciated in its own light, as a free-standing work of art. Many times the dictates of a commercial commission (deadlines, shipping, etc...) prevent me from making the painting I really want to produce, but I was very happy with this image, with the final art at two feet by three feet, and spending nearly a month in its creation.

SFBC: Would you talk a little about your work beyond book covers?

D: Over the past seven years my work has gradually branched beyond cover commissions to include diverse subjects as editorial art for National Geographic, images for CNN, Magic: The Gathering trading cards, video game covers, Postal stamps for the United Nations and numerous - and growing - private commissions. I currently bring the same integrity to all my assignments, looking for ways to challenge the assumptions of my clients and overcome my own inherent biases. I hope this feeling of persistent growth and learning continues with me into the later stages of my career, for it is a joy to discover what doors may be opened by new challenges.

RETURN TO TOP on Character Design
Interview by Shane Watson

December 6, 2007

1. In working up character designs, how important is it to you as an artist to capture the author's or art director's vision of the person/creature being portrayed? Do you ever deviate from the brief? Why or why not?

As you've likely heard it many times before 'it all depends'. Not attempting to be vague with that statement to avoid the issue, rather I assess the apparent desires of each client and match them up with what they likely really need. If I am working on characters for game design, then my parameters are far narrower than when interpreting a character for a book cover. Each of these has different goals and audiences. Character design is targeted for other artists as a step in a process. Cover art is made for direct viewing by the public. Very different approaches. I am more likely to deviate from an author's description to make the character better in my eyes, than I am likely to take that leap with game design. But with each commission- it all depends! What vibe I get from the project and how restrictive I feel their needs are will open the door or close it a little.

2. In any given piece, what type of references or inspiration are you most likely to pull from first?

Wow, that is a curveball question! Where do I go firs- it would certainly help if I knew where I was going before I got on the pathway. I really cannot tell you where I go first for inspiration- see above answer 'it all depends'. I hit museums, exhibits/shows, and the streets of New York, as well as artists books, which are more in the likes of Rubens and Velazquez than Spectrum. The one thing I do not what to do is just pull too much inspiration from the genre which I am attempting to portray. I call that incest. What can really make a piece rock is that it brings something totally new to the genre, something few people have seen before. That is what I am after, a touch of the unknown coupled heavily with structures which are very familiar. A slight twist on reality. This can help explain why I seek out such traditional forms with my art, to provide that anchor which is a common visual language in our Western culture: giving my viewers and clients something heavily grounded in a world they are familiar with. Meshed into that is a sample of inspirations which dive into contemporary aesthetics, abstract ideas and foreign cultural content - the beginnings of the 'twist'. Where do I actually get that twist? I really do not know-I just know I am always looking out for it and have a little scrap book of ideas in my studio to help out occasionally which inspiration doesn't hit me so easily.

3. Specifically, How much of your work *is* research, and how much would you say is pulled from imagination?

51.5% imagination, 47.5% research, 1% theft. Mostly imagination, as that is where the art is fully 'yours' if you have exposed yourself to enough dynamic influences. You need to create a subconscious visual library which is all your own. I love to look at my fellow artist's work, but when I need to think up my next dragon, I try to distance myself from my contemporary's works and provide a solution which is more mine than 'theirs'. This is where the research can kick in to push you in a new direction as you open your mind up to external influences outside of the genre.

4. Can you give us an idea of how many revisions you go through working on a project?

Since I mostly create book covers, I can answer that easily: None. I work with clients who provide me a tremendous amount of creative freedom, thus they trust my judgment. That is not to say revisions are bad, I have come up with terrific solutions after multiple generations of the same concept. But time is my enemy here, and my goal is to work out the overall narrative to the art, not worry about the shape of someone's hairdo or cloak. Those design principals come on later as compliments to my story/image, not in place of it. I am also speaking here after 15 years of professional commissions╔you can bet I did my share of revisions in the beginning years.

5. How much research do you do for the characters' expression?

Nearly none. Again since most of my commissions are about characters involved with environments and narratives, I tend to photograph models acting out parts/actions for the camera. Thus I let my actors do my research for me. There is nothing better than getting real people to compliment your intuitive idea. Something in reality can trump what you could think up out of your own head. But, and this is a big but, never let reality override a great design/concept you have pulled from your imagination. This is art we are talking about, and too often I have seen photography being used as the basis for bad design. Art is about interpreting what you see, physically and psychologically, not trying to make it photographic. Making it photographic can make it more real, but not better as art.

