, by Roz Morris

The Strange, Weird Feelings When You Look at Something Huge: Roz Morris Meets Elia Pellegrini

Elia Pellegrini details the methods and motivations behind his fantastical artwork.

  • Interview

Whatever device you view these pictures on, it will be too small.

This is the epic work of Elia Pellegrini, a 3D artist, photographer and video director based in Italy. In his commercial career he’s created art, concepting and effects for advertising, movies and music videos, but before art became his life, he was all set for a career in astronomy.

“I loved science and electromagnetism and thermodynamics,” he says. “I wanted to work in a large telescope in Arizona and study the black holes in far deep space so I could understand the physical concept of time.”

Now, he puzzles away at these concepts in art. In graceful space-age cities.

And spacescapes where monumental civilizations guard the galactic darkness.

Scale is very exciting to Elia. “I really like,” he says, “the strange and weird way I feel when I stand in front of something huge. I remember the first time I saw the Dolomite mountains, near my home. I thought, ‘we’re nothing but we’re everything.’ That’s the feeling I want to communicate in my work.”

As well as astronomy, Elia is inspired by ancient civilizations. “I love the supersized structures built by the Egyptians, Sumerians and Babylonians,” he says. “It’s the connection between our mind and spirit and immensity. With the large scale of my work, I’m trying to reach something that transcends reality, to understand something that is complex and deep.”

Elia’s sense of a vast dimension beyond the ordinary began early in his life. His father was a surrealist painter and Elia still remembers the day he entered his father’s studio for the first time, aged just three years old. “It had a spiral staircase and it was warm and full of paintings, all connected to sky and clouds. And drapes and surreal people. My father loved Salvador Dali and Magritte. I remember this epic and celestial way of going to the room of his mind, up this spiral path to this beautiful place.”

In a way, Elia is still there.

Elia’s mother was also an artist. While his father was self-taught, his mother studied drawing at the university in Venice. “She was the figure of rules and restrictions,” he says, “and that’s important because when you have technique you can do everything.

By the age of five, Elia was painting too. “I spent every night painting with my father. He would play music – Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin – and we would work. I did that for seven years.” Oils were Elia’s medium until he discovered 3D architecture and design software. And that, he says, “was a miracle. I could do so much more.”

He put his art on Instagram, and meanwhile pursued sciences at school.

Aged 19, he was all set to study astronomy in Padua, when a call came from a photography studio in Milan, who had seen his Instagram. They offered him a job. “I suddenly had two possibilities. I could keep studying and get a degree and go on to research black holes, or I could let my artistic soul come out.”

Elia went to Milan.

He learned how to model and texture. “My brain was exploding. It was right.”

All the while, he never stopped puzzling about the universe and deep time. Now, instead of a telescope and mathematics, his explorations are done through Cinema 4D, Autodesk 3DS Max, Autodesk Maya, MOI 3D, X-particles, Redshift, V-Ray, Phoenix, Octane, World Creator, Adobe Aftereffects, Photoshop, ZBrush, Substance 3D Designer, Substance 3D Painter and Da Vinci Resolve. He’s slowly building an ambitious mega-series called Kairos, which fuses these things he loves – ancient structures, technology and monumental size. It’s a giant theory of the universe and time, told in 3D art.

“Kairos is named from the ancient Greek,” he says, “and the meaning is a supreme moment. What was before the Big Bang? I’m sure something existed, so I imagined this vision of time like a hyperdimensional tree expanded in four dimensions, with the most ancient things in our universe. I let my imagination run and this comes out.”

Kairos is opulent cities, with elements from our own classical times, which – just perhaps – came to us from a bygone space age.

While the detail is exhaustive, the colour palette is disciplined.

One of the series in Kairos is Dust of Time, a set of characters to represent human civilization. They are based on chess pieces.

“The chess game is super ancient,” says Elia, “and interestingly representative of humanity and society. I wanted to underline common aspects of the human condition – fear, for example, and the opposite with loyalty.”

This is the King.

As with all of Elia’s work, the detail is endless and inventive. “He represents balance — those who fight, but in order to bring stability,” says Elia. “At his center there is a strong light for life and hope. And the chessboard itself, to further embody the chess concept of duality and battles.”

There’s a further duality in the King’s arms. One is robotic and futuristic. The other looks ancient, perhaps mummified.

Another of the chesspieces, the Queen, is a visual treat of texturing. She has an ermine cape, a white bodice that looks like plaster and a skirt of sackcloth.

Her form is an interesting evolution of the human shape, suggested by cutouts at her waist, which also create the impression of a warrior’s breastplate. Her crown hovers like the Close Encounters spaceship. And her regal aspect is signified by the orb and sceptre she holds.

The Knight, from the same series, is a disturbing contrast. An Elizabethan ruff is teamed with plumbing pipes. The horse head is made of battered robot part and painted a sinister blood colour. There’s an interesting tawdry note in the metal of the necklace, which looks cheap, and the slip of faux leather hanging from the ruff.

“He represents loyalty,” says Elia. “His shape, which is the horse, is about freedom, but society wants him to align with things that compromise who he is, so he has these artificial features.”

He clearly pays great attention to textiles and fabrics. “It’s because I’m Italian,” he says. “I wanted to reference Renaissance portraits with the drapes and the spotlight – like in Caravaggio. Right now, software makes it simple to do super-crazy stuff in 3D, but think of all the Renaissance painters in the churches who spent months on their backs by the light of a candle, painting beautiful works with perfect proportions. They really understood light sources and shadows, how to translate three dimensions into two.”

Here’s a separate series where he had fun with classical art. In space, no one can see your smile.

This is The Last Supper. But how will they eat?

