The DART Interview: Francesco Ciccolella

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday March 5, 2020

Peggy Roaf: When did you realize that you had the ‘artist gene,’ and what caused you choose illustration?

Francesco Ciccolella: I’ve been drawing and painting ever since I can remember. I grew up speaking German to my mom and Italian to my dad so switching between languages has always felt sort of natural to me. At some point, perhaps during my graphic design studies, I started to explore something that I had always been doing, which is creating images, as yet another language. That’s when I fell for illustration.

PR: While your work is highly conceptual, there is always a narrative thread. When did you realize that storytelling was an important part of your toolbox?

FC: I believe it all goes back to my time in art school when I started to connect the communication aspect with the image making aspect. A story can be told in English, in German, in Italian. Or it can be drawn.

PR: Along those lines, do you differentiate between reading a text and reading an illustration?

FC: Speaking in images is definitely a more abstract form of communication and some things might be lost in translation but I think it can be more universal at the same time. Personally I believe that ideas just travel faster through the eye than through the mouth.

PR: Some of the subjects that engage your hand are the abuse of power; humility; fake news: the meaning of life, and the like. These are surely abstractions of complex subjects. To what extent do you participate in the naming of a story when you work with art directors?

FC: In most cases that discussion happens on the other end, between art director and editor. To be honest I'm glad about that as it's one less thing for me to worry about. But of course the outcome is always better if I work with ADs and editors who know how to pair a headline with an image.

PR: Your illustrations have a quality of being self-contained, that is, the figures you create occupy a specific space, isolated from visual intrusions. Can you talk about how you arrived at this “trademark” style?

FC: My figures almost never have facial expressions. I use their body language to get their emotions across instead. So I need to pay a lot of attention to detail in terms of gestures, how they move and what they’re looking at. It makes a difference if a figure is moving towards the left or right (past or future), up or down (success or failure), in or out of the frame, their size in respect to the overall composition etc. More than in style I’m interested in semiotics, what the image conveys, the visual metaphors I use and how a story is told. If we go back to the illustration/language metaphor, we can think of style as an adjective, but an adjective alone doesn’t make a sentence.

PR: Do you consider yourself to be a good self-editor? 

FC: There’s this quote by Antoine de Saint Exupéry that goes something like "Perfection is achieved, not when there's nothing more to add, but when there's nothing left to take away." When creating an illustration I try to really focus on the message and story I want to tell and get rid of the unnecessary. So I hope I’m not too bad at self editing.

PR: How do you know when the art is finished—or when to stop working on it?

FC: The real struggle is to find the right idea. When I get a brief or a text to illustrate I start working on small thumbnail sketches with pencil on paper. I really couldn’t do that on a computer and need to use my hands as a kind of thinking tool. Once the idea and composition feel right, the rest is a walk in the park. The color comes in and I create the shapes by tracing the lines from my hand-drawings. The look and feel of my work would be a totally different one if I would skip that first analogue part. One thing that also helps me stop working on an illustration is that most of the time the next project is already waiting for me.

PR: What are some of your creative inspirations—artists, music, literature, culture in general—that you draw from in your work?

FC: I always admired the work of Magritte, for how it questions our perception of reality. I learned a lot from the overacting and body language of Chaplin or The Marx Brothers. I love the colors and poetic images in Godard’s or Fellini’s movies. I looked a lot at early advertising and posters of Viennese Fin de Siècle artists. One of my favorite authors is Thomas Bernhard. This is to name a few of my inspirations but I’m always on the hunt to discover new things. It’s an insatiable addiction, I guess.

PR: Do you keep a sketchbook? If yes, how does that contribute to your work process?

FC: I do. It’s my idea database. Sometimes, when I’m working on an assignment and I get lost, I go through my sketchbooks on the hunt for ideas I can tweak a little to use them for the project.

PR: Where do you live and how does that place contribute to your creative work?

FC: I live in Vienna, Austria. Vienna has been named the world’s most liveable city by various studies for years. A good medical, educational and social system, public transport, culture and nature make a decent life affordable for all social classes. I’m mentioning all of this as I think it puts you in a good position as a young  creative or artist as it allows for failure and experiment without having to worry too much. I consider myself lucky to live here.

PR: Please describe your workspace and how it contributes to the illustrator’s basic condition of working alone.

FC: I work in a studio that I share with other graphic designers and artists in the center of Vienna. Most of us have known each other since art school so the atmosphere is quite relaxed and family-like. I appreciate having other talented and focused people around. 

PR: What is your favorite activity when you take a break from the studio?

FC: Meeting friends, mostly. Other than that I run, go to the gym, go see exhibitions, openings, galleries, concerts and I go to the cinema a lot.

PR: What advice would you give to a young illustrator struggling to find the way into a difficult assignment?

FC: While I’m sure there are tons of successful strategies, I always find it helpful to put things into a different perspective. What is the reason for my struggles? Is it because I’m afraid of failure? What’s the worst thing that can happen if I fail? ... (To be continued until you realize your problems are no big deal after all).

PR: What would be y
our dream job—the one thing you have always hoped for in an assignment? 
FC: I’d love to do a series of theater posters - all of a season’s plays. Or a series of book covers - all of an author’s writings. However, I think that ultimately it’s not the assignment that makes a dream job, but the people you work with.

Francesco Ciccolella is an Austrian illustrator and graphic artist based in Vienna. Pairing smart concepts with simplicity in form, Francesco’s illustrations tell stories and convey ideas in the most direct yet unexpected way.

His work spans from editorial to advertising, publishing, posters, book covers, animations and, most recently, sculptures. He has worked with publications such as The Guardian, The New Yorker and The New York Times and his corporate clients include Google, Lufthansa and IBM, among others.

Francesco studied graphic design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. In self-initiated projects, exhibitions and personal experiments he passionately explores his image making process and continues to develop a distinctive visual language all his own. He is represented in the US by Purple Rain Illustrators

Portrait Photo © Carolina Frank