Even the most cursory glance at Derek Ercolano’s work belies a few things central to his practice: one is the haze of a pervasive grey, Norwegian fog; the other a love of the more esoteric side of things. Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet looms large in both his textured approach to color and his character design. Meanwhile, the influence of Alejandro Jodorowksy’s The Holy Mountain can be seen in the illustrator’s peculiar way of distilling an idea in an image.
Ercolano has been based in Norway for the past six years, after leaving an ad agency job in his native New York to pursue a lifelong love of drawing. “I was starting to stay after work every day,” he says. “I’d still have something left in me, so for a year I was just staying late and drawing. The more confident I got with it, the more I started to take it seriously and put the energy in.” In those stolen desk hours, Ercolano worked with any and every process; mostly starting out working in pen and paper, then scanning in his work and experimenting with digital manipulation. This constant back and forth makes for a process that’s deliciously hard to decipher.
To the eye, it’s nigh-on impossible to decipher how he achieves his final pieces.
For all the moonlighting, it was quite a leap to swap high-energy NYC agency life for the relative quietude of pursuing a masters degree in illustration, let alone one in the small town of Bergen in Norway. “It was great to have the time and occasion to just draw every single day and not have to deal with the rest of the bullshit,” says Ercolano. “Bergen is a really strange place. It rains most of the days of the year and has this mysticism to it: it’s always foggy and spooky, in a good way.” I suggest that maybe that miasmic climate has perhaps subconsciously infused the textures and palettes of his work. Maybe it has, but for the most part, he’s found the constant rain to be a boon—even if only because it means “you just have to sit inside and draw a lot.”
Since graduating from his MA in 2014, much of Ercolano’s work harks back to his early experimentation with the peripheries between analog and digital; to the eye, it’s nigh-on impossible to decipher how he achieves his final pieces. “I’m interested in using different programs to keep some of the feeling of the initial drawings—keeping a digital aspect but also making it warm and human,” he says. In the past couple of years, Ercolano’s imagery has gradually shed some of the brighter hues of his older work and veered towards complex textures and layering techniques rendered in various greys and monochrome. “I’ve been looking at a lot of old airbrush art, sci-fi, and even some stuff from an alien enthusiast magazine,” he says. “A lot of it feels so obviously unreal, but someone’s really labored over the image for so long that it becomes dark and mystical and strange.”
Ercolano’s process begins in a gridded sketchbook. “I tend to draw things with a pen, like a manic, over and over again,” he says. He then selects a final sketch and works on it array of analog tools including those most of us left in high school geometry classes, like set squares, compasses, and rulers. Once Ercolano moves the image into the digital realm, he tends to treat the drawings “like screen prints, taking each part and giving it its own layer.”
“From there, I’m filling in the shapes and shading things,” he says. “Sadly, I didn’t pay much attention in the lessons on light and shade, so it’s just ‘here we go!’ I used to know how my drawings would turn out, but now I just have to trust in the processes that I’ll figure something out.”
Across varied commissions for Oslo cosmic disco nights and editorial pieces (including some superbly eerie illustrations for our very own recent Psych issue), Ercolano populates his work with an original cast of distinctive characters—those with eyes that are surreally human-but-inhuman, bloated sex doll lips, and perfectly manicured, monstrous hands. These archetypes are rooted in his longtime love of “monsters and mutants and aliens,” and given a thoroughly modern spotlight with the use of layers upon layers of digital airbrushing to “take them to a stranger, grittier place.”
“I like the idea that George Hardie has spoken about of making something by hand, then completely taking the humanity out of it,” he says.