Talks with Tolkien artists: DonatoArts

16 min read

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MirachRavaia's avatar
By MirachRavaia

The interview with a professional illustrator Donato Giancola, who has a deviantArt account as :icondonatoarts: - DonatoArts was conducted a bit differently than the rest of the talks. When I asked for it, he directed me to his extensive FAQ page , where he already answered many of the questions I meant to ask. So, most of the answers are taken from there, and he only added the answers to my other questions. He already added them to his FAQ as well, so if you are interested in reading a more detailed talk about his work and art, I recommend visiting his page. You can also learn more about his painting technique here:…

Nienor and Glaurung by DonatoArts Galadriel and Aragorn by DonatoArts
Eowyn DefenderofRohan by DonatoArts Gandalf in Moria- The Three Doorways by DonatoArts
Turgon defending Gondolin by DonatoArts OneRing-BagEnd-donato-900 by DonatoArts

1. Hello! For the beginning, could you tell us something about yourself?

I was born (in 1967) and raised in Colchester, Vermont, USA, a township near Burlington. After graduation from Syracuse University I moved to New York City and have resided and worked in Brooklyn since 1993. My wife and I have two daughters.

2. When did you read Tolkien's books for the first time, and what impression did they leave in you?

I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was 13. Without exaggeration, those books changed my life. The elaborately detailed fantasy, the plot's epic sweep, and the characters' classically heroic qualities grabbed hold of me and never let go. I obsessed over them, frequently referring to the appendices at the end of The Return of the King: Who was Beren? How old Moria? When was the First Age? It took forever to read each chapter as I referenced names, places, and events in those notes: each offered a trip to another time and a story as complex as the tale I was engrossed within. Very so afterwards The Lost Tales, Unfinished Tales and The Simarillion were a part of my canon after reading them at my local library.

I still have the books I first read, with paperback covers by Darrell Sweet. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase his original cover painting for The Hobbit. It hangs in a place of honor in my entry hall.

3. How extensive is your knowledge of Middle-earth? Do you consider yourself Tolkien expert?

I would not consider myself an expert on Tolkien, any more than I would call myself a master oil painter.  Labels are for others to place.  I will state I have thoroughly read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, Book of Lost Tales I and II, The Lays of Beleriand, the Children of Hurin, and have begun reading the further collected notes by Christopher Tolkien.  Can I write messages in Elvish? No.  But I can hold a conversation on Beren and Luthien and their trip into Angband, discuss the building of Orthanc, or talk about the time Sauron was seen as a friend to the Elves and helped them forge the rings of power... So , yes I know my Middle-earth lore quite extensively, but am not a fact checker.

4. When the movies came out, many of the inner pictures of characters and scenes in the mind of the readers have been replaced by actors and settings from the movie. Did it happen to you as well? Did you try to prevent it?

When the recent movies interpreting the Lord of the Rings were released, many artists became heavily influenced by what they saw onscreen.  A movie is a very powerful form of artistic expression through the use of atmospheric lighting, movement through time, experiences of scale and immersive sound- it is easy to have the world view of the content dictated by what happens on the big screen.  Luckily I am not one of those easily swayed.  

That is not to say there are designs and elements which I found utterly compelling to absorb and enter into my visual language of painting, but rather my expression of Tolkiens’ Middle-earth was set long and very deeply before the movies were released.  One of the major pivotal experiences came when I was 16 years old and a friend handed me the Tolkien Bestiary edited by David Day and included the amazing work of Allan Curless, John Blanche, and most importantly Ian Miller.  Here in my hands was a stunning collection of art inspired by the words of Tolkien, and all of it through various artistic expressions.  This pluralistic tome made it easy to see my own art as a valid form in interpreting and adding to the voices singing the praises of Middle-earth.  It has been that way ever since.  Each new artist I discovered interpreting Tolkien was just another voice in the chorus. Peter Jackson now takes a seat next to Alan Lee, Ted Nasmith, John Howe, Darryl Sweet, David Wenzel, etc...  All equal, and none better than another.  Just different.

Thus I did nothing special when I experienced the films in order to protect that artistic voice I hold.  It was so deeply rooted that the movies blew past like a wind storm, dropping their wonderful treasures about my play space.  And when they are gone I will continue in my journey in seeing Middle-earth as a conversation between me and J.R.R Tolkien...

5. Now, could you tell us something about you and art? Are you a professional artist, or is art just your hobby? When did you start doing it, and who or what influenced your style?

Drawing was my passion pretty much from the time I could hold a crayon. Throughout childhood and adolescence I made models and toys, copied pictures of military hardware and spaceships, and produced 8mm films. Dungeons & Dragons particularly channeled my creative energies. To support my avid play, I painted lead figurines and created detailed maps and character drawings. (One of the more elaborate maps hangs in my studio today.)

Art was a passion, but only a hobby, as my formal art training came late. After starting in electrical engineering at the University of Vermont, I dropped out that course of study in the middle of my third semester. My grades were fine, but I felt frustrated with and unmotivated by the lack of creativity in engineering classes. Uncertain of my path, I enrolled in an art course for my very first formal lesson. After creating some horrible oil paintings, I realized I needed guidance - lots of guidance.

