Karl Kopinski: painting cycling

The artist and illustrator is a regular in Lucca, but with the Giro d'Italia about the visit the Tuscan city for the first time in 39 years, Kopinski has brought a special cycling exhibition to town

Karl Kopinski may not be a household name in the world of cycling. But when it comes to the art of illustration, he is nothing short of an international star. In Kopinski’s world of superheros, Vikings, cowboys, goblins and soldiers are seemingly suspended in a world of combat and drama. He has worked for major digital game creators like Wizards of the Coast, while his sketchbooks are printed in numerous languages and collected around the world.

But when the Giro d’Italia races into Lucca on stage five this year, Kopinski will be celebrating an entirely different body of work, his cycling paintings. In an exhibit entitled, Wearing the Pink, the British artist presents a collection of paintings of some of his favourite cyclists.

“I have been coming to Lucca as part of Lucca Comics and Games (ed. a major international comic book and game convention) for years,” Kopinski explained to Rouleur. “In 2015 they did a large exhibit of poster art, and when we heard the Giro was arriving in Lucca for the first time in 39 years it was an obvious and simple way to celebrate the sport.”

Held in San Francescetto (Piazza San Francesco), in the heart of this historical Tuscan town, Wearing the Pink is on display from May 4-12.

An avid cyclist, the exhibit offers Kopinski an opportunity to celebrate a whole other world of superheroes, that of cycling greats both past and present. In the collection, images of Gino Bartali can be found next to those of Marco Pantani, or current stars like Julian Alaphilippe, who is making his Giro d’Italia debut this year.

In some ways, the exhibition seems like a major departure for an artist that has forged an international reputation in animated illustrations, but really, Wearing the Pink simply allows Kopinski to bring together his wide range of interests and tastes. And while his illustrations may call to mind influential artists like Norman Rockwell or Katsuya Terada, his painting style—both romantic and psychological—has affinities to masters like Lucien Freud or John Singer Sargent, two influences of Kopinski.

“Actually my first love was portraiture,” Kopinski explains. “A lot of my fantasy and sci-fi pieces are basically character studies. I think it’s probably my strength in visual storytelling and my ability to add believability to the unbelievable.”

Unlike his illustrations, his cycling paintings depict easily identifiable figures in the sport. But they too are painted in a bold, highly dramatic manner, not unlike his illustrations. And as one examines this body of work, the cyclists appear in many ways like real life heroes themselves.

“There are a lot of parallels,” Kopinski explains. “I love the nicknames of some of the older riders like Monsieur Chrono, The Cannibal, The Gypsy or Il Pirata. They almost sound like superheroes. The other similarity I see is these epic tales of battles fought over six hours or three weeks in terrible conditions with protagonists fighting until they drop.”

Interestingly, even though many of the paintings show the cyclists in action, there is a certain intimacy in Kopinski’s painting, perhaps due to his own experiences as a spectator. “I think for me the thing that really drew me to the sport was how close you can be to the riders,” he says. “They pass within centimetres of you, absolutely within touching distance, even the biggest superstars. You can see the pain and the suffering. It’s like the antithesis of glamorous life of a sportsman or sportswoman.”

Kopinski’s reputation has grown steadily within the cycling community and stars like Sir Bradley Wiggins or Mark Cavendish have commissioned works by him. But this week in Lucca, fans of the sport can see a generous selection of his cycling work with Wearing The Pink. If you are in town for the Giro d’Italia, you may even get a chance to run into the artist himself.

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