If eating in a space helmet is tricky, how would you kiss? Here’s Elia’s reworking of The Kiss by Francesco Hayez, with exquisite lighting and fabrics.

Let’s have one more kiss, this time like Klimt. And surely the most beautiful spacesuits in the universe.

“With my Renaissance series I wanted to refresh the period and I felt the astronaut is the most intuitive symbol of our age,” says Elia. “And because the astronauts have no faces, they could be everyone. An everyone, exploring the unknown.”

No faces! I wanted to talk about that.

Hardly any of Elia’s works have faces. The Queen has a hovering crown, which suggests where the viewer might fill in the idea of a face. This guy, the Safekeeper, has open doors and light.

This guy has an enigmatic vertical slit.

An older series, the NeoVictorians, has more face, but intriguingly masked.

“There are many reasons I avoid depicting faces,” says Elia. “We’re surrounded by faces every second of the day. I don’t want to show things we already know. Also in my art, I want to focus on huge concepts and meanings. I create creatures without faces because I want to express things through symbols. So my missing faces are an open door. I leave the viewer to imagine the possible face – and that could be you, like with the astronauts.”

While he might not do faces, he certainly does eyes. And always a single eye. This is The Foundation Gates of Life, a dark benevolent eye looking out of a whirl of rough rock.

These are the Soul Seekers, fish spaceships prowling over a planet with one headlight.

“I’m glad you noticed this,” says Elia. “The eye is connected to mythology, especially the single-eye cyclops. There are two meanings I wanted to express – the eye of God and the eye of the explorer. The Soul Seekers are the eye of the explorer, and without exploration we are nothing. If you explore, you might die but you can maybe find something better.

“Every religion has the eye of God that can see everything – for example, the Egyptians have the Eye of Ra, the sun god. I wanted to express this meaning of something special that is with us.”

In Elia’s earlier works, I found anatomical human eyes, but still used solo.

Is the single eye also a question of composition? It is, he says, and there’s more besides. “The geometry is important, but the symbolism is too. We have two physical eyes and the third eye, the eye of the mind and consciousness. If you represent only one eye that’s the eye of knowledge. But if you have one eye covered and one eye exposed you’re half blind. So the single eye is symbolism.”

Another strong Elia motif is sky. One of his collections is a series of abandoned libraries, called Forgotten Worlds, Where Great Brains Lived. I find this to be more conventionally surreal, if there can be such a thing – a simple cloud background, a railway track through an archway and a library sitting sweetly on top.

“I love sky and clouds,” says Elia, “ and here I mixed them with strange forms and geometries. I also love to play with unreal light, like dark walls with spotlights that you can’t understand because they’re not from a sun but at the same time not artificial. It’s mysterious and confusing and I love this dreamlike effect.”

Dreams are an important source for him. “I have really weird dreams. A lot of inspiration comes from them. I wake up and think about my dreams and I concretise what I saw in the night.”

Other sources of inspiration are SF movies – especially Arrival.

“Arrival has this amazing circular concept of time, connected to how the aliens think and talk and write. I love the design, the circular writing, the font. And the spaceship. This minimal monumental silent thing in the sky, without any sound. So mysterious.”

Mystery is another of Elia’s hallmarks. Exquisite machines that crackle with cosmic forces.

Elia’s most quirky signature must be this: leather punchbags.

Here they are with sky and the single eye.

They are so charming and tactile. A bit steampunk, a bit antique. And always, candy striped like hot air balloons.

Here is a punchbag in the NeoVictorians series.

Elia is amused that I’ve noticed them. “I use these for many reasons. First, I love steampunk, with industrial rusty stuff and tubes. I love the architecture, the balloons and zeppelins. But the main reason is the influence from my father. I remember him experimenting by painting fabrics and balloons, making the stripes yellow and red, a really interesting vision and style. I wanted to play with the stripes and geometries. So I mixed this inspiration with other ideas and steampunk to make impossible cities.”

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Elia’s output is vast. I explored his pages on Behance, Instagram and Artstation and never got to the end of them. And I found several more Elias – photographer, director, musician, painter, all very busy.

Our conversation frequently dwells on music. The music is almost as important to him as the art. He gets inspiration from electronic and experimental composers, especially Max Richter and Hans Zimmer, and he also creates his own. “I might create a song, then have the idea for an image or concept art or illustration. And an image can make me want to create music.” His instruments are guitars and keyboards, self-taught. “Basically, I’m curious and I want to learn as much as I can. I love art in general, every form of it. I get something in my mind and I find a way to translate it into something tangible.”

He’s published a book. “It’s a complex mixture of a science fantasy novel and a scientific essay, called The Life That Moved One Metre.” He’s now working on another, of surreal short stories.

BTW, he’s only 23. How can that be, with so much art already achieved? And books and music as well.

It doesn’t end there. He has trained as a tattoo artist. “I like the act of tattooing; it’s another way of painting.” And at one point he taught acrobatics. “I love the feeling of flying, of expressing the freedom of your body. I’ve done sports like karate and kung fu ever since I was a child, then Parkour. But now I have clients and deadlines and I don’t teach because I don’t have time.”

Time? I ask him if he ever sleeps. He laughs. “Yes, a full eight hours a night.” Then we’re talking about astronomy again, how the Earth makes a rotation through the cosmos every 26,000 years, how these ideas were used by ancient civilizations to make vast sacred calendars, the boggling and delightful fact that we are made of atoms, and atoms are mostly empty space.

I suspect I might know how he’s so prolific. Somewhere in his alchemical dabbling with ancient symbols and knowledge, and the vast timescapes of the universe, and sending his imagination into places outside our known dimensions, he might just have conjured himself a time machine.

Find Elia’s work at his website, or on his Behance page, or at Artstation.

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