6. When working on character designs, do you ever just draw a blank - nothing clicks, the paper wins?

Strike. Sometimes, but only for a minute or two. Then I look at my bookshelf, pull out my scrap files, and away I go!!! Actually I love being stumped, because I know then I will go off on a tangent which I would never had intuitively used to problem solve the concept!

7. What have been your favorite types of characters to design? (heroes, heroines, creatures, villains, all of the above?)

Base hit! I love to tackle people, humans which could be from another time/place/world. The longer I create art, the more I want to connect to us as human beings, interacting with each other in conflict, peace, politics - all the ways and forms which make us truly human. Thus I have generally steered away from creatures, monsters, aliens etc- these are things we will never see except in our imaginative worlds. What I am interested in is how these creatures are used to displace our own sense of alienation, anger, wonder and joy. I find it much more challenging to find a way to express fear, anger and morality using two humans together than to turn one into an ogre and the other into a knight. The ogre can easily be dehumanized. What I love to turn on its head are these assumptions of character.

Take for instance a latest piece of mine, The Golden Rose. Here we have a shipwreck survivor and debris washed up on shore. A young woman embracing her friend, morning her death. Definitely not the heroic climactic point of the novel, but a very human moment we will all face or have faced in the death of a loved one. Nearby are two mermen, not the conventional mermaids, and they are dead, not portrayed as lively sea loving creatures posing on rocks or luring sailors to their death. Instead they have been killed in the waters which give them life. Here is combined the exotic coupled with the content of a common human experience.

It is this approach to image-making I revel in. Something we are all familiar with, but with an approach no one has yet tackled. On a side note, the gills on the mermen were added in only after setting up fish in the studio to paint from (a wonderful incentive to work fast!) and seeing that the ribcage on the mermen matched perfectly to where the gills resided on the fish. My drawing lacked this detail. An excellent example of how reality can provide for some astounding inspirations and twists.

8. What do you think makes a successful character?

Curve ball. I'll take a strike on that one. Far too many potential answers! What I need to see in any successful character is good draftsmanship and a convincing unity of design and reality.

9. Given your druthers, what kind of project brief do you prefer - highly detailed or sparse?

Fastball. I'll hit this one out of the park. As sparse as possible! I love to play with my references and external inspirations!

10. Any suggested resources, advice, or final thoughts for character designers and illustrators that you would like to share?

Never strike out on your first commissions with a client. It is your first and most powerful impression you will have with them. Kill yourself on those first images, as then they will likely come back with an extended contract, for real, and evolve a relationship which could last your entire professional life. The higher the bar you set for yourself now, the more likely the later problem solving will come easier. That is something I can speak to from experience. Lastly keep your mind and eyes open to external influences, everywhere you walk, everything you read. The more you experience, the more you have to say in your art.


Wizards of the Coast interview
with Donato Giancola

August 23, 1998

Q: Tell us some of your biographical background.

I was born and raised in Colchester, Vermont, "suburbia" of Burlington, which is the largest city in Vermont with a population of about 40,000. Burlington is a thriving town (with the University of Vermont or UVM adding 10,000 + students to the local population).

Although there are milestones in my professional arts career, I can't really say exactly when I "began" drawing and painting in a serious manner. My childhood is peppered with memories of making models, toys, drawing in the afternoons, reading comics, painting lead figurines, creating maps for role-playing, producing art projects for school the list continues and constantly elevates in the level of difficulty in image making that I embrace. My formal training began late. I began my college career at UVM majoring in electrical engineering, but it wasn't until my second year at the University of Vermont that I withdrew from this career path and enrolled in an art course. That same year I picked up my first set of oil paints and have spent the years since then attempting to properly work with them.

I realized to take painting seriously I needed to pursue education at a more challenging college with more competitive peers. I enrolled at Syracuse University in the fall of 1989 and majored in fine art painting. All told, my "college career" lasted six years, but it paid off: I'm doing what I love to do.