In 1989, I enrolled at Syracuse University, majoring in fine art painting. The exceptional faculty at SU introduced me to the key concepts that underpin all great art: color theory, composition, anatomy, paint techniques, experimental drawing, and post-modern, modern and abstract theorizing. SU also gave me a studio, and I spent nearly all my free time in it, working not only on class assignments but also on numerous personal projects. I worked relentlessly during my three years at Syracuse, finishing my BFA in 1992.

I find inspiration through studying the world's greatest art masters, in the real world about me, and in photography. Some of each of these elements can be found in my most successful works.

Some of my favorite painters are Hans Memling, Jan Van Eyck, Velazquez, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Ribera, Rubens, Titian - and Mondrian. I strive to bring their complexity into my work, melding classical aesthetics with modern abstraction.

You can see both types of influences in some of my illustrations. For example: Cartographer is inspired by Lorenzo Lotto's portraits; the dense compression of figures in Faramir at Osgiliath combines Caravaggio-like renderings with Modrian's surface patterning; and the vertical columns in Ashling recall Barnet Neuman while building upon the atmospheric illusions of Van Eyckian perspectives.

Visiting the actual paintings is what most inspires me. While images of many great paintings can be readily found in books, nothing impresses as much as being in the presence of the real works. How can a book convey the almost overwhelming scale of a 16' by 10' Velazquez painting, with life-sized figures? Or the squinty, exquisite detail of a tiny, 8Ó x 12Ó Van Eyck? I habituate the many great museums in my home city, New York, and no vacation is complete without a pilgrimage to another great art museum.

6. How do you choose which scenes and characters to illustrate?

I have always sought great challenges in my art. To this end when looking for inspiration to illustrate novels and stories, I have always attempted to render those moments which are ill described or fleeting in nature, yet capture the essence of the characters and narrative. Simple 'domestic' scenes are difficult to compose to appear compelling, yet a successful painting in this manner can carry much more power than a heroic battle scene. Consider your reader and viewer, they most likely have never experienced the intensity of conflict nor the range of extremes most heroes travel through. It is upon a common ground of emotion with which I attempt to build my narratives. And it is with these simple scenes that J.R.R. Tolkien makes us feel the humanity of his characters; the depths of utter darkness in Moria; Merry and Pippin smoking pipe weed after the destruction of Isengard; Frodo and Sam cooking a brace of rabbits in the Shadow of Mordor.

7. What art technique is your favourite? Do you rather keep to the art techniques and styles you are familiar with, or do you experiment with new ones as well?

My studio contains many different oil paints, brushes, turpentine, linseed oil, palettes, paper, Masonite, panels, art boards, rags, easels, photographs, cameras, mat boards, frames, studio lights for photographing models, and props for the models (cloths, costumes, etc.). My shelves are filled with books of reference for costumes, landscapes and architectural designs. My office contains, a computer, printer, various papers, templates, rulers, etc.

The most necessary and favorite tool I could never do without is a pencil.

Currently the increasing presence of digital illustration with its faster production time and on-the-fly-changes is shrinking the market for traditional illustrators who work by hand. Nonetheless, those with creative ideas and the strong skills to realize them can still find a niche. Furthermore, digital hardware still does not substitute for a powerful idea, strong composition, and developed narratives which form the foundation for all quality art, no matter how it is made.

8. Do you use references?

When creating an illustration I primarily work from photos but always produce gesture drawings from live figures. The many happy accidents and discoveries that occur from real life cannot be anticipated or made up. I use these gesture drawings as springboards for the final illustrations and paintings.

I don't use 3D models in creating my architecture, dragons or aliens - not from lack of desire but rather from my inability to create a nice miniature.

9. Do you have some tips and tricks you would like to share with the other artists?

Practice. Practice. Practice. Visit galleries, exhibitions, other artists studios, and museums. Take art classes and try to draw things you like. Learn to struggle. Challenge yourself constantly and learn to draw people.

10. Could you give us a link or thumbnail from your gallery of
- a Tolkien illustration you are most proud of?
'I threw down my enemy' - Gandalf on Zirak-zigil by DonatoArts

- a picture from other fandom or original picture you are most proud of?
Joan of Arc by DonatoArts

- a picture that fits your current mood?
Bag End - Shadow of the Past by DonatoArts

- a picture that was hardest to paint?
Huor and Hurin Approaching Gondolin by DonatoArts

Thank you for your time and answers!

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Rohirrim journal skin.

Horse head © 2009 - Grinmir-stock
Texture by kizistock
Knotwork by gbrgraphix
© 2014 - 2021 MirachRavaia
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Aesara-Dayne's avatar
So glad to see you were able to interview one of the greats, Mirach! Donato is one of my favourite fantasy illustrators, and I count many of his pieces amongst the best depictions of scenes from Tolkien's and Martin's books.
Brunild's avatar
Wonderful artist I really love his works!!