A conversation about NFT art: Danijel Žeželj

In our February AMA lineup, we already announced Danijel Žeželj thoroughly — amazing comic books and graphic artist, illustrator, animated films author, live performance painter and more!

The thing you didn’t know is that Danijel is the #1 star of the Endemic testnet with big-time positive reactions, follows and likes. Also, there is much to see on his official web page.

In case you couldn’t be on our Endemic AMA on FEB 17 with Danijel live, don’t worry. We wrapped up all high-quality content we heard from him in this article. Enjoy!

Let’s start from the beginning. Share with us your path and art background.

Danijel: I was always drawing. then went to the Middle school of art in Zagreb and the Academy of fine arts after that. Basically, it was very much studying traditional painting in school. To me, the whole process was really important. Learning techniques- it meant a lot.

At some point, during my teenage years, I discovered some really good comics. They were not truly available widely but through friends, I got in touch with various authors that had a very strong impact. So I got the idea ‘that this is something I really want to do’.

You mentioned you fell in love with comic books, much of us did when we were young. Can you please explain a few of your first influences when you found out comics can be a real art form?

Danijel: I grew up reading pretty much comics that were available in Italian Bonelli editions — Zagor, Alan Ford by Magnus and Bunker, etc. It took me a while before I saw the first time French comics and Moebius. I guess for everybody who sees Moebius for the first time it’s a big shocking experience because he’s just a giant in the field and I think there’s nothing close to what he does. But before reading comics I was also enjoying just looking at paintings, I mean all of them — renaissance painting for example. I always found it interesting how all of them had a narrative line inside them. There’s always a story in. It’s what interests me the most — narrative storytelling. Everything I do turns around that main thing which is the visual narration. How can you tell the story through visuals? It can be comics, paintings, illustration, animation, whatever it is — the visual narration is the most important.

The first comic that really hit me in a particular way was Joe’s Bar by Munoz and Sanpayo. I discovered it just by chance and I had no idea who these people are and where these comics are coming from but all of a sudden, I felt there is some powerful energy between pages and this black and white aesthetics. The story itself — I just around being completely impressed by this comic book and immediately tried to create something by myself. It was pretty awful at the beginning but somehow at that moment, I felt there is enormous expressive power in the language of comics and I really wanted to do something with it.

You talked about comics that were game-changers to you. It’s easily connected to movies in the visual sense and storytelling, especially the old ones. What are some of your movie and film influences?

Danijel: Definitely, there are similarities between comics and movies in terms of, again, visual, storytelling and the way in which images can express stories and ideas. I was thinking about this question for a while. It would be difficult to pick only one favourite movie because there are so many. I used to go to the cinemas to watch movies so the whole experience was much different than today when most of the time you’re watching on the screen at home. Many of them had an important impact on me so it’s hard to pick a single one — but I would say the big thing was a Touch of Evil by Orson Welles, also because of this stunning black and white aesthetics it has.

Almost any silent movie I’ve seen just blew me away because their aesthetics was on a very different level than when sound came into movies. I think there was much more attention being paid to the actual image, composition of it, the balance of black of white and all of that. I still find it quite impressive today. Early Russian movies and German expressionism, pretty much all of the movies from that period, anything by Buster Keaton — they are really very important. Another important movie for me was The third man by Carol Reed because of the beauty of the black and white photography but also because of the structure of the movie. Why it’s interesting and fresh today is because the whole movie is built around the character that you basically don’t see until the very end. Even then you see it for barely ten minutes. Still, such a presence of this invisible character shapes the whole story so it was very interesting in terms of storytelling and there’s a lot to learn there.

Thinking about something more modern, I would mention the Hunger by Steve McQueen. Really different way of telling the story. The whole structure of the movie is kinda off and it’s very surprising how the whole narration evolves. Again, there is a powerful aesthetics which to me is always very important. For me, both in movies and comics, firstly comes the visual language and then the word. I always see images as the most important part of the narration in comics. And that’s my preference, I know it might be different for other people but I find that images and then words and then the combination between two is very important in building the narration and creating the story. Of course, a lot of movies are coming out these days, the aesthetics is changing rapidly because of the technology and everything that’s possible to do today and wasn’t possible before. At the same time, I still find the most important part of the movie is the story and if I can’t get involved with it, if it doesn’t absorb me, I find it boring to watch that movie however interactive it might be.