After graduating from college in 1992, I moved to New York City to be closer to the arts scene. I sought work as a book cover illustrator, concentrating in the science fiction and fantasy field. It was a big leap. It was several months before I got any commissions, and NYC is not a cheap place to live. I resisted the temptation to get a "regular" job and barely supported myself by working part time at the Society of Illustrators and by borrowing money from my parents (who suspected I was crazy). I spent all my time creating samples under the guidance of my agent, visiting museums, examining other illustrators work, and attending art openings. I shared a small apartment with two other aspiring artists, and every day I painted about 8-10 hours. The hard work finally paid off with commissions to produce covers for the classic science fiction books The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. Since then, I have found very steady work as a free-lance book cover illustrator.

It was here in New York (shortly after I arrived) that I met my wife. We now live in a brownstone in Brooklyn where I have my studio, literally minutes from the arts center of the universe, Manhattan.

Q: What artists do you admire?

My love of fine oil painting reaches back to my education as fine arts painter at Syracuse University. For me, the most important issue about painting is not the printed image, but what a person takes away when experiencing the original work. I moved to New York to be near its wonderful museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Museum, and Museum of Modern Art. I still spend many afternoons visiting my favorite artists -- Hans Memling, Jan Van Eyck, Velazquez, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Mondrian, Rembrandt. I strive to comprehend their complexity and bring that into my work. There is nothing so impressive to me as standing in front of a huge Velazquez that is 16' wide and 10' tall with fully life-sized figures! (I actually made a pilgrimage to the Prado Museum in Spain to see that one.) Or I will spend long stretches of time gazing into the minute details of a tiny Van Eyck, 8" by 12", bumping my nose on the glass straining to see details almost invisible to the eye. It is the combination of classical aesthetics with my love of Modern abstraction that I attempt to meld into one art form in my paintings. You can see these influences in some of my illustrations. For example, the robot in "Construct of Time" is modeled after Michaelangelo's incomparable sculpture, David.

Q: When did you begin working for Wizards of the Coast?

I first heard of Wizards of the Coast in 1995 at a comic book convention. WOTC artist Bryon Wackowitz showed me some cards he had done, and I was impressed with the creative potential of illustrating for the game. Because I was still building up my book cover career, a year passed before I sent my portfolio to WOTC. Afterwards, at the risk of seeming pushy, I took the initiative and gave a call to art director Sue Ann Harkey. Sue Ann was gracious and complimentary and immediately commissioned four pieces for their upcoming Mirage expansion deck. I was delighted to have such an opportunity.

I decided to set a high standard for myself in the quality of art for these cards. I purchased a few extra books on various African cultures and proceeded to research the styles and designs of eastern Africa dress and jewelry to bring a broad sampling of culture to the images WOTC desired. I am proud of these first products of my labor and thrilled with the success they've achieved: Grinning Totem, Amber Prison, Village Elder and Moss Diamond.

Q: Tell us about the work do you do for WOTC.

I produce a relatively low number of cards, about 3-5 Magic cards for each deck, but I do such a small number deliberately so as to create a product I can be proud of. I try to make each card a distinctive portrait. As many of you have picked up on, I love to paint hands and elderly, wrinkled faces. I slide as many of these images into the work as I can. I believe a hand can reveal as much about a person as a face. For example, in Amber Prison, Sisay's Ring, or Fyndhorn Elder I tried to create a depth of the individual beyond the painted illustration.

The paintings for Magic have allowed me the pursue a level of artistic freedom not attainable in book cover illustration. I revel in the opportunity to create a composition without fearing type will be splattered over my favorite part of the painting, and I embrace the challenge to create images that must be strong enough to a"pop" at 1.5" x 2". These "little paintings" also represent a perfect melding of my love of realism and abstract graphics. In addition, there are few outlets for a commercial artist to introduce non-conventional cultures and peoples into the illustrations.

Q: Are there other benefits to working for WOTC?

I am very grateful to WOTC and the players for helping promote and respect the artist as an integral part of the game. I think it is especially wonderful that the players can meet the artists who have created their favorite cards, inspect the original artwork, and get their cards signed. When I was younger, I never had the chance to meet a living artist who created the comics and book covers I enjoyed and admired. I feel an obligation and duty to give something to the players and readers that they may treasure, something I missed out on.

In addition, working for WOTC has allowed me some fantastic travel opportunities. WOTC has flown me to Portugal, Italy, Switzerland and various cities in the U.S. to meet players, sign cards and present my work. I always add time on the end of these trips to see the local museums.

Q: What is your favorite expansion set of Magic art?

My most favorite set of cards was for the Weatherlight expansion -- Steel Golem, Peacekeeper, and Thran Tome. I liked them because I believe they break away from the norm.

