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The horror! Mad scientist painter creates eye-popping animal/monster hybrids

Artist Nicholas Di Genova's been splicing animals and mythological beasties since he was a kid. “I always joke that nothing’s changed except hopefully I’ve gotten a little better.”

Artist Nicholas Di Genova's been splicing animals and mythological beasties since he was a kid

Coastal Terror, 2015. (Instagram/@nicholasdigenova)

Name: Nicholas Di Genova

Handle: @nicholasdigenova

A kid could learn plenty if you give him a stack of books and magazines. Nicholas Di Genova, for instance? He learned how to draw.

"I think I've got two passions," says the Toronto-based artist. "I think I'm a fantasy nerd, and I think I'm a natural-history nut," and growing up, his parents fed both obsessions, stocking the house with issues of National Geographic and books about griffins and dragons and all that fun fantasy stuff. "When I was really young, I didn't really understand that some of these creatures do exist, and some don't." He could be reading about a trout or a cyclops, it didn't matter what was real or fantasy. "I'd be like, okay, I like these animals, I like these monsters, and I'd just draw from those."

"I always joke that nothing's changed, except hopefully I've gotten a little better."

Follow him on Instagram, and you'll get the gag.

Especially when Throwback Thursday rolls around.

Hybrid creatures from the natural and mythological world: Di Genova's been splicing them together on the page for most of his life, and in the last decade he's earned attention for pen-and-ink work like this. (This 2013 illustration, for example, appears to October 31 at Toronto's LE Gallery as part of group exhibition Works With Paper.)

Many are elaborate taxonomy studies, like Audubon Society illustrations for some hypothetical reference guide to the Island of Dr. Moreau.

And Audubon paintings, by the way, sparked Di Genova's latest evolution. Recently, as his Instagram reveals, he's all about watercolours. 

His latest pieces have moved away from pen-and-ink and an animation-cell aesthetic produced by painting on mylar.

"It was basically a super-flat style," Di Genova says. "I couldn't figure out how to make anything painterly when everything had to be defined in these sections. … So I looked to what people like Audubon were using. You know, the old materials scientific illustrators were using, like watercolours," he explains.

And just like them, he packed up his paints and went into nature. For the last half of the summer, Di Genova swapped Toronto's Queen and Ossington scene for a farmhouse in Quebec, right on the Ontario border. A selection of the small-scale works he produced during that time were recently featured at the Art Toronto international fair of modern and contemporary art, alongside a few of his similarly chimerical sculptures. 

"We'd go fishing every day. You'd wake up and there'd be all sorts of waterfowl, deer, turkey in the yard," he says of his time in Quebec. "It got me in the right mood — seeing the creatures, and seeing the powers that they have in real life."

In the woods he'd paint studies of flora and fauna…

…which might ultimately inspire something like this little guy. 

"Subject matter-wise, I don't think going up to a rural setting changed the themes [of what I paint] but it did make me focus a little more on Canadian wildlife," says Di Genova.

"With painting, it usually comes from a bit of a theme beforehand. Lately I've been playing in a sort of fantasy setting — old nature deities pushing back against the harm that humans are doing to the planet. So I've been trying to make strong, sort of portrayals of the old gods," he says. Alongside those figures are re-mixed mythical beasts — like these harpies, which are typically female, drawn as balding old men.

If this is the great Canadian outdoors, maybe we'll pass on a trip to the cottage. But Di Genova? He doesn't find anything unsettling about bullfrogs spliced with elk, or aquatic bounty hunters. "I think they're all sort of funny," he says. "Like there's a starfish with an eye on it. It's like the starfish that kind of peeps up underneath people when they're swimming to try to look up their swimsuits. To me, there's something just goofy and funny about that."

Or The Celery Man, one of Di Genova's personal favourites. "My girlfriend thinks that one's scary. I dunno. I think it's kind of funny. I think I would kind of like that guy. You know, if I met him," says Di Genova. "In my head he's a game warden from a nature reserve, and wherever he walks, little sprouts of celery come out of his footsteps and it pisses everybody off," he laughs.

"I guess the redesigns of mythological creatures, those ones have less room to be funny because everyone knows what their stories are. There's less room for me to tell my own narrative," he says. "In my head, a lot of these creatures I make up are like creatures in a fictional graphic novel that will probably never exist."

Social media can be so much more than selfies and viral videos — it's increasingly becoming a scratch pad for emerging artists and other creative minds to show off their latest work. Artstagram curates the best visual talent on Instagram, helping bring a little more art into your daily feed.​

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