Nicholas Di Genova doesn’t care about all the naysayers. He’s persevered and stuck to the very distinct approach that is at once eye catching and curious. I want an entire room decorated by him. His interview follows:
When did you come up with the idea to meld different animals, animals and objects, etc in the way that you do with your work?
I think I did my first hybrid piece around 2002 or 2003. I had been involved with street art for a few years at that point, really inspired by guys like Barry McGee and Doze Green. I drew these really simple linear monsters with big heads, and I loved doing it, but eventually my inspiration gravitated towards my other interest: zoology. So slowly these little monsters started showing certain animal physical traits, and over the next few years the animal side of things completely took over. Now, for the most part, every drawing I do will have some sort of animal hybrid element to it.
What were the first pieces that you did in this manner? How are they different from the work you do now?
The first one that I can remember was a drawing of a 3 headed fish with legs, I used to call these guys Landfish and for a while I drew them all the time. They were very stylized and were basically just my old monsters with fish heads, very linear, very static and flat, and looked very much like a lot of other street art you would have seen at the time. In Toronto around 2000-2003, street art and back-packer rap were very popular, and I ran with a group of like-minded guys and girls and we all did very similar work and had a lot of fun going out and painting murals and stuff. The work I do now is very different than what I used to do. I don’t really think of anything happening with street art anymore, instead of fast aggressive drawings I work very slowly, the creatures and scenarios featured in the drawings are more well thought out, I try to tell a story with each piece, and the work is very much inspired by Victorian-era scientific illustration.
How have you matured as an artist since you first began? How has your approach to a piece changed? How has your color use and how have your lines changed?
When I was in my early 20’s I was always in such a hurry, I couldn’t calm down or take it easy. I would wake up as early as possible to fit more into the day, do several pieces a day, and stay up as late as I could. I was concerned with the quantity of work I could produce, not quality. I wanted to have my posters, stickers, wall pieces everywhere, basically I think I craved attention. I was very quiet and wanted to make friends and connections through my work, because I had a hard time doing it socially. This was a great way to learn skills quickly and make a lot of contacts in the local art scene, but at the same time was very bad for my body and psyche. I didn’t eat or sleep well, would always get sick, and had occasional spontaneous breakdowns. basically I was a mess, and eventually got very down about life. Now, everything is different, I don’t mind taking months to do a piece as long as I feel I will be happy with the finished product, I have down 2 pieces now that took 18 months of daily work to complete. I put good things in my body, I sleep, I read, and still work my ass off, and don’t feel like a crazy person. Anyway, sorry to digress, but that has been the biggest change in my life transitioning from an emerging to a mid career artist, my lifestyle. As far as color in my work goes, I don’t really use it anymore, I mostly just use black ink. When I do use it though, it is much more toned down than it used to be, and I grey it out with its complementary color now, not black, which makes it all feel a lot more organic.
How long did it take for you to illustrate the Double-Headed Six-Shooter Stork? How did you know when you were finished?
To be honest I don’t really remember, I think that piece was done in 2005 or so, I have a hard time remembering things that happened just last year. Around then I think I was finishing a piece every three days or so…
What media do you use? What media have you used before? How are the different in their translation from thought to page?
Right now I’m using mostly straight pen and ink on a white piece of paper. Just black on white, no washes or anything. I use very smooth watercolor paper as a surface, and I use traditional dipping nibs to make the marks. I’ve been working on some dioramas as well using mostly altered model train components. For most of my career though I’ve used traditional animation cell materials to make my pieces, ink on the front of the piece of clear plastic, and animation paint on the back, like how an animation company like Disney would make their images. As far as the transition from thought to page, I used to find it quite difficult to get what was on my head onto the page, but now that I’ve been making drawings for awhile I find it a lot easier to get across what I’m imagining, I’m having a hard time accomplishing that with my dioramas though, I’m still getting used to these new materials.
How has your work been received? What is a good piece of critique you have been given that really stuck with you?
My work has been received well by some people and not so well by others. In college I had a very hard time because my work is so illustrative. One of my professors told me to drop out and start making greeting cards, I was constantly being told to switch my major from Drawing and Painting to Illustration, I never received any awards or anything in school, although there were a couple of professors who did a lot to support me. Since coming out of school things have been a lot better. I’ve had a few shows that I consider successful, I had a piece bought by the Whitney Museum, I had a favorable review in Art Forum and have had my stuff in some other magazines, and lived off of my work for 5 years or so. Things like this encourage me to keep working hard, but of course I’d keep making stuff even if everybody hated it, its the thing I like doing most with my time. On the flip side of all this positive feedback, I still meet a lot of people that really don’t like what I do, that feel like it still resembles illustration to closely, that just thing I plain suck, I’ve had a couple of negative reviews, but its ok, I don’t really pay super close attention to the positive or the negative feedback, I just have a good time making things.
How do you think people would react if you mailed your work back in time to the renaissance?
I’m not sure, I guess it would be just like now, some people would like it and some wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t be able to understand what anyone was saying so I guess it wouldn’t really faze me.
What is your favorite animal?
Hyena, except I had to rethink it for a bit when I was a kid and saw Lion King.
How do you come up with animal pairings? Where do you find inspiration?
I spend a lot of time reading about animal stuff in my spare time, watching lots of nature documentaries, reading a lot of stuff concerning Greek mythology, so I don’t really sit down and try to think of ideas. They come to me while I’m reading and I’ll write them down in my notebook, and eventually get to some of them. A lot of what I’ve been doing recently are what I consider to be modern remakes of the classic Greek and Biblical chimeras.
What is your favorite of all your work?
One of the pieces that took 18 months was a 4′ x 6′ drawing of 20,000 butterflies drawn with ballpoint pens. Getting that thing done was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, a lot changed in my life while I was working on it, and I went through a long period where I was really down in the dumps, but I pushed through. I’m happy its all over now.
What was the idea behind the 221 Herbivores/Carnivores, 900 Terrestrial Invertebrates, 10000 Vertebrates series?
Those grid drawings started while I was living in Italy with a girl I was dating at the time, I think it was 2006 or 2007ish. We lived in Florence and our apartment was right across the street from this really old taxidermy museum. I’d go there everyday to practice my drawing, and to make the most of each sheet of paper, I’d draw in these really tight grid formats. Then I started to think of all of the different ways I could group these creatures, by class, habitat, diet, etc, so I started doing these drawings in my studio when I moved back to Toronto. I think I wanted to see if shared characteristics of the creatures added to the overall tone of the drawing. For the very large ones, like 10,000 Vertebrates or 20,000 butterflies, I was also inspired by the large numbers I kept coming across in my reading, migrations of 100,000 creatures, beehives containing 50 000 members, I wanted to actually see what these huge numbers of creatures would look like on one page, but they toke so damn long to make. 100,000 hand drawn creatures would take me easily 5 years, so I don’t do any grids anymore.
What do you think of color theory and do you attempt to utilize specific colors to trigger certain reactions in your audience?
When I was in college, color theory was my least favourite class, I actually failed it twice. Now that I am out of college, I realize that it was actually one of the only worthwhile classes taught at my school. As far as using colors to trigger emotions, I guess I do but those are small decisions being made by my subconscious I think. For the most part I am just painting these creatures fairly true to how their component parts exist in nature, but I don’t really use color anymore so I don’t think about it as much as I used to.