Creativity is one of the great mysteries of the human condition. It is impossible to explain where great creative geniuses like Aristotle, Beethoven, or Rembrandt got their ideas. I do not want to solve that mystery. I cannot. However, all creative efforts do begin with an idea, an idea that is given some type of form. I want to explore that area a little. Most visual artists begin with some type of rough or preliminary design before actually painting or drawing a finished piece for sale or publication. The history of art is filled with biographies and autobiographies wherein artists continually worry about getting quality models and paying for them. For hundreds of years an oil painting resulted only after countless “sittings” by a model or long outdoor “plein-air” viewings of a landscape. Every school of art can fit in these categories. Later, when photography came in vogue, the artists and illustrators would spend huge amounts of time photographing everything imaginable in order to have an extensive reference file. Norman Rockwell was famous for the incredible efforts he made to get everything just right. He photographed friends and buildings and props so he could integrate them into one of his magnificent oils. He wanted complete authenticity and photorealism. It would not be uncommon to see 30 or more photos used as reference for a major Rockwell oil, as well as countless pencil studies. Clipped pages of favorite images from popular magazines became an artist’s “swipe file”, an easy crutch used to get ideas and solve artistic problems. Of course, all these shortcuts and techniques strain the entire idea of creativity. Pure creativity means an artist having an idea and giving it life, a direct flow of soul from mind to hand and brush. In this arena, the work of Frank Frazetta is very special, almost unprecedented.
Frazetta's approach to creating art, whether it is oil, ink, or watercolor, is classical and traditional. There are no secret potions, paints, or exotic instruments responsible for Frazetta's magic. He begins with an idea. Consider his approach in creating a painting. For many years Frank would start the creative process by taking a hot cup of coffee, a pencil, and a sketchbook, and sit down on a faux zebra skin sofa next to a small light. He uses a simple #2 pencil that has been sharpened with a knife. The crude sharpening provides Frank with an abundance of angles on the pencil top. Each area provides Frazetta with a different visual effect. He prefers to work in the late night with a little classical music providing a pleasant background. After a bit of thought and a few sips of coffee, a small pencil drawing is drawn in the modest sketchbook. Frazetta has a powerful visual imagination. He is able to SEE his idea and transform it in his mind’s eye until he SEES the correct result. After mentally twisting it and turning it and considering all the possible angles of action and impact, he then puts it down on paper. The idea is drawn quickly and decisively; the essence is all there. If appropriate, Frazetta adds a bit of watercolor to this sketch to give it full form and to observe the effects of light. Often, even this coloring process is unnecessary and Frazetta moves directly to the easel, relying on his intuitive sense of color correctness. This is really the sacred moment of inspiration and execution, the essence of creative intuition. Frazetta holds before him, in miniature, the first fruit of creative imagination- a direct flow from the inner soul of a great artist.
In a recent conversation I asked Frazetta to comment on these studies (or “comps” as he likes to call them) and explain why some of his watercolor roughs are highly polished and why some are very loosely finished and seemingly incomplete. Frank replied: “That’s a tough question to answer. Sometimes I would sit down and just draw for the joy of drawing. I love the pencil; it’s easy to use and mistakes are easily erased. Everything starts off as a pencil. If I like it, then I add a little color just to show where the basic lighting should be. Sometimes I get carried away and just have fun with the drawing. I try not to put everything into the rough. I want to leave something for the actual painting. My original study for the first CONAN oil was a very simple pencil thumbnail, no color at all. Once I have the idea, I can sit down at the easel and bring it to life. A lot of guys like to use the camera and shoot reference shots. It takes days to get a project going. That’s just too much work. Why bother? My friend Roy Krenkel was amazed at my speed. Roy would spend days and days doing studies from every angle, trying to find the right concept. He studied everybody and he copied everybody! He was constantly sketching. He just didn’t have enough confidence. He wasted all his energy on the studies and had nothing left for the paintings. That’s when he came to me to help him finish many pieces. Getting back to your question again. The comps never meant that much to me, although there are several that I treasured. There are some comps that are as good as the paintings. Ellie sold some really great ones to fans over the years. I didn’t care; I had the oil. I was much more concerned with the final result. Often I left the rough in a very loose state simply because I was out of time and a deadline was near! I didn’t have any time to spend polishing the comp. The job had to get done.”
Frank fulfills the definition of what a creative artist should be. He simply reaches within and magically transforms what he finds there into a work of art. Nothing intervenes in this process. No models, no photos, and no swipe files. He just makes it all up. Frazetta comments: “People are always asking me what my secret is. How would I know? There is no secret; I just do it. And I’ve been doing it since I was a small boy. Copying someone is not art. Copying a photograph is no accomplishment in my book. Is that what art is? I don’t think so. When I was very young, I would copy Caniff and Foster. I loved Foster! I still do. His TARZAN pages are incredible; they’ll never be matched. However, I went on to do my own thing, to do it my way. I’m a dreamer and always have been. I just make it up.” Frazetta goes from contemplation to inspiration to execution in a single flow. This goes a long way in explaining the life and intense power that Frazetta infuses into his best works. His personal energy and vitalized vision brings the art to life, not the false vitality of models or the phony help of lifeless photos and swiped images. How many artists can claim that their best works are pure expressions of the imagination? Not many. And it all begins with that first moment of genius, that first little rough. Everything flows from the initial rough. The finished drawing or painting is simply the technical elaboration of that initial idea. Frazetta’s great Canaveral brush drawings from the 1960’s began as very simple thumbnail pencil studies, nothing more. His later portfolio work for LORD OF THE RINGS, KUBLA KHAN, and WOMEN OF THE AGES began as simple pencil studies and a few pen studies. His Doubleday illustrations from the early 1970’s began as mostly thumbnail pen sketches.