Steel Golem was inspired by an African dance mask which I then gave a high-tech look of silver/steel. I wanted to convey a kind of otherworldliness to the Golem yet still allow it to be captivating, delicate and earthly. I think the research I did successfully led to this effect.

Peacekeeper was originally commissioned as Southern Paladin. Her (yes, her) uniform is based on an African design. I wanted to evoke this individual's power and grace (thus the use of a white shirt to represent both authority and innocence). WOTC liked the card so much (and I had absent-mindedly "placed" the Thundermare in the background), it upgraded the art to a more powerful card, Peacekeeper.

The last card in this set was the Thran Tome, used on the box packaging. Once again I did a little preliminary work by setting up a still life in my studio with a dictionary as a stand in for the Tome. I often bring this original to tournaments. I added quite a bit of extra painting to the top and bottom beyond the requirements of the card, and many people have commented positively on its visual impact. A little extra work in this case has successfully paid off.

After she received this set of three, Sue Ann Harkey commissioned me to produce the advertising poster for the deck. I didn't realize it would be reproduced as such a large poster, and I was pleased to see it greet me and all the players at the Pre-release tournament.

Q: Can you describe your artistic process?

I begin an illustration, such as Amber Prison, with background research into the cultures, architecture, environments or literature as required or suggested by the demands of the commission. This preparatory step primes my mind with images I might not have thought of if I just began sketching from the start. For Amber Prison, I actually purchased a real piece of amber from the American Museum of Natural History. The amber, with its permanently imprisoned prehistoric flies, still rests in a brass display in my living room.

Only after I research do I begin rough, abstract sketches in pencil, attempting to find a composition and lighting structure that solves the illustration requirements of the job. The original commission of Amber Prison simply requested a piece of amber, but I felt that using an object to show scale might make the illustration more interesting, so I introduced the hand. From the rough sketches, I then generate one to three larger and more descriptive drawings to send to the art director for approval. Drawing is the foundation for much of my creative processes and it is at these stages that I experiment most fully.

After a sketch has been approved, I then acquire props (e.g. the real amber), secondary photographic reference from magazines and books (e.g. images of bracelets for the hand and dresses for the trapped woman), and primary photographic reference I take myself (e.g. a model's hand holding a stone in place of the amber). All of these elements are combined in a final drawing at a one-to-one ratio of the eventual painting. I then make a photocopy of the drawing onto 100% cotton paper and mount this onto ╣" masonite board. I prefer using masonite to painting on canvas because it is more rigid and doesn't have all the bumps from the weave.

I finally begin oil painting with glazing medium on top of the copied drawing, color adjusting in paint to unify all the reference material I have acquired. To complete the painting, I borrow observations from life -- like watching the way light bounces off the amber and illuminates the skin underneath -- to create small details that help to convey a high level of illusion.

Q: Where else can we see your art?

The paintings for the cards of Magic, Middle-Earth, and Dune only represent one side of my illustration career. I still do a great deal of work for the science fiction book publishing industry, including publishers such as Penguin/ROC, Ballantine, Bantam, Tor, HarperCollins, and Avon. You can see my art on books by Larry Niven, Orson Scott Card, Barbara Hambly, Emily Devenport and many others in your local book stores. I have also been fortunate to have my work appear in several issues of Spectrum: The Best of Contemporary Fantastic Art (I'm on the cover of Spectrum V) and in Infinite Worlds by Vincent DiFate, a compendium of science fiction illustrators of the 20th Century. I have produced custom art for Amazing Stories, DC Comics, and television advertising among others. In a fun departure, I also created all the art for the most recent release of the Stratego board game (it's redone every decade), one of my favorite childhood games. I used my family as models for the game pieces, and if you buy the game, you can see my two brothers, father, father-in-law, some friends and cousins as well as myself (I'm the Colonel) decked out in authentic Napoleonic era uniforms.

Q: What do you do when you're not painting?

I'm almost always painting! It's my first and most consuming love (apologies to my wife). In my free time, I mostly work on non-commissioned pieces related to science and scientists of the past and present. When I'm not painting, I like to play soccer and Magic and other role-playing games with my friends. My new house also keeps me busy, and I like to build things that make it unique. In NYC there are always wonderful cultural event to attend, and we often go to museums, musical events, and the theater.