Flaming hearts, dripping candles, goblets, roses, and stars—Spanish artist Ricardo Cavolo’s paintings are a riot of talismanic symbols. Whether painted in acrylics on canvas, expanded to cover a wall, or emblazoned on clothing, it’s tempting to dissect the origin of his work’s many-eyed figures and swords: is it pulling from Catholicism, or maybe Hinduism? But Cavolo, who created the cover art for Topic’s April 2019 Belief issue, says he doesn’t consider himself a spiritual or religious person: cartoons are just as important an inspiration. (In May, an exhibition of his work will open at StolenSpace Gallery in London, featuring portraits of a different kind of icon: heroes, Cavolo says, like “Bart Simpson, Conan, Batman, and Wednesday Addams.”)
“My only religious contact has been through learning about art history,” says Cavolo from his studio in Barcelona. “It sounds a little bit hippie, but I just believe in Mother Nature and people. I do like to read about ghosts and yokai”—Japanese spirit or demon figures—“but more as mythology, or as a way to explain human situations.”
For our April cover, Cavolo created an ambiguous spirit figure to symbolize belief: a hummingbird. We chatted with him about his inspirations, his painting process, and what tattoos have in common with religion.
How did you start making art?
My father was an artist when I was growing up, so I’ve been surrounded by brushes, canvases, and colors my entire life.
We all start to draw at the same age—the only difference is that some people give up. But I never did. My father gave me tips so I could improve my skills. I was a lonely kid, so I spent millions of hours just reading or drawing. I loved comics, and still do today; my father had a huge collection of classics, and I read them day after day. My first big crush was on The Simpsons, starting when I was seven. I was also interested in medieval fantasy and role-playing games. I enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Stormbringer. But my real love story was with the card game Magic: The Gathering.
Did you have any formal training in art?
I went to an art high school, then studied fine art at Salamanca University. The first years, I was just testing out and learning different styles. That’s necessary. Then during the last two years of university, I was working on the primitive steps of my current style. I was also into abstract expressionism. But I’d say my best art lessons were at home, making work by myself.
What were your first thoughts when Topic approached you about working on our cover art?
Although I’m not religious or spiritual, I know the subject well, as I use it in my work. I like to show my characters believing in something bigger—whether it’s love, spirits, or their own energy.
For the cover, I wanted to show people believing in something. That’s why they are all looking upward. The hummingbird is an abstract symbol to represent faith, maybe in a creator. I like to think that each of the people in the image believes in something different, so something as weird and unexpected as a hummingbird can represent all those different beliefs at once.
How many different ideas did you come up with before you settled on this image?
Usually, I bet all in on the first idea I have. For many years, I tried to develop other ideas after the initial one. But I came to realize that my best idea was always the first—maybe because it tends to be more sincere, pure, and based on my gut instinct. Once I’ve found that idea, the final result is not so different from what I had in mind right away.
“Although I’m not religious or spiritual, I like to show my characters believing in something bigger.”
What materials do you use to make your work? What’s your process?
Most of my work on paper or canvas is made with acrylic paint. It dries very fast, which I need because I like to work fast. It’s as if lightning touches my arm and I need to finish the artwork before the energy leaves my hand. I don’t do sketches before I make my final work. And I always leave a good part of the artwork to improvisation—to be solved while I’m already painting.
Most of my work is done by hand. I really enjoy the traditional process of using acrylics, the brushes, mixing colors ... but for the last two years I’ve also been working a lot with my iPad Pro, and I love that process, too. My way of working on the iPad is pretty much the same as doing it by hand.
Your work is inspired by tattoo culture. Do you think there’s any similarity between religious belief and the way some people feel about tattoos? Both are certainly very personal commitments.
Yes, of course. I approached tattoos in exactly that way. When I was a teenager, I read a lot about different tribes around the world, and I found out that tattoos were sometimes thought of as magic. The people who had them were wearing magical protection or sorcery when they had ink in their skin. So I like to think my tattoos are also protective—like amulets, or magical souvenirs connected to my family.
Have you designed tattoos for other people?
Not really. But every week I receive photos from people who got tattoos of my work. I love it. It feels like my work connected with them in a very deep way in their lives, and they needed to have it on their skin. It’s an honor.