Frazetta’s watercolor studies are little jewels and worthy of appreciation and contemplation. The rough for DARKNESS WEAVES is very elaborately colored with rich tints abounding. Notice that Frank has the cape and the ship’s sale moving in opposite directions. He was studying the dynamics of the scene. The final oil is simplified; the cape is removed and the intense colorations are removed. The final oil is almost monochromatic compared to the study. Frank was obviously having a lot of fun in this study. The study for the Ace paperback LOST CONTINENT is a gem. Little bits of color delicately define an exotic landscape. The scene is open and airy; every detail is perfectly arranged. The balance of the elements is visual perfection. It is a work of subtle gesture and dramatic suggestiveness. Frank decided to change nothing. The final version is almost identical to the study, and not much larger. The watercolor comp for the Ace TARZAN AND THE LOST EMPIRE is noteworthy because it is Frank’s first published color image of Tarzan. It was Frazetta’s first rough for the editor, Donald Wollheim, who demanded to see studies before agreeing to the cover. Frank decided to pay homage to Hal Foster by borrowing the figure from one of the early TARZAN dailies. The study is colorful and vibrant and features the type of blended colors that Frazetta will become famous for. Most people prefer the energy and color of the study over the finished work. The watercolor study for PELLUCIDAR is a masterpiece. It is really a comprehensive miniature version of the finished oil complete with fully realized forms and subtle colorations throughout. All the compositional rhythms are there and the lighting is pure Frazetta magic. The ENCOUNTER is a study executed in the 1980’s. It began as a pencil which Frank meticulously inked. I noticed it in his sketchbook and asked Frank if he would sell it to me. Frank agreed and said: “How would you like a little color on it?” Of course, I said “yes”. I then watched for about 45 minutes as Frank carefully wet the paper and applied thin layers of watercolor. He very gradually and carefully built-up the tones. He was meticulous. The result is almost a miniature finished painting. By the way, the subject-matter depicts the symbolic meeting of fantasy (the fairy-girl) and science-fiction (the crashed spaceship and spaceman). Frazetta placed his zip code on the ship’s tail section. A special delivery from the mind of Frazetta!
Another richly-colored rough (not pictured, sorry) is the DEATH DEALER study executed in the mid-1980’s. Frazetta focuses his attention on the central action of the Death Dealer lancing an oncoming attacker. The magic of this original is not only in the dynamic design of the combatants but also in the background tints that create a mood of total bloodlust. The oozing splash of red in the upper left mirrors the bloodletting that is occurring in the siege of the fortress wall. The entire scene seems to be taking place on the rim of a boiling volcano. This is an expressionist use of color at its best as pure color energizes the composition with savage emotion.
The rough for the MASAI WARRIOR oil was executed in the early 1980’s. Frank decided to repaint his earlier 1961 version of the MASAI WARRIOR (an oil he sold years ago). The earlier oil was a masterpiece, but Frank thought he could do better. He decided to do a new study. This study contains all the major elements of the original oil except that the body of the warrior is more sculpted and prominent. Even in this magnificent little study one can see the qualities emerge that bind man and earth and sky. The MASAI stands proudly as the noble crown of nature. This is a study of human nobility by Frazetta and he succeeds in capturing that elusive quality. This is an example of an idea that Frazetta had 40 years ago, yet he continued to play with it until he got it right. Another example of this is the concept for the CATGIRL oil, which originally was published as a Warren magazine cover. All the elements are there in the initial study: a jungle nude with an explosive body and erotic posture, swarming cats enlivening the background, and a lush jungle setting resplendent with mood and mystery and highly evocative vegetation. The huge twisting limbs draw the eye into the composition until the jungle temptress captures all our visual attention. At this point our mind begins to play with all the suggestive elements in the composition. Enticing forms and expressive color are in perfect balance and presentation. Of course, this little study was to become one of Frazetta’s most famous and revered efforts in oil. Through the years Frank went back 5 or 6 times to change and fine tune the visual elements. He changed the hair color of the jungle girl and added/subtracted cats many times. The final version is one that is ruthlessly purged of any extraneous elements- simple and powerful. However, everything flowed from that initial study, that initial moment of creative inspiration.
Frazetta is the definition of the creative artist; his magic is in his mind and in his hand. I think that Frazetta’s watercolor studies are wildly under-appreciated and undervalued. They will always be an ongoing delight to the genuine connoisseur who appreciates contemplating the magic of the creative process.