We see how important storytelling is for you, you’ve been mentioning it a lot. What’s the story of your NFTs that will be available on the Endemic launch tell?

Danijel: I will be launching three collections and there are some things common to all three. There are cycles of images, they are not meant to be stories but to me, each and single one of these images have a certain story in it — in a sense that when I’m looking at them and thinking about them, I’m playing a certain movie in my head. What connects all these three cycles and images is these aesthetics build around human decay and the human relationship to it, the interaction of humans and this urban environment. It is a theme that appears in a lot of my work, I like city, this postapocalyptic set up as a background for the story and also it plays an important role in building the story.

All these three cycles grew up from the same idea representing the world that is imaginary. The people that appear in these images have certain roles, they are a part of that world, carrying whatever baggage they do have with them. When I say story, I mean that when you look in a certain image, it opens (or it doesn’t) some doors and windows for you so you can enter it and you can have your own story built within that one image. It’s very exciting to me when I find an image that gives that to me, that frame where I can sort of put my own ideas and my own world within it. That’s the way I think about the image, even when it’s only one image, I feel there’s always some kind of story inside of that and within that.

Is your urban city inspired by New York?

Danijel: I used to draw these things even before living in New York but yes, of all the places I’ve seen, New York is this ultimate city. It’s THE city. I’ve never seen anything that comes close to it because of this urban density and the energy it has and the architecture that’s basically constantly changing and its different layers of lives that lived and just went through the place. And New York is not a very old city compering to European cities. It’s not old at all. But maybe the intensity of life that happens in a place, gives it something special. Architectural, it’s extreme. Everything is extremely high, and extremely wide and in that way, it’s really unique. I would say New York is always an inspiration but so are some other places that I’ve never seen or I just seen through the movies.

Can you explain a bit about each of the collections — Grid, Utopia and Samurai.

As I mentioned, there is a connection between these three. Very much there is this urban environment and some kind of human interaction with it. The Grid has also these out of proportion animals within this environment. All were created with black ink and white acrylic on paper so it’s not digital. It’s brushes and a sponge on paper.

The other collection is Utopia — again, very similar. We have mainly the urban landscape in various stages of decay and it could be the city of today and it could be the city of tomorrow.

Then there is this Samurai, the slightly different. It does still connects people and architecture in a bizarre way. I like this connection with something very old and traditional, which is Samurai and everything they represent, with something that is contemporary and modern, which is a modern city or modern architecture.

Let’s touch upon your publishing house Petikat. It’s always great to keep all of the ownership to your content and have the option to publish your work by yourself, right?
Danijel: Petikat was founded originally by three people and then two of them joined so there is five of us. The main idea was to have control of the production and distribution of our work, at least to some extent. Publishing house sounds like something serious and well organized and Petikat is none of that. It’s more like an art workshop and laboratory where we help each other and share certain ideas and services so we can have that control over the production of our work which is mainly books. Meaning, it’s a sort of doing it yourself system where we can control the quality of print, design, layout and all those stages in production that would otherwise be in control of other people. There is only a fraction of my work that comes out under the hat of Petikat.

We’ve seen your amazing performances with live music and amazing musicians and top music producers. You paint live on stage and you can see the movement of the body and the brush strokes. Can you explain a little bit how it came to life, what was the idea?

Danijel: Another thing that was very important to me when I was in my formative years was seeing live music. Fortunately, there was a lot of great concerts when I was a teenager so I was exposed to that experience from very early on. It was an important thing while growing up. I can’t play any instrument but was always fascinated by music. Also, later on, I started listening to different kinds of music. These first rock concerts I was talking about was mostly punk rock concerts and the energy of it was something that really stayed with me. Later on, when I lived in the USA, I had a chance to listen to jazz and experimental music and different stuff like that.

It was always fascinating to witness musicians creating their music on the stage and I thought about how it could be possible to connect music, live performing and painting. That’s how I started this experiment of live painting connected to live music on the stage at the same time. Again, as I mentioned before, there is always this idea of telling a story through images so there is always a storyline in these performances. They are built around a certain fairly simple sequence of images or one image that changes into another but basically, this transformation and sequence of them create a little story. At the same time, music is always live and always directly connected to it.

