Airbrush Action October 2000


By Jack Romig


There's always more than meets the eye in paintings by Marc Gabbana. Examine a portfolio of his work, and you may believe at first that you're looking at illustrations for science fiction magazines and novels.

Look again, and you'll see that there's something different in the work itself; the command of color, surface, and form is complete in a way that garden-variety sci-fi illustrators seldom achieve. And though monsters, mutants, and ogres populate these compulsively detailed images, a closer look reveals that they are not the commonplace creatures of standard futurist tales.

In fact, Gabbana almost never accepts assignments from sci-fi publishers. Each painting is an expression of his own vigorous imagination, not a tail to the kite of someone else's story. Given the opportunity, he'll relate a complete scenario about each of these images, which are usually complemented with subtle internal references and sly visual jokes.

In this, Gabbana's paintings point the way to a hoped-for real-world future in which the artist expects to realize more fully the development of his own idea-driven art. The road ahead leads through Hollywood, where the 34-year-old Windsor, Ontario resident has already scored several major successes. He's played pivotal roles in the visual development of the 1997 feature Spawn and the most recent Star Wars epic, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

Working with the staff at George Lucas's renowned Skywalker Ranch studio, Gabbana is also making an important contribution to the next Star Wars installment, Episode 2. In a voice that is by turns wry and earnest, the artist assesses what's in store for him. "It is written," he says, "that there will be money for all this down the road." But the real payoff he seeks, the chief reason for pursuing movie work, is the opportunity to make his own stories and art come alive on the big screen someday.

In developing an increasingly sophisticated technique through the years, Gabbana has made many methods his own, from paintbrush to computer. The airbrush became an important part of his arsenal in his early days and remains so now. ("I had a great airbrush instructor, Brian Sauriol, at school," he says.)

Gabbana's personal story is an unusual one in its own right. He was born in France; his parents emigrated to Canada when he was eleven and settled in the Windsor area. Even as a boy he displayed a particular gift for drawing and the roots of the modeling design ability that would serve him well in his film career. "For one of my high school classes I used to build scale model houses. I was such a perfectionist that I would do the insides of the houses, too. I always had this obsessive attention to detail. In a way, that's part of what got me to where I am right now."

After high school, his first course of study was architecture, pursued on a full-tuition scholarship at Lawrence Tech in Southfield, Michigan. It was fun, he remembers; color theory and art history were part of the curriculum and right up his alley. "I did learn more about the importance of precision from studying architecture," he remembers. "But after a year I decided it wasn't for me."

Instead in 1986, he enrolled at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, just across the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor. Gabbana's family saw the change as a big gamble, but for Marc the timing was just right.

"I went to school with a very strong core group of artists," he recalls. "It was a highly competitive situation, and working with so many talented people helped us all, I think".

"It's the kind of thing that only happens once in awhile. I'd love to teach, if only I could reach a select group like the one I was part of."

It was 1990; Gabbana had a quiver full of sharply honed artistic skills, a brain crawling with wild images, and a new BFA in hand. He really wasn't looking for a regular job. Instead, he went to work racking up an impressive list of freelance advertising clients-among them Gillette, Ford, Chrysler, GM, and Johnson Controls. He was delivering sleek illustrations for ad clients, but always felt that he wanted to stick to his own painting.

With self-promotional ads in the American Showcase illustrator's guide, he began to receive assignments from agency art directors across the States, and the ability to pick and choose the work he wanted quickly evolved. (He says he did "tons" of box covers and a number of posters for Galoob Toys' Micro Machines.) Successful as it was, the ad work was leaving a basic itch unscratched.

"Advertising was getting really stale for me," he says. "Imagination at the agency level wasn't the greatest. Everything I did was in the service of someone else's agenda. it just wasn't fulfilling."

Gabbana's ambitions reached beyond the confines of Windsor and beyond the limitations of his advertising work. He never stopped creating the paintings that marked out a zone of futurist fantasy absolutely his own. His command of technique, combined with the inventive power of his thinking, was about to be noticed in an entirely new arena.

By this time, the signature "Gabbana look" had matured. His mastery of line and perspective, often used in playful and provocative ways, is part of it. So is his just-so knack with surfaces; in his hands the appearance of organic and inorganic stuff-chrome, plastic, stone, glass, fur, flayed muscle, dental enamel, you name it-is totally convincing.

In fact, part of what makes Gabbana Gabbana is his interest in blurring the line between machine and flesh; his personal logo shows the profile of a skull-and-backbone being whose spine meshes with the cogs of a gear.

Maybe most distinctive is the unique storyteller's voice that echoes through his personal work. ("I have these stories in my head," he says. "My language is shape, line, and color, with design at the center of it all.")

