Max Bertolini‘s illustrations have appeared on the covers of everything from Heavy Metal to romance novels to Italian fantasy magazines. He has drawn for a long time on Nathan Never, the Italian dystopian comic book, and his nuanced understanding of chiaroscuro carries over into the rest of his art. Whether he’s painting icy alien landscapes or barbarians raging across battlefields, Max knows how to put shadows and light to work for him. In this artist spotlight, I asked Max about his working methods, how he injects emotion into a scene, and what his favorite approaches are for bringing a fantastic scene to life.
What was the inspiration for “Garmir?”
Garmir l’Eclissiomante is the second book in a fantasy trilogy by Thomas Mazzantini. The author sent me a few ideas, suggesting a cathedral as the background and a young wizard apprentice with blond hair in the foreground. This piece took me no more than two days to complete. I found the right direction almost immediately, and the colors came easily. In the end I was really satisfied with this piece, the art director was so happy, and the author really enjoyed it. Sometimes life is easy.
How do you visualize what you want to draw or paint? Do you sketch, create models, or do other kinds of preparation before diving into a new piece?
I prepare some rough sketches to study composition and black and whites. Sometimes I take pictures of human models to have anatomy references as well. Then I refine the pencils and the shadows. When I’ve got a good drawing, I scan it and add the details with my Wacom tablet. Finally I put colors on.
What impact has your experience in comics had on your illustrations?
It’s hard to say. My comics pages are pretty dark, with strong black and whites, while my covers have bright colors. I would say that the major influence lies in the composition of the page.
What do you think most young fantasy artists could learn from comics, in terms of composition, that they overlook?
Working half of the day with black ink allows me to have a good understanding of composition and light contrast, because all my panels have only blacks and whites to lean on. I bring this knowledge to color pieces, which in the end look highly contrasted and have strong lights. I have to take care, though, as sometimes my pieces show too much contrast.
Your work has appeared around the world—in China, England, France, Germany, Russia, Spain, and the United States. What do you think makes your art accessible to so many different audiences?
I’m a mainstream artist. I began painting very classical subjects: princesses, dragons, space ships, and so on. That, together with my hyperrealistic style, made my art easy to sell. Today I’m looking for a more personal way to depict the reality I see around me, and that’s a hard but fascinating task.
What are some of your favorite approaches to illustrating fantastic scenes and stories?
I try to put myself in what I paint, hoping someone will be interested in my personal touch. There are two major sources for inspiration: the visual and the emotional. When I’m successful in the transposition of a feeling onto paper, a thought that I want to transmit to the viewer, I’m satisfied.
If an artist learns to transfer the visual through observation, then how does one learn to transfer emotion onto the canvas or the screen?
That’s a good question. I transfer feelings onto canvas through the expressions of characters and a great attention to light, sometimes even through the colors of the sky. In my more recent work, I use brush strokes to add extra feeling.
How has working as a teacher at the Accademia dello Spettacolo in Milan impacted your own art?
I’ve been teaching art for a long time, and I’m always surprised to find how teaching someone makes the things I’m explaining clearer to myself as well. Putting your own art into words is a great way to understand it more effectively.
How do you recharge your creativity when you’re feeling burned out, or you can’t seem to find your way with a new piece?
I take one day a week to travel around the lakes that surround Milan. That sets my mind at ease, but somewhere inside I’m always thinking of the next piece I’ll be working on …
What are you currently working on?
Most of my time is spent on comics pages. I draw Nathan Never, a very popular science fiction comic book that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Some issues were translated and published as a miniseries in the U.S. by Dark Horse back in 1999. I also paint the covers for the reprint of the same character. In my free time I’m working on a top secret project.