Interview: Nicola Verlato

by Stavros Pavlides, June 2012

As technological advances expand and alter our visual vocabulary, the plastic arts are once again entering a transitional period, perhaps greater than any since the advent of photography and film. In the dialectic pursuit of these changes, Artwrit has conducted an interview with Nicola Verlato, a painter situated at the confluence of traditional painting and digital art. We asked him about his work, his process and the complex, emerging relationship between computers and art as we knew it.

SP: Though your painting technique is highly developed and academic, your themes are brazenly wild, sardonic, sexual and visceral in nature. How do you arrive at these images?
NV: I don’t honestly know where they come from. I like to use all the possibilities of figurative painting with no limitations, I just paint whatever I want to see materialized in two dimensions on a wall. All the elements you talk about are just part of the visions which visit me while I’m drawing. I’m constantly focused on using myself as a tool to have these visions translated into paintings. Everything I see or hear becomes an opportunity; news on the radio, songs, interviews, videos or movies, they all potentially activate, combining my mood of the day with the different information I’m receiving through the media and through reality, these visions I use to create paintings.

I have some familiarity with your technical process, and it seems you take many steps—drawing, sculpting, grisaille, glazing, etc.—before getting to the end product. Are we meant to understand these paintings as a narrative of creation and execution, or am I perhaps reading too much into it?
I think that it depends on what point of view you adopt when you consider painting.
Because I want my paintings to be able to provoke emotional reactions in virtually everyone, I consider them essentially images, first of all. But to be able to activate the kind of emotional response I want them to activate (which is a response I want to feel for myself) they have to go through all those steps you described.

Therefore, in the end, yes, the process in all its aspects is co-essential to the meaning of the image, but only because that image couldn’t come into existence in any other way.
I think that my work process could be compared with a scientific experiment: you can’t get the correct result without employing the correct method, which, on the other side, implies that you can always adjust the method itself, aiming to achieve better results.
Though an important difference between a scientist and myself is that the scientist pretends to be a neutral party observing the experiment, whereas the painter is a necessary part of the experiment itself.

What role does technology play in the genesis of your work? Does it influence ideas? Merely shape and visualize them? Or perhaps computers don’t come into it until later on in the painting?
Painting is a technology itself, one of the oldest, at around 40,000 years old; therefore, yes, technology has a huge influence on my ideas. It gives me the limits of the field where I play.

Painting has always been unbelievably apt to absorb other technologies into its processes, even the most recent ones which I harness to shape my pictorial images. Employing the technology of painting also means that you have to organize your narratives in pictorial compositional terms, which are different, for example, from the ones of literature, cinema or music.

In my case the use of modern technology is just a step in the process, which I use only once I can’t go any further with drawing. However, it can be substituted with older technologies like plasticine sculptures and small maquettes, or used in conjunction with them, as a further development of the same step in the process: transforming a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional world from which one may collect a huge amount of new information to put back into the two-dimensional image.

In a general sense, how do you think computers have influenced painting? Have they changed the focus of painting? Have they affected the technique or craft? Have they changed the content of painting, the role of painting?
In my opinion CG is liberating images from the conceptual boundaries of four-centuries-old latent, or declared, iconoclasm, which considers images as false in those cases where they are not documents of an external reality.

If photography was the technological result of those centuries of religious and philosophical devaluation of the role painting held in creating the sacred, all in favor of the written word, then computers, as they are used today in different fields of entertainment, are restoring our trust in images. This recent explosion of new drawings and paintings which is pervasive on the Internet (but not yet in museums) could be explained by this renovated trust in images.

I started being interested in CG since I first saw Tron in movie theaters, back in 1982.
What struck me was the obvious similarity between that new way to create images and the one of the fifteenth-century perspective, it seemed to me that it was possible, on a new level of complexity, to pick back up from where the masters of the Renaissance left off. The problem was that there was no way for a seventeen-year-old painter to get in touch with what was, at that time, extremely expensive technology. Almost ten years passed before I was able to get my hands on a PC and a 3D program to work with. The use of computers didn’t change my approach to painting, it just expanded the scope of what I can introduce in the representations and how much control I have over it.

I can now virtually introduce any element of our world—engineering structures, complex architectures, design objects—into the painting, as well as controlling difficult foreshortening and the reconstruction of faces with the added possibility of animating them. The real world can be put once again into the painting and manipulated to create new narrations and icons.

Do you think painting is in competition with digital art? How does one differ from the other? What is your role in all of this?
There’s no competition with digital art: video games and CG animations are the only digital art I consider. To me the so-called “digital art” showed in museums and galleries is just another attempt to introduce, in the spaces from where painting has been chased out, another media in concordance with the puerile idea that a new technology will always substitute the older ones, all in an attempt to keep painting out of its legitimate place

The reason why there’s no competition between painting and digital art lies in the fact that a painting is painted, which may sound like an obvious tautology, but recent studies in neuroscience demonstrate that the reason for our fascination with figurative painting lies not only in what is represented but also in how it is represented. The studies on neuroaesthetics by Freedberg and Gallese demonstrate that we are made, as humans, to have strong emotional reactions to bodies and to their representations. That’s why we react in such a strong way to photography and films, but what’s interesting to me is that when in front of a painting, we also react to the traces left by the body of whom made the painting itself: brushstrokes and all the infinite repertoire of gestuality employed by the painter reveal the presence of a further body, with which we enter into a state of empathy.

My role in all of this is to paint. I trust that in the new generations of illustrators, which are beginning to integrate 3D programs in their process, some will become painters, and I’m very curious to see the results. I taught a few semesters at the New York Academy of Art before moving to Los Angeles, where I introduced the use of 3D in the pipeline. Unfortunately, only a few students appreciated the potentiality of these tools, since the computer is mostly seen as an intrusion in the world of painting. Change, as usual, doesn’t come from where it is expected.