In the mind pictures of Marc Gabbana, story is always pivotal. A solitary astronaut plays a kind of bagpipe that looks spookily alive. Androids rack up a game of anti-gravity pool. A trio of kids sets an ambush for a huge robot-with snowballs. The images are rich with bizarre detail; the pacifier for a cranky monster baby is spiked like a mace.

When he's making these paintings, Gabbana goes with whatever methods will work best for him. "I get a whole lot of gratification in starting from a thumbnail sketch and going to a tighter pencil sketch to a 2" by 3" color comp to the final painting. That could be anywhere from 9" by 12" to 30" by 40", he says. "The bulk of the creativity is invested in the comp. I resolve issues then, and it saves me from wasting 40 to 50 hours."

Part of the work is accomplished with #6 white nylon sable brushes. He picks up an airbrush when a smooth gradation of color is key, something that often happens in connection with his efforts to blend nature and technology. "Airbrush is great for the really seamless photographic look I often want, an ideal tool for backgrounds," he says. He also likes to crimp the hose for spatter effects, seeking extra texture-"because paintings without texture are really artificial."

For his airbrush work, the artist chooses Cel-Vinyl and Liquitex acrylics, appreciating the layering the medium makes possible. His favorite airbrushes are a Thayer-Chandler Model A-the fine needle makes it a good choice for spraying thinner liquids, and a Vega 2000 for more heavy-duty work. In place of a compressor, he prefers the quiet operation of a CO2 tank.

In a special exhaust-equipped glass room he's created at home ("Looks like a lab," he says), Gabbana sets up and paints vertically. "When you put paint into an airbrush cup, you don't want to tip it and have it go on the painting." If he's seeking really bright colors, he'll apply the paint to the surface using the thinnest possible coats. He'll work with the projected image of his detailed drawing on 110 Crescent board, often painting with brushes in gouache when it fits the material best.

The gouache, he says, gives him some colors that aren't available in acrylics. He especially likes the dramatic jet black gouache. By combining airbrush paints with gouache, instead of thinning them with water, he's able to make it waterproof. "You get a little more body that way, and you can re-wet a painting without problems."

"How I paint depends on the work," he says. "I'll use airbrush whenever it's better or quicker."

Like many contemporary artists, Gabbana has integrated computers into his work routine. "It's getting increasingly difficult to tell what's done on the computer," he says, "only because I have the traditional skills that translate very easily between media.

"It's important to me," he says, "to create a beautiful image, even when there's horror involved. My images are much more narrative; hopefully, you can lose yourself in them for awhile."

By the mid-'90s, Gabbana had become accomplished enough to attract attention on a number of different fronts. A spark was all it took to move his career to another level. It came when he visited a friend who was working at Industrial Light and Magic; soon he met ILM's Mark Dippe´, the director of Spawn. Within months, Dippe´ had contacted Gabbana in Windsor with an invitation to work on the live-action sci-fi feature.

Gabbana's role in the Spawn project was to provide a conceptual framework that other artists could carry through to completion. He noodled out and drew-in his trademark detail- exactly what the computer animators, costume artists, and model-makers needed to execute their work. The process ultimately required more than 200 drawings and several paintings; it consumed two solid months.

From there, it was one step to the very center of Hollywood's science-fiction universe. Gabbana, who's never short on confidence, says, "I always knew I'd work on Star Wars some day."

For Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Gabbana signed on as one of the film's six concept artists. Under the direction of Doug Chiang, chief designer and a fellow veteran of the Center for Creative Studies, he hammered away at the project from November 1997 to March 1998. (To see one example among many of his onscreen contributions, check out the big gun in the space battle. For another, look at the main interior for the film's incredible underwater city sequences.)

With Episode 2 of the current Star Wars prequel trilogy moving into production, Gabbana is once more working as a top concept artist. He's necessarily closemouthed about the film, but he's not afraid to talk about where the experience belongs in the development of his career.

For Gabbana, film work has been like a master class; the apprenticeship is not to improve his technical skill or bolster his imagination, but to teach him the ways and means of production in Hollywood. "It shows me how things work from the inside," he explains. "A certain amount of time must be invested to make it mine. Star Wars, fantastic as it's been, is almost like a chapter that had to be read to get me ready to move on.

"Advertising was a solitary discipline, but movies are much more collaborative, and that's been part of what I've had to learn."

One of the most surprising parts of Gabbana's movie career is the fact that it has largely been conducted not from a slick California studio, but from his own home, a highly personalized retreat he shares with his companion Michelle in Windsor. "Fed Ex and fax made it possible," he says.

This is a man who loves his work; when he's really clicking, it's "pure joy, like a dream come true. I've learned discipline about deadlines and jobs-I'm super focused".

"I'd like to do a book full of paintings... but even more, I want to get to where I can make my own films. It's time to try something that's really my own."

Among the many futurist visions Gabbana has brought to life, that one may turn out to be the most real of all.