Even if it all looks very spontaneous and casual, this performance is carefully prepared and one of the reasons is it’s very difficult to paint live. It’s unnatural. Painting is not something you’re supposed to the in front of people, it’s something you do in an intimate space when you’re on your own. So when you bring it in front of the audience there is a whole series of preparations you have to do so that you can actually accomplish a painting within 40–50min (that’s how long these performances usually take).

For me, what’s important is this way of direct collaboration with musicians, exchanging creative ideas and thinking about something together and creating it together. I’ve worked with many musicians. In the past couple of years, most of these performances were created in collaboration with Alen and Neno Sinkauz. It’s been amazing to collaborate with them and to listen to their ideas and build something together when you have two different languages coming together and happening at the same time at the stage. It’s a lot of work but I feel it also opens certain spaces, doors and discoveries. I learned things that I wouldn’t be able to see or to hear otherwise just because I’m working closely with another media.

You like to experiment, like with music and film. It was our pleasure to onboard you in the new space and opportunities of NFTs. What do you think about NFT future, world and community?.

Danijel: I’m probably not the right person to answer those questions. In general, the way it looks to me is this whole new space is opening up for people to present and distribute their work. It’s logical because the digital world, the Internet and this whole new level of communication in the virtual world are growing every second. This new reality is here. How it’s going to develop and where it’s going to go — I have no idea. I can’t even speculate on that. I believe it’s probably easier for some that are much younger than me to feel the pulse of this new space and media. For me, it’s fascinating and interesting enough to try.

Hot Q from listeners

I notice you’re not a big fan of colours. Why is that?

Danijel: Well, it’s not like it. I personally don’t have anything against colours. When talking about the background I mentioned how I studied the painting and one important stage in learning technique is studying baroque painting — which is all based on light and shadow, chiaroscuro and building image through the relationship between light and shadow. What you discover when you work that way is that colours are completely unnecessary (if that’s the approach). It basically just stick away from the dramatic effect of the image. Because the image is built on the relationship of light and shadow, the colour is irrelevant, it becomes secondary. This study was happening using oil painting and then I apply basically the same approach just using black ink and white acrylic on paper. Let’s say my starting point, my way of building an image and thinking about the image always starts with light and shadow. So the colour doesn’t play an important role in it. When drawing is based on lines on the other hand, then everything changes. That’s where colour plays a very important role. It’s either-or. I don’t think you can mix those things very successfully. You could use colour in this black and white approach that I’m using, but then again, I don’t think it adds much. While for some artists who are really true colourists, I think they would probably start thinking about images primarily in turns of colour. It’s just a difference in approach and in a way you’ll be creating an image, you can get one way or you can get another way.

I was impressed when I saw how you tackled the subject of Van Gogh in your graphic novel Fractalia. Because I know of your ‘disdain’ with colours, I was curious how did you come up with the idea of making a graphic novel all in black and white and being it about one of the most famous colourists of maybe all time.

Danijel: It’s very true. Van Gogh is a true colourist, there is not much point in looking at Van Gogh in black and white. But, the graphic novel is not really about that. It’s about Van Gogh himself. It’s about the man who paints and who tries to connect with the world around him unsuccessfully. Constantly struggling, through his whole life, to somehow make sense of this world around him and find the way to somehow build a bridge that would connect him to the society around him. This struggle was the main point of the story. How one constantly tries and feels this necessity to communicate to the world. And that’s basically the story of Van Gogh. Also, he’s the guy who has this terrible mental illness, he is a sick person and at the time nobody could really help him. His disease wasn’t properly diagnosed. And he lives with all that and keeps pushing until the last day.

I really didn’t feel that not having the colour in the story about Van Gogh basically matters in this case. I felt that this aesthetics of the black and white, the highest possible contrast, the contract of the opposites — is a proper aesthetic for the life that has been so dramatic. And I really wanted to tell that story, I felt a certain need to do that.

Do you have in plan to tackle another artist? The one that comes to my mind considering chiaroscuro is maybe Rembrandt. I would love to see that!

Danijel: That would be fun. There are a lot of artists that are very important to me and have fascinating life stories. Caravaggio is another one. There was so much going on in their lives, it would be great to have time and energy to dedicate to a project like that. I don’t really plan anything like it at the moment. But it always tits in the back of my mind, especially Caravaggio, because of his life and his art story.

It takes a lot of time. I did a lot of research on Van Gogh. I spent a couple of years reading anything that I could find on him and also selected what really makes sense. There is a lot of misinformation, especially about famous artists and especially about Van Gogh. Everybody has their own idea about Van Gogh and knows what he was about. One great thing about him is that he was writing thousands of letters and a lot of them are saved and preserved and they are actually valuable at the website of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam so you can read them, they have all been translated into English. That was of great help. There are also a few quite good books and then of course almost all of his paintings you can see in books and study it that way. So I think you have to dedicate a lot of time and learn everything possible about the person you want to tell the story about. And that’s only the beginning, the first step. Once you have that, you have to distract what are the elements that will be used in this final story. Fractalia isn’t a traditional biography. Instead, it has 15 episodes and each one tell a specific story that supposedly happens at a specific place and a specific time. The time and place are always authentic, but the story that happens there is somehow invented but very much built around the circumstances that were real at that time and that place in Van Gogh’s life.

Looking at the amount of work that you have done and graphic novels over the years, it’s a staggering amount of work. 30+ graphic novels not even including issues that you do for the American comics. Obviously, you have a passion for telling stories, I’ve been just wondering do you have a goal of completing e.g. a novel every year or do you have a backlog of stories that you wanna tell. Can you go into a little bit about how do you decide what is your next project going to be and how long in general does it take you to finish a graphic novel?

Danijel: There are two parallel ways of working. I’ve worked for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and others and that’s the work that has been created in the collaboration with the scriptwriter. And then always, sort of parallel to that, I’ve always kept thinking about creating my own graphic novel where the creative process is quite different. There are these two parallel but very different ways of work. They are both really important to me, I learned from one and brought that knowledge to another. What I’m gonna work on at the moment sometimes really depends on circumstances. Some projects I have to do because we all have to pay bills. Sometimes you have to choose based on that. Sometimes there is space and time I can work on something that’s really important and really matters to me. I don’t have to worry if anyone will publish it or ready it. It was always important to find space and time for those projects for me because they are definitely stories that I feel a necessity to put out. I guess it’s not really a plan like this is what I’m gonna do for the next 12 months. There are various stories that I sort of prepared at the same time and then one will eventually take over and it would last for six months, maybe a year, maybe sometimes even longer to finish it, depending on other projects that I do at the same time. Let’s say I don’t really have the luxury to dedicate myself to working only on one single project full time.

How did a collaboration with Marvel, DC and other great big houses happen?

When I moved to the States I firstly lived in Seattle. I had a few graphic novels published in Italy already but basically, at that time (and we’re talking before Internet time), you had to physically send mail, your book, work or portfolio to a certain address hoping to get some answer or feedback, get in touch with editors there. It took me a while to get my first commission for DC comics. It basically happens also because at that time editor Axel Alonso worked in DC and he was willing to try to work with different people, you know, people coming from different backgrounds. At that time there were very few artists in mainstream DC and Marvel production that are not American or English and this guy opened doors for me and many other great artists. At that time Brian Azzarello wrote his first short story for DC and some other artists. Basically, that was our beginning.

Let’s not finish this Ask me Anything session with a goodbye but with a question, more correctly — advice. What would be some advice for young and striving comic authors?

Danijel: My advice for young artists today is this. There is Internet these days, you don’t have to physically knock on doors like we used to have. With your portfolio, a certain presence on the Internet, web page and social networks, you can put your work out there and try to get in touch with people who are in charge. There are still editors in the right places, try to get in touch with them, show them your work and get some kind of reply, a response from them. I don’t know of any other way. There are some agents nowadays that represent different artists. There are some good and bad agents, be careful with that there are all kinds of people around. I heard good and bad stories. I think that any artist is probably smart enough with a little bit of English to represent herself or himself. Believe in your work and work hard and keep pushing. Eventually, some door will open and you will get in.

Thank you, Danijel for this amazing thoroughly conversation and discussion about art. Let’s remind you, the next AMA session is happening on the fourth of March on Twitter Space.

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